An Brief Political And Economic Introduction To Bristol Glass
By Jim McNeill
There were a number of economic and political changes during the 16th and 17th centuries which prepared the ground for the establishment of the glass industry in Bristol. In 1522 the ‘Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol’ was incorporated. It grew in power and influence through the 17th century during which the Society revitalised and effectively reorganised itself to allow Bristol’s maritime merchants to take the fullest advantage of the Britain’s developing colonial expansionism. In 1553, English local craft-guilds were transformed into a national institution and both the seven year apprenticeship system and the requirement for workmen to stay with their masters for a statutory number of years was established. During the Seventeenth Century and especially after the English Revolution of 1640-48, there was a political shift. Traditional merchants steadily lost their role in the state’s policy making process. A new breed of land owning and capitalist entrepreneurs were rapidly gaining in influence. Increasingly Parliament became an instrument for the promotion of capitalist profit and of the exploitation of human and natural resources on a world-wide scale. Driven by an expanding world view of trade this new class of entrepreneurship was nowhere more evident than in the country’s second city, Bristol. As Bristol’s trade with the American and the West Indian colonies developed, opportunities for participation in the transatlantic slave trade presented themselves and by 1698, Bristol’s Merchant Venturers had achieved the ‘legal’ right to participate in the ‘business’ of human trafficking.
During the 18th century, Bristol’s international trade doubled. In 1700, 240 ships arrived from non-British ports while by 1791 this number had increased to 485 of which 185 came from Europe, 161 from Ireland, 76 from the West Indies, 44 from America and 15 from Africa. Bristol was indeed an important British international and colonial port well placed for the export of its glass wares.
As well as the abundant availability of cheap coal on its door step and its strategic position as an important port facing the Atlantic, Bristol had easy access to all the other ingredients necessary for manufacturing glass, not least Money & Markets: Bristol’s merchants were partners in most of the city’s Glasshouses where they provided necessary finance, marketing and distribution skills. Importantly much of their investment capital derived from the trade in slave-grown sugar from America and the Caribbean and this sugar in turn stimulated the growth in the distilling industry which, along with spa water and the more established industries of cider, wine and beer, provided new opportunities for producers of glass bottles. The expansion of colonialism and the resulting affluence both abroad and at home stimulated demand for window glass and expensive drinking glasses. These were boom years which attracted skilled foreign glass workers to Bristol. The new industry developed rapidly and by 1700 the City Corporation had to obtain powers from Parliament to fine those glass makers who were depositing their waste products into the local rivers: Bristol’s Glass Industry had arrived!