POWELL, Harry 1853-1922. Designer.

Somehow Harry Powell has slipped through the net of those influential people who have lived in Dulwich. He is not to be found in the Dulwich Society’s Who Was Who in Dulwich. In much the same way he has been missed out from the Dictionary of National Biography. It is of course how Harry probably would have preferred it; after all he almost declined to accept the CBE for his work during World War 1 until his daughter Muriel penned him a terse note on behalf of herself and her husband Professor Herbert Baker -

Dear Daddy
We both think you ought to accept the CBE for Mother’s sake. I am sure she would be very pleased if she could know about it. Please don’t be pig headed and fill in the form quickly. Of course you fully earned lots more honours and please take this one.
With best wishes and mind you do what I ask you.
Your loving daughter
Muriel Baker

Harry then, apparently, not only kept his long-suffering wife in the dark regarding the award but his reticence to accept it was typical of a man who felt his co-workers at Whitefriars Glass Works were equally entitled to the honour offered to him. While Whitefriars was not a co-operative, it did adhere to the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement and its staff were respected as true artists and craftsmen. Unusually for Victorian employers, pensions were awarded on retirement and a week’s paid holiday was granted to the workers each August. Not unexpectedly this paternalistic stance was rewarded by loyalty and long service, indeed some of the glassblowers could trace their employment with Whitefriars back for generations. On one occasion, silver mounted walking sticks were presented to seven of the craftsmen to mark terms of long service. Another indication of the firm’s relationship with its workers was shown when Harry married his wife Emma in 1875 and two large tables at the wedding reception at Mercers Hall were reserved for the glassblowers and glass makers.

Whitefriars glassworks had been founded in 1680 on the site of a former Carmelite monastery between the Thames and Fleet Street in an area popularly called Alsatia and was acquired by Harry’s grandfather in 1834 as a means of keeping his three sons occupied. Harry entered the firm in 1873 after graduating from Trinity College Oxford where he studied mechanics, physics and chemistry. His father virtually handed the reins over to his son and in reality Harry ran the company from the time he was appointed manager in 1875 until his retirement in 1919. He was admitted a partner in 1893.

Powell had an investigative mind but not necessarily an ordered one. He tended to write everything down, either in note form or graphically. As a consequence, his copious notebooks and diaries contain a fascinating and disparate mixture of information; from the ingredients and formulae required for producing various colours of glass to observations on freak weather, the cost of coke used annually to fuel the glassworks’ furnaces and even the gas meter readings for his home in Alleyn Road. It is here we find the recipe for dark amber glass which could represent gold in stained glass windows and which he names as Dulwich in 1910 as requiring 28lb flint glass, 1lb 8 oz borax, 5lbs Devonshire ore and 1 lb of common manganese. The name ‘Dulwich’ also occurs in the colours of two examples of mosaic invented by Harry Powell shortly before his retirement in 1918; Dulwich flesh - thick, almost solid, and another version put on thinly for drapery. The notebooks were continued for the whole of his 45 years running the works. Failures were written up as well as successes.

He was chief designer of glassware at Whitefriars and his delicate designs of vases, bowls and glasses attracted a considerable following from the start, buoyed along first by the interest in the Arts & Crafts movement and later by enthusiasm for Art Nouveau. He exhibited widely both at home and abroad. In Britain his work was displayed at various Arts & Crafts Society and Royal Institution exhibitions but also at international fairs held in Turin and Paris. There is an example of his work in the British Museum and frequent glass fairs held around the country today illustrate display his skill.

From the start of his career he was interested in the history of glass and glass making. He had ancient glassware scientifically analysed and then experimented in replicating what he found. His interest in old glassware also extended to their design and in his notebooks, interspersed with his other jottings and observations, often written in a minute hand, are his careful and graceful drawings of ancient glassware, bowls and vases that he had observed in his trips abroad or in museums in England which he went on to adapt and produce commercially. These studies included Egyptian, Roman and Venetian glass. While he adopted their shapes he invariably used his own artistic skill to give them new decoration and colours.

As early as 1877 he was successful in producing new opalescent glass, two in particular were very popular in the American market, a milky opaque straw opal and blue opal. He was constantly experimenting. He found that by exposing glass to higher temperatures he could obtain changes in the colour. A dull red at 977 ºfhr became cherry red at 1472ºfhr and deep orange at 2012ºfhr and dazzling at 2732º

As manager of the glassworks he had the constant problem with costs of the coke-fired furnaces. The works was operating in a small space and when it became necessary to replace a furnace it presented a logistical nightmare. He was also responsible in negotiating the wages of the craftsmen and in 1904 when a national economic slump coincided with the arrival of cheap imports, he asked and got from the workers an agreement for a 5% reduction in wages with a promise that when trade improved the old rates would be reinstated. Another year, in an effort to increase production, he introduced an incentive scheme but was obliged to end it when it proved too expensive. During this difficult period, table glassware sales halved but the stained glass side of the business rose almost 50% as the demand for memorial windows in churches increased. It was, however, an increase in demand for scientific glass that would keep the company afloat.

Although Harry Powell was constantly experimenting to produce new coloured glass, an experiment in 1906 in which he introduced oxide of Tallurium to the flint glass and borax resulted in a pale pink shade, it was his development of toughened glass for thermometer tubes, optical glass and ultimately for toughened glass for use on naval mines in WW1 which not only earned him his CBE but brought the company through the difficult war years and able to expand vigorously afterwards.

Production of toughened glass required less space in Whitefriars’ cramped works than the decorative range thus allowing Powell to consider a number of applications for its use. Samuel Plimsoll was supplied with this glass for use in his improved miners’ lamps, X-ray tubes were produced in 1896 and thermometer glass the following year. Powell also developed special ‘eye-saving glass’ for optical use in the treatment of cataracts, glass which reduced heat and ultra-violet rays and bulbs for cathode ray lamps.

In 1905 his daughter Muriel married Herbert Baker, a brilliant chemist, who had been head of science at Dulwich College and then headmaster of Alleyn’s where he only remained for a year before proceeding to Oxford as Reader in Chemistry from 1904-12. The following year Baker was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Imperial College and later, during the Great War became scientific advisor to the War Office. He worked with his father in law in the development of the specially resistant glass for the ‘horns’ of the submarine mines. Whitefriars produced 600,000 of these glass horns, individually testing them by taking them from boiling water and plunging them in to ice cold water before dropping them twice onto a lead sheet from a height of 10 feet to test their strength. Other wartime developments were dense black glass for use in airmen’s goggles and production of artificial eyes.

When his uncle John died in 1914, the last of the three brothers, Harry took on the management of the window glass division of the company. His role was not the design or the setting out which was left to the talented James Hogan and his team, but for the production of the coloured and painted glass needed. Whitefriars had by then expanded into the American market and made a number of windows, including the great west window, for St John’s Cathedral, New York City; a remarkable coup considering the competition in New York from Tiffany’s.

Even before Harry joined the company, Whitefriars had produced opus sectile mosaics and had a long association with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, especially Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Philip Webb. One of Harry Powell’s tours abroad was to see the mosaics at Ravenna. He took a scientific interest as well as an artistic one in the production of mosaics. He found that it had been the custom to scrap fragments of flint glass contaminated with clay and he successfully experimented with grinding this surplus to a fine powder and baking it to make slabs for mosaics which were then enamelled. When he ran into difficulty with gold and platinum flaking off mosaics he solved the problem by reheating the slabs and pressing and stamping them with a criss-cross on the reverse.

Mosaics became an important aspect of work at Whitefriars from the 1890’s and prestigious commissions came to the company from St Paul’s, Liverpool and Westminster Cathedrals. At St Paul’s, the mosaics designed by Sir William Blake Richmond reflect the continuing popularity of Burne-Jones style of design while Westminster Cathedral’s tympanum embraced that of the Byzantine Revival. Locally, Harry Powell presented the beautiful mosaic reredoes depicting the Epiphany, to Christ’s Chapel, Dulwich where he was church warden and the company also made mosaics at Kings College Hospital. Other works around Dulwich by Harry Powell and Whitefriars were the stained glass east window of St Barnabas (destroyed in the fire of 1992) and several of the memorial windows at Christ’s Chapel and St Stephen’s.

It is remarkable that aside from his busy working life that he was able to serve the local community so generously. At the suggestion of Sidney Webb be became a governor of Dulwich College, an office he held for 21 years. He was deputy-chairman 1907-19. He also served as an Estates Governor and a governor of James Allen’s Girls’ School. He served on the first and second councils of the newly formed London County Council and the Board of Education committee of advice for Education and Art and the Technical Education Board. He lived at four different houses in Dulwich, Melford Lodge Underhill Road, 506 Lordship Lane, 125 Thurlow Park Road and 80 Alleyn Road. He announced his retirement in 1918 but continued working for a further two years before his death in 1922. In 1923 his book ‘Glass Making in England’ was published posthumously.

References The Whitefriars Glass Company Archive Museum of London
Dulwich College Archives

By Brian Green