Note: This post first appeared on my old blog site “Who’s your auntie?” on 9 January 2014.
Glass flattener. That was the occupation given by my maternal grandfather, George Owen, on his marriage certificate in 1912 in St. Helens, Lancashire, England. I discovered that in the manufacture of plate glass, large cylinders of glass were created, then slit open and smoothed to form flat sheets of glass. It was the latter part of this process that George was employed in. Further research revealed that George was an employee of Pilkington Brothers in St. Helens, Lancashire, England, a leading manufacturer of window glass.
Why did the family to leave St. Helens and settle in Thorold, Ontario? Thorold, while on the beautiful Niagara peninsula, was situated on the Welland canal, which attracted industries wanting easy access to their Canadian and American markets via the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. In my opinion, it was not the most attractive of places in which to settle. A little digging into George’s employment revealed the answer.
Pilkington Brothers was founded in St. Helens in the mid-1820s and began as a small company that manufactured window glass. It took less than half a century, though, for this small business to grow into the largest producer of plate glass in England. A drawing created in 1868 of the Pilkington facilities in St. Helens shows a large, sprawling complex.
In the years prior to the first World War, Canada was Pilkington’s largest overseas market. When a threat from an American company to manufacture and sell glass in Canada arose, Pilkington decided to build its own factory in Canada. The company chose Thorold, Ontario as the site for their new manufacturing plant, because it was situated on the Welland Canal and provided ready access to both Canadian and American markets. By May, 1913, land had been purchased not only for a factory, but for a village where the workers and their families would live.
In order to operate their new facility, the company needed trained workers, and they recruited them from among their employees at the St. Helens plant. One of those who took up the offer of life in a new land was George Owen, who set sail from Liverpool on 27 May, 1914 aboard the Allan Line’s ship, Victorian.
On 29 May, 1914, The Thorold Post featured an article about the opening of the glass works under the headline “Glass Works is Operating”. The first few lines are as follows:
“The first glass is made at the Pilkington Works, in the presence of but few, and no booming of guns.
Very quietly, and with no special announcement, the first glass was turned out at the Pilkington works last Monday, although it was a general holiday, and the industry which has been regarded with great interest for many months became an actuality, one of the vital and living industries of the township.”
The company built Windle Village, named for Windle Pilkington, for their Thorold employees and their families – a complex of homes with a fair amount of surrounding green space. This was very likely what attracted not just George Owen, but many of the other St. Helens employees who made the move to Thorold. St. Helens was a very industrial city, where accommodations were more cramped and where there was little green space. Canals and factories were nothing new to those from St. Helens. In fact, Thorold was clean and green compared to St. Helens.
Unfortunately, the Thorold plant was plagued by glass quality problems almost from the time it began operating, and by mid-1924 the plant had closed for good. While some of the Thorold employees opted to return to St. Helens, the Owen family chose to remain in Canada.
- Barker, T.C. (1977) The Glassmakers. Pilkington: the rise of an international company 1826-1976. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Thorold Post (Ontario). (1914) Glass Works is Operating. 29 May.
- Board of Trade (Great Britain). Passenger list for Victorian departing Liverpool for Montreal, Canada. 27 May 1914. OWEN, George. Collection: Passenger lists leaving the UK, 1890-1960. http://www.findmypast.com/ : accessed 27 March 2016.