Though the Kodak Factory is – or, indeed, was – well known for its presence in Harrow (more on that here), there was also another local industrial site that remains less so, one that met the same fate as Kodak only decades prior. Its name was Whitefrairs Glassworks – a national treasure of industry, having produced glassworks for some three centuries, and made world famous for its development of Industrial Art Glass in the 1920s. The story of this notable figure of industry is a long one – stretching back into the seventeenth century before coming to Harrow in the twentieth, and involving a number of different individuals, each equally significant for their contributions. Like Kodak’s history in Harrow, the story of Whitefriars is one that, even if less recent, ought to be remembered, and, like Kodak’s will be, can be seen across the Harrow landscape.
Founded in 1720 in London near Temple (though the exact date is contested, some have suggested it was founded as early as 1680), the glasshouse took on the name Whitefrairs as a result of the land it was built on – after the ancient monastery that had previously stood there, where monks had dressed in white robes, hence the name of ‘White Friars’. Yet the glassworks would soon lose this title as it changed owners over the ensuing centuries. When James Powell, a famous wine merchant purchased the glassworks in 1834, it was renamed to ‘James Powell & Sons’ – a change that would stick for over a century until it reverted back to its original name in 1963 whilst in Harrow.
However, even if it was no longer under the Whitefriars banner – and even if the senior Powell had only bought the works as a means of keeping his three sons occupied – the Powells’ work in the institution was highly significant. Over the rest of the nineteenth century, the glassworks grew and grew, crafting works as ordinary as tavern glasses and as intricate as medieval-styled coloured glass for churches or memorial windows – the latter of which became particularly prosperous for the business in the wake of the First World War in the 1920s. During this time, the Powell family also saw the development of uranium being used to colour glass, a process that was employed for a presentation service in 1837 for Queen Victoria.
In 1923, after centuries of operating in Temple, Harry Powell – the grandson of the first James Powell who had since become manager of the business – had the glassworks moved out of their original home to the outskirts of London, to a new green field factory in Harrow Weald. It has been said that his decision to do this was a critical, one that capitalised on the successes the business had reaped – whilst they still could – and which ensured the survival of the glassworks for much longer than it would have in Temple. As part of a long tradition – one that declared that the furnaces should remain burning at all times – the move was also accompanied by the transportation of a lit brazier across London, from Temple to Harrow, which was then used to light the very first furnace at the new site.
In the years that followed, the glassworks continued to grow and prosper, yet this period came to an end with the outbreak of the Second World War. The necessity of the war meant that glass manufacturing was greatly restricted, and this, along with the decimation of the workforce due to the war’s high death toll, served to deliver a crippling blow to the institution, with it struggling to survive by the time of the war’s end and after. It was in these twilight years that the institution returned to its original Whitefriars Glass name – perhaps as a means of rejuvenate the business at a time when it was in desperate need of it.
Yet the high labour costs of manmade glass paired up with the wider recession of the 1980s meant that shortly after this change, the business collapsed in on itself – its factory closing, later to be bulldozed over, and its employees made redundant – bringing to a close over three hundred years of British glassworking, and snuffing out the fires that had been burning as far back as 1680.
Though the factory which once sat on Tudor Road in Wealdstone can no longer be found, a number of local, and indeed, even faraway, institutions continue to bear its name – most notably the local school – in commemoration of its legacy. These torchbearers, and indeed the other ways Whitefrairs continues to have a presence in the local area, may be worth looking out for when around the Wealdstone area, and for remembering the key presence Harrow has in the history of this once great, though still enduringly significant, British institution.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Getty Images