David Martlew
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David Martlew is a glass technologist who after over forty years working in the flat glass industry is now retired and therefore free to pursue interests in the area of the history and heritage of glass and glassmaking technology. An early inspiration for this interest was provided by Victorian stained glass windows in which a certain choir boy found refuge from dull sermons. As a Lay Reader in the Church of England he is conscious of the importance of ecclesiastical stained glass windows, with their rich iconography, to the worshipping communities in churches of all denominations.

Victorian Flat Glass Furnace – a world first?
David Martlew
Glass Technologist

It is now twenty years since a new Heritage Centre was mooted for St Helens, to celebrate its long history of glass manufacture. This town in the north of England is famous as the birthplace of the Float process for making flat glass, but the World of Glass Heritage Centre was positioned on the site of a major glassmaking achievement of the nineteenth century.

In the early 1990s a derelict industrial building gave problems to property development in the town. Legally protected from demolition because of its unusual architectural features, the building became the site of an industrial archaeological investigation which revealed the remarkably well preserved sub structure of a continuous regenerative glass furnace.

Historical evidence relating to land purchase and the like showed that the furnace was built in 1887, but surprisingly there was no extant documentary evidence to describe this furnace. Careful archaeological investigation revealed a furnace structure quite unlike others built at around that time.

Design and operational studies of today’s continuous tank furnaces makes good use of simulation techniques to shed light on the way furnaces behave and how improvements may be made. Those same techniques were useful in checking the reasonableness of conjectures about what that furnace looked like and how it was operated. Furnace drawings relating to the generality of glassmaking furnaces of that date are extant and were used, along with some photographic evidence, to build up a picture of the missing furnace superstructure. The result strongly suggests that this particular furnace marked a watershed in the design and operation of flat glass furnaces. This Victorian furnace was a world first!


The end result of the archaeological study and interpretation was that the value of these remains as a heritage site was recognised. They dictated the nature of the £14million museum and visitor centre which was erected to celebrate the glassmaking heritage of St Helens, and which allowed the archaeology to be conserved and presented to the public.