Chance Brothers and Company was a glassworks originally based in Spon Lane, Smethwick, West Midlands (formerly in Staffordshire), in England. It was a leading glass manufacturer and a pioneer of British glassmaking technology.
Chance Brothers and Company was “… the greatest glass manufacturer in Britain”, who were responsible for the glazing of the original Crystal Palace to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Houses of Parliament, and they made the opal glass for the four faces of the Westminster Clock Tower which house the famous bell, Big Ben. The ornamental windows for the White House in America were also made by them.
Robert Lucas Chance started work at his father’s business in Birmingham, at the age of 12, then started his own glass merchant business in London in 1815. This involved many trips to France where he formed alliances with French owners.
Purchased the British Crown Glass Company in 1824, following the death of the owner, Thomas Shutt, for £24,000, which is worth around £1 million in 2009.
Founded Chance Glass works, then formed a partnership with John Hartley in 1828. After experiencing financial difficulties in 1832, Lucas was then saved by his brother, William Chance 1788 – 1856, who also became a partner.
The partnership with Hartley’s sons (who inherited the partnership on their father’s death in 1833) was dissolved in 1836 and the business was then named Chance Brothers & Company.
In 1830, he became great friends with Georges Bontemps, a leading director of a glassworks in France, who would later assist at Chance Brothers following his exile from France.
Chance was instrumental in introducing the method of Sheet glass production for making flat glass for (primarily) windows. This would eventually dispose the previous working method of Crown glass. He was also one of the great exponents in removing the crippling excise duty and the Window Tax. Following these actions, the glass trade in England started to flourish.
The two brothers were also very philanthropic, founding a school (1845), a library and a church, all primarily for the workforce.
In 1851, Chance Brothers supplied the glass to glaze the Crystal Palace, which was probably partly due to Chance’s previous links with Joseph Paxton, the architect, when supplying glass for the greenhouses at Chatsworth House.
Robert Lucas Chance died 1865.
The company soon ran into difficulty and its survival was guaranteed in 1832 by investment from his brother William Chance 1788 – 1856 who owned a successful iron merchants in Great Charles Street, Birmingham.
After the partnership with the Hartley Brothers was dissolved, Lucas and William Chance 1788 – 1856 became partners in the business, which was then called Chance Brothers and Company.
In 1837, it made the first British cylinder blown sheet glass with the expertise of Georges Bontemps, a famous French glassmaker from Choisy le Roi who had purchased the secret of the stirrer after the deaths of Pierre Louis Guinand and Joseph von Fraunhofer, the pioneers of the manufacture of high precision lenses for observatory telescopes.
Georges Bontemps agreed to share the secret with Chance Brothers and stayed in England to collaborate with Chance for six years. In 1848 under his supervision a new Chance plant was set up for the manufacture of crown and flint glass for telescopes and cameras. Just three other companies in Britain made glass in the same way, Pilkington of St. Helens, Hartleys of Sunderland and Cooksons of Newcastle.
During 1832, Chance Brothers became the first company to adopt the cylinder method to produce sheet glass, and became the largest British manufacturer of window and plate glass, and optical glasses.
Other Chance Brothers projects included the glazing of the original Crystal Palace to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Houses of Parliament, (built 1840–1860). At that time it was the only firm that was able to make the opal glass for the four faces of the Westminster Clock Tower which house the famous bell, Big Ben. The ornamental windows for the White House in America were also made there.
Other products included stained glass windows, ornamental lamp shades, microscope glass slides, painted glassware, glass tubing and specialist types of glass.
Elihu Burritt (1810–1879) the American philanthropist and social activist once said about Chance “In no other establishment in the world can one get such a full idea of the infinite uses which glass is made to serve as in these immense works”.
In 1900 a baronetcy was created for James Timmins Chance (22 March 1814 – 6 January 1902), a grandson of William Chance 1749 – 1828, one of the Chance brothers who started the family business in 1771. James became head of Chance Brothers until his retirement in 1889 when the company was formed into a public company and the name changed to Chance Brothers & Co. Ltd. Sir James Chance was the first baronet of the family baronetcy.In the early 20th century, many new ways of making glass evolved at Chance Brothers such as the innovative welding of a cathode ray tube used for radar detection.
Chance also popularised slumped glass tableware, called Fiestaware that included many innovative designs, including the famous Swirl design.
Pilkington Brothers acquired a 50% shareholding in 1945 but the Chance operation continued to be largely separately managed and a factory was established in Malvern, Worcestershire in 1947 to specialise in laboratory glass where the operation was incorporated as an arms length subsidiary under the old name Chance Brothers Ltd.
In 1948 the Malvern plant produced the world’s first interchangeable syringe. By the end of 1952 Pilkington had assumed full financial control of Chance Brothers, but did not become actively involved in its management until the mid to late 1960s. When plastic disposable syringes displaced glass in the late 1960s, the range of its precision bore product was diversified.
The production of flat glass ceased at Smethwick in 1976. The remainder of the Smethwick works closed in 1981, thus ending over 150 years of glass production at Smethwick and all flat glass production was absorbed by Pilkington’s St Helens factories. Remaining glass tube processing, especially the manufacture of syringes and laboratory glassware, was moved to the Malvern plant.
In 1992, during a period of rationalisation at Pilkington, a management buy out reverted the Chance plant in Malvern to private ownership and it once again became an independent company, changing its registered name to Chance Glass Limited, but retaining the historical Chance logo. Since then the company has continued to develop its range of products and processes, and areas now served include the pharmaceutical, chemical, metrology, electronics and lighting industries.