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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Dixons Whittington Glasshouse

Posted Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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Dixons Whittington Glass


Throughout the twentieth century Chesterfield was one of the countries major glass manufacturing centres, with a thriving industry along Sheffield Road – B.T.H, Lamp Caps & Dema Glass – which at its height employed a combined workforce of over three thousand people.

Dema Glass was the largest manufacturer of domestic glassware in England, and was the youngest (1923), whilst Lamp Caps, once the world’s largest manufacturer of vitrous light fittings, was a year older (1922).

The B.T.H. (British Thomson-Houston) factory, which later became Glass Tubes & Components (G.T.C.) had the largest premises and workforce, and opened four years earlier in 1918, thus leading many to the mistaken belief that this was the first, and earliest of Chesterfield’s glass-making companies.

But the first in fact, and by a long way, was Dixon’s Glasshouse at Whittington, which had already enjoyed over a century of success before ceasing production around 1820 – and had closed almost a hundred years BEFORE `modern’ glass manufacturers like B.T.H. came to town!

Little was known about the Dixons and Whittington Glasshouse until recently, for it was believed that all records had been either lost or destroyed after the estate was dissolved following Henry Dixon’s demise in 1858. However, fresh information from a recently discovered descendant of the Dixon family has shed new light on the subject – and enables the telling of the fascinating story of one of the areas first industries, and the earliest known glass manufactory in Derbyshire.

Our story begins in mid-seventeenth century Worcestershire with the birth in 1665 of Richard Dixon in Stourbridge, which had become the centre of English glassmaking after George Fox built the first glass-furnace there around 1650.

In 1670 George Fox came north to Sheffield and built a large glasshouse at Bolsterstone in order to supply the Sheffield Master Cutlers Company with quality glassware. Dixon had learned the art of glassmaking at Fox’s factory in Stourbridge, and in 1690 came to Sheffield with his wife Elizabeth and two sons to work with Fox at Bolsterstone.

When Fox died in 1699, Richard Dixon left Bolsterstone and started up in business on his own by purchasing the lease of Thorpe Farm, four miles north of Chesterfield at Whittington in 1702. Here he built a glasshouse and furnace alongside the old farm buildings on what became known as `Glasshouse Common’, the highest point in the entire Chesterfield Borough.

The Glasshouse and furnace stood at the eastern end of Grasscroft Wood, visible today on the northern horizon with the Hundall Telecommunications mast at the western end, which can be seen from as far away as Wingerworth.

Dixon had planned carefully, for the site had an abundance of coal, ironstone and building stone, and was just within the boundaries of the Master Cutlers Company – in range, but not too close to Bolsterstone to appear to be in direct competition!

Access to the farm was directly off the main road between Whittington and Eckington, which in those days ran across the Common and alongside the old Thorpe Farmhouse, and the only glass-making commodity that was absent – sand – was initially brought in via this route.

Dixon was producing glass here from around 1710, and utilising his skill as a glassblower he made tall-stem, richly ornamented cut-glass drinking glasses, and in the early days, large quantities of black glass bottles of different form and shape for wine, sack and ale. His connection with the Master Cutlers Company proved quite lucrative, for during the early years of the eighteenth century the Sheffield Platers had a burgeoning reputation for excellence and Richard Dixon supplied them with the best cut-glass for numerous silver-plated ornaments and table-ware.

The flourishing Whittington Glasshouse was still in its infancy when Richard Dixon died in 1727 and was succeeded by his son, another Richard, who had learned the glass makers art from his father, and was aided by his younger brother, William.

It would seem that pioneer glassmaking was a hazardous and unhealthy occupation for the second Richard Dixon was in charge for only nine years before his early death aged 46 in 1736, and his younger brother William succumbed just seven years later in 1743, whilst still in his late thirties.

The second Richard Dixon had two sons, and the youngest, another Richard, took control of the glasshouse, whilst his elder brother Gilbert became Clerk to the Master Cutlers Company in Sheffield. This arrangement proved excellent for business, and lasted for 26 years – until the third Richard Dixon died, aged 50 in 1769, and Gilbert left the Master Cutlers Company to assume control of the family business alongside his young nephew John Dixon.

By this time the Dixons had two collieries at Hundall and Whittington, a stone quarry producing good quality building stone, and an iron stone mine at Glasshouse Common.

Gilbert led from the front, and with the knowledge gained from his long association with the Sheffield Master Cutlers & Platers Company, the business thrived.

But it was John Dixon who, after Gilbert died in 1777, became the real powerhouse of the Dixon empire which by 1779 was reputedly making the finest cut-glass in the north of England, and had become the major supplier to the Sheffield Platers.

Dixon also supplied quality cut-glass directly to the gentry of the day, as Sir Francis Sitwell’s accounts for Renishaw Hall show, there were transactions for bottles and tableware, including cut-glass decanters, tumblers, wine-glasses, cruet sets – and even a chandelier!

This was due in no small measure to the opening in 1777 of the Chesterfield – Stockwith Canal which enabled John Dixon to import Lynn sand, an essential ingredient for quality cut-glass making, and for the next forty years he used the canal as a major trade route for transporting coal, glass and ironstone.

In 1778, a year after the canal opened for business, Dixon was appointed Resident Engineer and was responsible for the construction links, usually branch lines which connected the canal with quarries, mines and factories from Chesterfield to the Trent. He was obviously a very shrewd businessman, for not only was he also the Canal Company’s official Book-Keeper – he was also one of the major shareholders.

In 1796 he laid a roadway from the Glasshouse down to the canal, where he built a wharf for barges to tie-up and unload, and the following year he constructed a narrow guage railway from his collieries at Hundall, Grasscroft and West Staveley along the route to the canal wharf, which became known as Dixon’s Wharf.

The railway sloped downhill all the way to the canal, and the loaded wagons of coal and ironstone, probably with only a brakeman aboard, would run down by gravity, whilst the empties would be hauled back uphill by teams of horses. The route can be followed on the ground today, running from Grasscroft Wood, down past the Glasshouse on what became Glasshouse Lane, then down Stone Lane and Wellington Street, and across to the canal wharf. The railway was still in existence in 1880, and the centre of `East’ Whittington was built around it, becoming the separate parish of `New’ Whittington in 1927.

John Dixon became a very wealthy man and gradually bought up land and properties in the parish as they became available, and when he died, aged 74 in 1816, he was the Lord of the Manor of Whittington, owning two thirds of the land within the parish, and estates at Unstone, Dronfield, Brampton and Killamarsh.

The beneficiary of all this accumulated wealth was Henry Offerton, a land surveyor from Oxford who had been born and brought up at Glasshouse Common, and was the stepson of John Dixon’s brother Isaiah.

When he inherited the 450 acre Whittington Estate and became Lord of the Manor, Henry Offerton promptly changed his name to Dixon, and began systematically squandering his inheritance, for he had little or no interest in business matters and was content simply to play the role of country squire.

The Glasshouse ceased production around this time, and soon the collieries and the ironstone mine fell into disrepair and were abandoned, and from 1827 the Glasshouse Common complex was let to farmer Augustus Cupit who ran a brick and tile manufacturing business for some years, until around 1879.

Henry Dixon had returned to Whittington from Oxford in 1829 and immediately set about building a late-Georgian country mansion as befitted his Lord of the Manor status.

Whittington Hall was completed in 1831 and was the largest residence in the parish, with gardens and grounds covering more than 25 acres, which included a boating lake, ornamental fishing pond, and extensive formal and kitchen gardens, complete with vineries.

Dixon bred game birds and held shoots on the estate and frequent garden parties attended by the gentry of the day, who were well served by a dozen staff, including butlers, chamber and serving maids and a nurse. He also employed a head gardener, four under-gardeners, a coachman, two footmen, and a gamekeeper.

But the good life in Whittington lasted less than thirty years for Henry Dixon, and he was forced to sell the Whittington estate in 1857 to industrialist William Fowler, principal owner of the Dunston & Barlow (later Sheepbridge Coal & Iron) Company, and removed to Warwickshire where he died 18 months later, aged 67.

Many of the Glasshouse buildings and cottages were demolished in the 1930’s, and only the old farmhouse remained. After the second world war a caravan site occupied the old glasshouse common complex, and finally, ten years ago in 1998, the old farmhouse and outbuildings were finally demolished, and new housing constructed on the site.

Nowadays nothing remains at Glasshouse Common to show that the Dixon empire ever existed; gone are the collieries, along with the railway, and apart from the ruins of the old gamekeeper’s cottage high on the hill, and a few barely recogniseable lumps in the ground where buildings or coal pits spoil heaps used to be, there are only memories - and reminders of Whittington’s earliest industry in such names as Glasshouse Lane at New Whittington, and Dixon’s Lock on the Chesterfield Canal.

NB. An excellent collection of 18th century Whittington glass is on permanent display at Chesterfield Museum & Art Gallery.

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