Forgotten history of East London glass blowing explored by arts group

Andy Palmer shaping blown glass on a table. Pic: Sheridan Orr

An arts collective run out of a disused post office is seeking revive the forgotten trade of glassmaking in Tower Hamlets.

Fitzrovia Noir, a social enterprise run by an arts collective, have transformed a long-disused post office in Poplar into the Making Space studio after receiving £30k in grants from the Mayor of London and Tower Hamlets council. The studio has been operational since last summer and has hosted a number of glassblowing classes for the community.

Last December, a public exhibition called ‘The People Chandelier’ fitted pieces made during the classes to a chandelier and displayed it to the public. After the exhibit ended, those who contributed to the pieces could take their work home. As well as providing a community benefit, the classes have sparked a renewed interest in Tower Hamlet’s long-forgotten glassmaking heritage.

Fitzrovia Noir have been based in the Aberfeldy Estate in Poplar since 2018. The estate houses residential blocks, shops, a mosque and community hall which are due for demolition later this year. Fitzrovia Noir relocated to Aberfeldy Estate from nearby Trinity Buoy Wharf where they were based since 2011.

When they arrived at Aberfeldy Estate most of the shops were boarded up. Their first project was to set up a pub and multi-use community space, the Tommy Flowers pub, which opened in 2018. The pub was named after the Poplar-born World War Two engineer who designed and built the Colossus computer which helped solve encrypted German messages.

Utilising the Tommy Flowers pub as a creative communal space proved difficult during the Covid-19 pandemic. Garry Hunter, creative director of Fitzrovia Noir told ELL: “We were doing creative making in the back garden but because of social distancing we could not do it with more than four people.”

They were subsequently offered the disused post office next door by local housing association Poplar HARCA at below market rates. While events and classes are still held in the Tommy Flowers pub, the Making Space studio became a site solely for creative engagement.

The glass furnace used by Fitzrovia Noir was made from upcycled materials including parts from a shopping trolley, washing machine and a hairdryer.

The People’s Chandelier Pic: David Evans

Tower Hamlets has a strong glassmaking heritage. The Thames Plate Glass Company operated in the Leamouth area in the 19th century. At the time, it was the only plate-glass manufacturer in Southern England.

Plate-glass making was one of the few heavy industries to give employment to women. At times, the Thames Plate Glass Company had a workforce of around forty per cent women. The company manufactured the largest sheets of plate-glass produced at the time for the Great Exhibition in 1851, an international event organised by Prince Albert.

The exhibition showcased technological and cultural wonders from around the world. Six million people attended the event, including Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Charlotte Brontë. The site of the Thames Plate Glass Company is now the City Island development.

Bringing these long-forgotten histories to light is a key motivator behind Fitzrovia Noir’s various projects. Hunter told ELL: “we want to underearth these hidden histories and give people pride in their local area”. There is a block of flats on Aberfeldy Estate called Glass Blowers House, according to Hunter many locals had no knowledge that this was related to the historic glass making industry.   

Fitzrovia Noir continues to highlight the forgotten industrial history of the River Lea area. Cargoes is a project currently underway which looks to examine the innovations that emerged in the 19th century during the exchange of goods between North East England and London.

A number of technological breakthroughs emerged during this period including the invention of the incandescent light bulb in Newcastle and the discovery of electrolysis by Michael Faraday, who’s workshop was located in Poplar. The project is supported by The Heritage Fund.

Fitzrovia Noir will be based in Aberfeldy Estate until September 2022, when the Tommy Flowers pub and Making Space studio are set to be demolished.

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