Glassmaking in Japan


This portrait of James Speed was kept by Shimada Magoichi, one of his trainees. The Japanese inscription was written by Magoichi’s son. It says ‘Meiji 12-16 (1879-83), Shinagawa Glassworks, Mr James Speed, British, my father’s teacher’. Reproduced with thanks to Magoichi’s great grandson, Shimada Osamu.

During the mid-Victorian period four British glassmakers were invited to Japan to assist in the establishment of a Western-style glassworks, from 1873 to 1883. One of them was James Speed whose daughter Agnes married into the Haden family.

For over two centuries Japan had been closed to the rest of the world. It had been a feudal society with a simple economy. But in the 1850s Western powers forced the country to open its doors. Excited by the things which Europeans showed them, the Japanese quickly decided to modernize their country and they particularly looked to Britain for help. Glassmaking in Japan at that time was mostly a high-status craft industry, producing small decorative or ritual objects. Pottery was used instead of glass vessels and windows were almost unknown. Traditional Japanese homes were built of light materials which could withstand the frequent earthquakes; these were not suitable for holding panes of glass.

But modernizing Japan wanted Western-style public buildings, factories and railway stations. Builders were taught how to make and use bricks and a lot of window glass was imported. The cost of imported window glass was very high so a plan was formed to have a sheet (window) glass factory in Japan. Some Japanese businessmen established a factory at Shinagawa, on the southern edge of Tokyo in 1873 and invited a manufacturer from Manchester to provide instruction.

This was Thomas Walton, the first of four British glassmakers who worked at Shinagawa. From 1874 to 1878 he built furnaces (a sheet glass furnace and a flint glass furnace) and gave instruction. But there was no success with sheet glass because it was too difficult for the trainees, and the company ran out of money.

The factory was bought by the Japanese government and James Speed arrived in 1879 to train many apprentices in sheet and flint glassmaking.

The other two instructors were Elijah Skidmore (crucible maker) and Emanuel Hauptman (Bohemian-born glass engraver and cutter).

But sheet glass failed again. As it was the only product which would make the factory truly viable, the glassworks was sold into private hands in 1884 and the British men left. The new owner brought in German expertise and a Siemens tank furnace, and made a profit for the first time with beer bottles, until problems caused closure in 1892. By 1908 the site was a pharmaceutical factory and no more glass was made there.

Shinagawa glassworks when owned by Sankyo pharmaceutical company after 1908
Shinagawa glassworks when owned by Sankyo Pharmaceutical Company after 1908

Skidmore and Speed, together with many of their Shinagawa trainees, went on to Osaka where a private flint glassworks was being established. It is uncertain how long the two British men stayed at Osaka, but Japanese records suggest that Speed went home after a few months and Skidmore at least by 1886, the year of his death in England.

Glass and bicycles, the twin industrial heritage of the Haden family