Memories of a side lever press operator - Thomas Graham
S & G Thistlewood and T. Graham (*)
Dedication by T Graham
"To my lovely Brummie Mother (now aged 88), Marjory Graham, who said “yes” to my father in 1951, when he asked her
to come to Edinburgh, resulting in a large Graham clan in Edinburgh who love Birmingham!”
The fascinating account below is based on a tape recording made by Tommy Graham, who worked at Edinburgh Crystal as
a side lever press operator. This part of the glass production at Edinburgh Crystal is not well known - and thus
Tommy's wonderful memories, which are so vividly recalled and expressed, bring knowledge to an area currently
lacking in information. This article can also be seen on Frank Andrews "Scotland's Glass" (see
* Tommy Graham is currently a collector of pressed glass - including Carnival Glass.
Rescued by the
Back in the hard days of the late 1930s, two young men left their home in Scotland to try and find work in the
heart of England – the Black Country. The men were ex miners, one was just 21 years old, his elder brother was 24.
As they trudged the banks of the Birmingham Canal by Lodge Road, they met a policeman on his beat. “What are
you two doing?” he demanded. “Looking for work” was the reply. The copper raised his hand and pointed at a nearby
factory –“Try in there” he suggested – and so they did. The factory was Phoenix Glass: its full name, which in fact
it was almost never called, was the British Heat Resisting Glass Company. They made heatproof glass oven ware, akin
to Pyrex, which was favoured during the following war years, instead of metal pots and pans.
The two men were soon joined by two more brothers, and they worked there until 1946 when another glass factory –
right next door to the Phoenix – asked them to join their workforce. And the name of the factory that “headhunted”
the brothers? Walsh Walsh.
The men in question were the father and uncle of Tommy Graham – himself a skilled glassworker and the subject of
this feature. Tommy told us that his father – Tom – was part of the only pressed glass team that ever worked at
Walsh Walsh. He also added that an experienced glassmaker, Wainwright, who worked at Walsh Walsh before moving to
Scotland, once described Tom as the best glass gatherer he had ever seen.
And on to Scotland
In 1951 Walsh Walsh closed and Tommy reports that Ken Northwood came down from Scotland to Birmingham to talk to
the pressed glass team there and ask them to consider going to work at Edinburgh Crystal. If the name, Northwood,
sounds familiar, that’s because it is – he was a member of the famous Northwood glassmaking family and a relation
of Harry Northwood, the renowned Carnival Glass maker. Those readers who have the late William Heacock’s book on
Northwood – “The Wheeling Years” will note the name in the acknowledgments, as Ken Northwood loaned some family
photos. Tommy told us that he believed Ken Northwood actually had his own collection of Carnival Glass – one
wonders if he only collected Northwood’s!
For Tommy’s father, the enticement to return to Scotland was strong. Leaving his brothers in Birmingham, he took
his wife and family to Scotland and in 1952 made the decision to stay in Edinburgh. Tommy himself was 12 at that
time, and he remembers the move well. At Edinburgh Crystal, Tom Graham established a pressed glass team – in just
five years time, his son Tommy would join that team. And thus, at 17 years of age, Tommy became part of the team
and began to press glass, standing side by side with his father. He acknowledges the amazing skill and guidance of
his father – and together they produced a huge amount of glass over the years that they worked there. The side
lever press that they had used at Walsh and Walsh, was brought to Edinburgh Crystal too.
Left (above) - a
whisky tumbler made from a pressed glass blank made at Edinburgh Crystal before cutting with the
“Appin” design, and below, the etched Edinburgh Crystal trademark on the base of the
The Pressed Glass Team at Work
Tommy describes the set up: his father would be by the clay pot
which was full of hot metal (molten glass), Tommy was at his side, operating the side lever press –
his father would take a half turn, gather, take a half turn and give the gather to Tommy to press.
Their physical proximity to each other was something that Tommy noted in the context of a later
visit he made to Newcastle where he had been offered employment at one of the glass works. He recalled
noting with interest that there the glass worker gathered and then took 4 steps to reach the
presser. Tommy’s father simply made that half turn.
On a bemused
note, Tommy explained that at Edinburgh Crystal, the pressers were looked down on and were
considered only “semi skilled”. It didn’t bother the pressed glass team, they just got on with
their job, and clearly took great pleasure in their skills, for as Tommy says, they were good at
their job. To do it, you had to be both physically and mentally alert and fully aware of everything
that was going on around you. The presser depended on the skill of the gatherer to present just the
right amount of hot metal – and Tommy had implicit trust in the skills and judgment of his father
in that respect. In Tommy’s words, the presser “needed a deft touch – for one minute you could be
making a small pin dish and the next a cigar ash tray, which was probably the heaviest piece of
glass ever made on a single gather!” Edinburgh Crystal had the highest percentage of lead in their
glass batch – around one third, as opposed to the European standard of around 24%. It was heavy
A Stir in the Glass Industry
In 1971, Dema Glass took over Edinburgh Crystal and Thomas Webb. Dema’s main product was barware and Tommy recalls
that the new owners felt that a pressed glass team would be very useful to them. In that same year Ken Northwood
came up to break the news that stainless steel moulds would be arriving for the production of whisky tumblers in
three sizes: 5oz, 7oz and 10oz. The moulds were innovative! They were not open and shut moulds, but were
instead a one piece mould, with the bottom of the mould dropping out (and releasing the tumbler). The tumblers were
pressed as blanks, to be cut afterwards.
Tommy Graham remembers how he felt when he first saw these moulds – surely there was no way a machine could make
fine tableware? He recalls that the company sought permission and agreement from the rest of the glassmakers at
Edinburgh Crystal to put the moulds into use, and accordingly they received that agreement. The Trial Run was
eagerly anticipated – at 4pm one afternoon the entire factory stopped working and stood around to watch. And it was
a disaster! Everything went wrong on that maiden run, and Tommy recalls that many of the other glass makers went
away smiling at the red faces of the pressed glass team. But they were not a team of men to be underestimated – in
just a few weeks they had got the hang of it all, and were turning out huge quantities of pressed glass tumblers.
Soon a plain salad bowl was also being made using a stainless steel mould (not an open and shut mould).
Tommy reports that this caused quite a stir in the glass industry. It was the first time ever in Britain that this
had been done – 35 or so years ago – and it turned the crystal glass industry upside down. Glass blowers who had
been making these items all their lives were now able to look at a pressed tumbler that was as good as if it had
been blown! (See photos above). The big difference was in the output: the pressed glass team could turn out between
5000 and 7000 tumblers in the same time that the blowers could produce 500. Over a three year period in the early
1970s, Tommy reckons that between 700,000 and 800,000 pressed tumblers were made. In his words, it “turned the
glass industry upside down”. At the end of this article, you can read a list of the glass items that Tommy and his
team made on the side lever press at Edinburgh Crystal. Similar progress, of course, was being made in glass
companies all over Europe. More innovation followed – though the early examples from these one piece moulds were
then cut, Tommy tells us that just a few years later Dema brought in a cutting machine whereby a blank was put into
the machine and it emerged cut.
The Side Lever Press Smashed
These changes were major, and one consequence was that the glassmakers in the Edinburgh area felt that their jobs
were threatened. But Tommy notes that when he left the glass industry, some 26 or 27 years ago, other glassmakers
at Edinburgh Crystal took over the press team, but they were unable to get the same high output that Tommy and his
team had achieved. He told us that he had been most upset to learn a few years later that the old Walsh and Walsh
side lever press he had used had been smashed up. Tommy had looked after it with care over many years – its loss
was painful to him. Pressed glass manufacture on site at Edinburgh Crystal ceased – all blanks then were
imported instead. Time went by, after Tommy left, and from time to time he would look at examples of glass from
Edinburgh Crystal and wistfully form an opinion that they were insipid compared to that which he and his team used
to produce. At Edinburgh Crystal, three wine glass blowers were kept “to appease the visitors” who wanted to see
the glass being made. In reality though, much of the glass came in from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Spain to be cut
on machines in Edinburgh, which allowed it to be sold as “Made in Scotland”.
Tommy Graham maintained his keen interest in glass, however, and became an informed and enthusiastic collector of
Carnival Glass as well as Jobling, Lalique, Sabino and Baccarat. He shares his collecting desires with many others,
of course – but his memories, however, are unique.
© G&S Thistlewood and T Graham 2009