The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Thursday, 2 November 2017


Back in the day when The Anorak was a lowly archaeological surveyor working for British Waterways it was a favourite story to talk about Chance's Glass in Smethwick, West Midlands.

The factory was famous in its day. It was the place that made the windows for the Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition in 1851. The panes were transported by canal from Chance's own side branch of the Birmingham main line, all the way to London. And when they arrived not a
single one was broken!

If you've ever travelled the M5 between junctions 1 and 2 you'll have spotted the seven storey high building, though it's a bit square, and you're more likely to have marvelled at the wonderful terracotta-coloured edifice that housed Archibald Kenrick's foundry on the opposite side of
the road.

Chance’s glass was also responsible for a key part of maritime safety. They made the lenses for many of the world's lighthouses. They're a special kind of lens called a fresnel, that focuses the light through a series of concentric rings, rather than a curved surface.

Now, it seems, I'm not the only person fascinated by Chance's history. Australian engineer Tim Nguyen has set himself the task of learning old glassmaking skills so that he and a group of friends can restore all the Chance lighthouse lenses around the world.  There are about 2,000.

Chance glass was founded in 1824 and continued until 1981. Towards the end of its life it was known for much smaller pieces of household glass.

For more on this story see the BBC website by clicking here.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Leicester Streets

A bit of Medieval Leicester - the Guildhall
One of the newest parts of Leicester city is the High Cross shopping centre. It's massive, modern and shiny, but bears the name of a Medieval tall cross that stood at the top of the High Street.

Medieval Leicester had four main entrances called (unimaginatively) North Gate, South Gate, East Gate, and West Gate. High Street ran across town from North Gate to South Gate and, true to its name, was higher than all other streets because it was paved.

High Cross stood at the heart of trade and was the site of the Wednesday Market where country folk would bring produce to sell to the locals. By the 14th century there was enough trade to justify a regular Friday market too.

In 1577 a structure, which became known as High Cross, was erected in the area. It consisted of eight pillars topped by an eight-sided dome and must have been quite magnificent, but the march of progress and increasing size of carts meant it was knocked down in 1773 in an early road-widening scheme. A single pillar survives and now stands in Jubilee Square.

There are many information boards around Leicester that tell you about the area you're in. High Cross is close to the Medieval heart of the city and a board close to the new shopping centre gives details of local street names and their derivations.

Here's a few:

Cank Street. I've never encountered 'cank' before but the board says the street is named after a public well that stood there.

Holy Bones. What a great name. It might have something to do with the graves in nearby St Nicholas Church. Sadly it might be a Medieval joke about the number of butchers that could be found around it.

Gallowtree Gate. You might remember from a recent York post that gate means road, or way. (From the Old Norse 'gata'.) Gallowtree is fairly self-explanatory. It's where public hangings took place on the gallows 'tree'.

Sanvey Gate. Another 'gate', but the Sanvey bit is believed to be a corruption of Sancta Via, or holy way. It possibly marks the route of old religious processions through town.

And for any teenage boys out there, here's a chance to snigger.

Butt Close Lane.  Butts were, of course, the place where archers practised their skills. You can stop laughing now!