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  • Writer's pictureBeckie

Led Zeppelin and Lead Crystal

What have these two got in common?

Album artwork for Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"
Stairway to Heaven
A cut glass container with a pile of acorns at the bottom
The container for my daughter's acorn collection

The answer is my place of birth!

I’m born and bred in Stourbridge and proud of it. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin is also from Stourbridge (I went to school with his son) while Stourbridge was also for a long time the preferred supplier of crystal glass to the British Empire.

I knew Stourbridge was famous for its glass from a young age. If family or friends were visiting from outside the area, my parents would take them to visit the Red House Glass Cone or take them to buy a piece of glass from Stuart Crystal, Royal Brierley Crystal, Webb Corbett or one of the other factories that dotted the area.

A glass cone against a cloudy background
The distinctive cones marked out glass factories from miles away and would once have had smoke escaping from their tops. They were designed to channel toxic fumes upwards while glassblowers worked inside at ground level.

Glass manufacturing started at the beginning of the 17th century in the area around Stourbridge. It was the time of the industrial revolution, when the whole area of The Black Country was bursting into life with industries that relied upon a plentiful supply of coal (and iron ore / limestone/ clay). While most nearby areas specialised in some form of ironworking, much of Stourbridge specialised in glass and associated industries. The rich deposits of fireclay around Brierley Hill paid dividends for many local businessmen, as they created refractory products for local glass furnaces and also firebricks for export across the globe.

A beautiful and unusual old building made with multi-coloured bricks and tiles
As a young teacher, I travelled past this lovely building every day – it’s the original gateway to the Harris & Pearson factory. Now a listed building, it’s made from thousands of specially shaped refractory bricks and tiles – a real advert for the manufacturers. Photo credit:

Stourbridge’s location was perfect, having access to a fantastic network of canals as well as key materials. Soon every glass factory had its own access to the canal system, bringing in the high-quality sand that was the main raw ingredient for glass, but also enabling safe transport of finished products to the customer. We might think that our roads have a lot of pot-holes now, but in the 1700s and 1800s, transporting delicate glass long distances over cobbled roads would not have helped their chances of safe arrival – better to float them gently on their way to the big markets in London, other cities and ports for international export.

A canal scene, featuring two branches, a lock gate and a glass cone in the distance
Multiple branches of the canal network that were once busy serving the glass industry. Photo credit:

The canals through Stourbridge are now mostly used for leisure, but 200 years ago they were the bustling equivalent of modern motorways.

Girl paddles a canoe on a leafy canal
A family day out. Do you like my toes?

Stourbridge quickly built a skilled workforce for the glass industry: locally-grown and also through welcoming Hugenot craftsmen who were fleeing religious persecution in Northern Europe. I don’t think any of my family actually worked in the glass industry (though they sold a lot of beer to glass-workers!) but it still feels like glass is in my blood. It’s certainly true for most local families. A chance conversation with my postman (“why do you have so many heavy deliveries?” – “I make things from glass”) revealed that generations of his family were glass blowers, polishers and cutters.

Sadly, after the Second World War, the glass industry declined in Stourbridge as a result of failure to modernise and changing taste. Eventually all of the major companies closed and many of their sites were left derelict.

Derelict factory buildings
The Stuart Crystal Factory after years of neglect. Photo credit:

However, the glass industry has never really ever left Stourbridge and with the opening of the new Stourbridge Glass Museum, a fresh generation of Stourbridge residents will be able to celebrate the history of their town

The lovely shiny new Stourbridge Glass Museum - a modern construction flanked by historic buildings
New beginnings – the Stourbridge Glass Museum opened in 2022

Its main purpose is to care for and showcase the stunning Stourbridge Glass Collection, which includes around 10,000 pieces of masterful glasswork from local factories, glassmaking equipment, archive material and more. Considered one of the finest British collections of glass, it spans the 17th to the 20th centuries, demonstrating how 400 years of fashionable glass have thrived in the area.

Stourbridge has also recently hosted the “International Festival of Glass”. This 4-day extravaganza celebrated all things glass and I hope to share some of the highlights of my visit in a future blog post!

PS. Don’t tell anyone, but Led Zeppelin were never my favourites. I was far more of a Wonder Stuff girl, bopping around to their alternative rock tracks like “Size of a Cow” in the late 80s and early 90s.

PPS. The Wonder Stuff are from Stourbridge, too!

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