Probably one thing that anyone would not associate with Dartmoor would be the production of glass but during the 20th century there was a glass factory at Meldon. But why at Meldon? The simple answer to that question is the geology of the area which consists of dykes of Aplite otherwise known as Granulite. The Meldon Aplite is said to have a chemical composition that is unique in all of Britain and occurs in several dykes around the immediate area, the largest of which is an intrusion of about 60 – 70 ft thick, (Perkins, 1984, p.123). It is said to be of the highest quality and contains the ideal proportions of potassium, aluminium. sodium and silica to act as the main base requirement in glass making. Just to briefly explain how glass is manufactured one can do no better that to use the description found on the British Glass website:
‘Glass is made by melting together several minerals at very high temperatures. Silica in the form of sand is the main ingredient and this is combined with soda ash and limestone and melted in a furnace at temperatures of 1700ºC. Other materials can be added to produce different colours or properties.’, (online source – HERE).
So, in this instance the Meldon Granulite provided the silica and also enough alkali to melt it during the glass manufacturing process. During the late 1880s a man named Siemens has already discovered that granulite was well suited to the glass making process and he had established a factory in Dresden. So now the scene is set we can go back to Dartmoor and find that one Charles Green had leased the quarry at Meldon and began to quarry the granulite deposits although at this time there was no glass manufacturing taking place at the site. Around the same time a Mr. Lindsay-Bucknall sent a sample of Meldon Granulite to Mr. Siemens in Dresden and having recieved a favourable analysis he stated that it was his intention to establish both glass and china works at Meldon Quarry.
‘A stone called granulite which contains in itself almost sufficient alkali to melt the silica of which it is principally composed, has for some years been successfully used by Mr Siemens in his glass-works at Dresden, for making bottles of which large quantities are supplied both to England and to Ireland, chiefly for whisky. The substance came under the notice of Mr. Lindsay-Bucknall about nine years ago, and he accordingly made a search in England for granulite suitable for glass making, and found it in the proper quality near Okehampton on the borders of Dartmoor. The glass which is produced from the Meldon granulite is of excellent quality, and being of a very green pale colour is available for many purposes for which the dark metal is not suitable.‘ (Hartshorne, 1897, p.216fn).
In 1883 The Birmingham Daily Post included the following report:
‘The directors of the Granulite Glass Works Company (Limited) invite applications for 18,000 preferred shares in the company of £5 each, which, in addition to cumulative preferential dividends at the arte of 10 per cent, in priority to the deferred shares, are also entitled to one half of the surplus net profits of the company. The object of this company is to manufacture glass from a deposit of granulite at Meldon, Devonshire, upon the system so successfully practised by Mr. F. R. Siemens with similar materials at Dresden, and at Elbogen, Bohemin.’ (Birmingham Daily Post – July 26th 1883 – online source).
A similar report appeared in the London Daily News on the same day which hinted at the intentions of the Granulite Works Glass Company, it stated: ‘This company has for its object the manufacture of glass from a deposit of granulite at Meldon, Devonshire, upon the system successfully practised by Mr. Fredrick Siemens with similar materials… where he has secured a very large share of the bottle trade on the Continent.’ In other words they were after a share of the bottle industry market. Little is known of the company in the ensuing years and a newspaper report from The Leeds Mercury dated the 3rd of April 1890 suggested that all was not well, it simply stated that ‘We are informed that Mr. F. C. Ahlfeldt has been elected director of the Meldon Granulite and Lime Company Limited, in place of Sir Howard Elphinstone.’. However, on the 29th of March 1920 a report in the Western Morning News stated that great things were about to happen at Meldon and that with the erection of 12 furnaces the place would become the national centre of glass making. Along with the factory it was estimated that over the following 12 months there would be employment for 500 men, (Radford, 2002, p.47). On the 5th of April 1920 a report in The Times newspaper, stated that a syndicate was about to erect some works at Meldon where two(?) furnaces were being built to go along with a previous experimental one, their intention being glass manufacture. The reasoning behind this venture was simple:
‘Glass bottles and glass jars, it is said, will be made cheaper here than anywhere in the world, and the makers will be in a position not only to defy the competition of Austrian and German and other foreign manufacturers, but to meet them on favourable terms in the neutral markets of the world. Such expectations as this seem to be founded on an estimate that the cost of the material used on the spot will be only 15s a ton, whereas the cost of the cheapest mixtures ordinarily used in the manufacture of bottles is at least £2 per ton… Even the waste heaps of the present quarry can, it is said, be turned to account, for black stone, which was considered only suitable for road metal, is suitable for making beer and stout bottles...’.
It was at the time predicted that this venture would turn the Meldon Valley into a, ‘seat of great industry‘ driven by the water power afforded by the river Okement. One pf the main problems that the syndicate faced was that of labour, as the whole process had been dominated by European manufacturers there was no local workforce with the necessary experience and skills. This meant the work force would have to be initially imported from Europe which in itself presented another problem in the shape of there being no housing for them in the immediate vicinity. The solution it seems was to bring over a small number of skilled, foreign workers who would then train local young, unskilled people. The other possible fact that can be gleaned from this article is that previous to the establishment of the glass factory the granulite had been quarried at Meldon and then sold on as a raw material. As reported: ‘In this valley a certain amount of quarrying has been carried on by a local company, which has earned modest dividends by crushing granulite and exporting it to Staffordshire, where it is used in enamelling porcelain.‘.
Accordingly German and Dutch glass blowers were brought over and the factory went into production and reported that the glass was easily worked. At this time the factory was producing small, light-green medicine and cosmetic bottles of what was described as being a distinct nature. The glass bottles were made by following a formula which consisted of : 700 parts of Aplite (calcined), 150 parts of marble (uncalcined), 75 parts of carbonate of soda and 45 parts of manganese, (Harris, 1992, p.135). However, things soon began to go wrong when it was found that it was difficult to produce a sufficiently clear glass on a regular basis. This problem never went away and in the February of 1921 about 100 men working at the factory were laid off, some workers however were kept on to continue quarrying for the Aplite. The quarrying activities carried on until some time in the 1970s when that too eventually wound up. It appears that some of the Dutch workers which were brought over were illegal immigrants as noted in a newspaper report which appeared in the Devon and Exeter Gazette on the 13th of January 1927: “An echo of the short-lived glass works at Meldon, Okehampton was provided by a case at Okehampton Petty Sessions, involving a charge against an alien of Ditch nationality for contravention of the Aliens order. It transpired during the hearing of the summons that the man had, between 1920 and 1921, been employed at Meldon, where for all too brief a spell glass works were run. For a time everything went well, but through one cause and another, the business vanished like a cloud of steam, and all that is now left are the blow houses (note ‘houses’) at Meldon and a few mementos of the glass-blower’s art in the shape of glass pipes, walking sticks, etc. in the town – connecting links, as it were, of a departed industry. The glass-blower’s vocation is not a simple one. It calls for robustness of constitution, which is severely taxed. Under the circumstances is is small wonder that the wage rates are high- ranging from £10 to £12 and more per week – and that the life of the glass-blower is short. This, combined with the fact that Meldon works were isolated, contributed as much as anything else to the closing down of the works.”
One interesting and mysterious aside, In the February of 1921 an action in the King’s Bench Division was brought against one Ludwig Grote. The action was taken by Wilfred Dawson who claimed he had paid Grote £150 in respect of the forming of a company. He claimed that the shares in this company had never been issued or his money returned. It seems that both Grote and Dawson met on a train whilst travelling from Bradford. During the journey a conversation began when Grote told Dawson he was exploiting a glass project at Okehampton and said how he had discovered a ‘mountain of glass’. To further substantiate his claim he showed Dawson some bottles that had supposedly been made at Meldon He further added that a small company, the Meldon Valley Company, had been formed for this venture and offered Dawson the chance to invest in it.
Another witness, Colonel Charles Frederick Smith took the stand and stated that he, Grote and another person has acquired all the shares in the Meldon Valley Company for £12,000. Another company was then formed to take over the Meldon Valley Company and some £30,000 had been expended on work at Meldon. It was his belief that the £150 that Dawson had invested was for the new company not the Meldon Valley Company. He further added that he expected Dawson’s shares to be issued in about one month’s time.
Grote then gave his evidence in which he stated that he was a chemical glass expert at Okehampton who in 1919 had begun experiments at Meldon. He too stated that he had never promised Dawson shares in the Meldon Valley Company and only in the new company. Justice Sankey stated how he was unable to accept Grote’s story and that he did accept Dawson’s claim, he ordered Grote to return the £150
There are a couple of ideas as to the whereabouts of the factory, one suggests that it is now buried under the spoil heap of the quarry and the other is that it was located near to the entrance of the quarry. The second notion is put forward by Helen Harris and she mentions some piles of rubble and fragments of glass which are suggestive of the old site, (Harris, 1984, p.135).
As can be seen from the comments below Bernie managed to find some Meldon Glass at a sale in Cornwall in the form of a bottle and a lump of glass. The lady who sold the glass told Bernie that her father worked at the glass factory just prior to its closure and that the bottle was produced to take Creolin, a creosote type disinfectant for a local Okehampton Chemist who apparently because of the patent had to have the bottle made with the patent holders name on it? My thanks to Bernie for sending me the photographs of his excellent purchase and allowing me to put them on this page.
Is this yet another example of the dire warning issued by Old Crockern, the spirit of Dartmoor, ‘You so much as scratch my back and I will tear out your pockets.‘ The tradition in effects relates how many, many, schemes that have involved exploiting the natural resources of Dartmoor have eventually failed miserably.
Perkins, J. W. 1984. Geology Explained: Dartmoor and the Tamar Valley. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Harris, H. 1992. The Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor, Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.
Hartshorne, A. 1897. Old English Glasses, London: Edward Arnold Publishers
Radford, R. & U., 2002. The Book of Okehampton, Tiverton: Halsgrove Publishing.