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Thursday, 5 June 2008

Children of the Furnace

Furnace work in Victorian glass 'houses', where glass was manufactured, was the province of men and strong boys. Apart from ‘intemperate habits,’ no ill effects were found from working in the furnaces. However, some of the lads were treated quite roughly. The young apprentices began work before the men. Gaskell, a twelve year old apprentice, told the 1865 Children’s Employment Commission that the boys at Pilkingtons’ crown and sheet glass works: ‘always get called about three hours before we start with the men, for we have to sweep up and get ready for them before they come. We could do it all in an hour if we liked but we like to play in that time. We are called at all times night and day. The “teazer” or furnace man goes round the town and calls every boy in the house (glass house) when the furnace in that house has heated the metal in the pots enough to start working in about three hours. He comes to the door and knocks and calls “Gaskell,” and then, if it’s night, my father looks out of the house and says “Number – called,” that is the number of the house. So I get out of bed and go off.’
Like iron foundry workers, their lives revolved around the needs of the ever-hungry furnaces. Shift times depended on the type of glass being manufactured and the size of the crucibles used to melt the glass. Boys worked in the cutting and polishing departments, too, along with young girls and teenagers.

You can find out more in my feature on Victorian child glass workers in this month's issue of children's magazine Aquila and in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Glassblowing, engraving by G. P. Jacomb Hood, Grindon’s Lancashire.

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