Highbury and the firm of Hardman: glazing and gas lighting

On November 16 1879 Joseph Chamberlain wrote to his daughter, Beatrice, about the progress with the building of their new house , Highbury at Moor Green:

the conservatory and fernery are complete or nearly so by Xmas and I hope all the windows will be in and glazed in the house by this time. Meanwhile plumbers, bell hangers, gas fitters etc etc are busily at work in their respective departments.[1]

In spite of his optimism Highbury would not be ready for occupation until mid-August of the following year,  partly due to considerable delays with the installation of the gas lighting. The glazing and much of the lighting was the work of the Birmingham firm of John Hardman and Company and the archives of the firm in the Library of Birmingham provide details of their commission and its execution.

The Hardman glass at Highbury falls into two categories: the standard window glazing of large panes of plain horticultural glass with leaded tinted cathedral glass in the upper lights, and special designs in several of the principal rooms.  The glazing was an important element in the architectural unity of John Henry Chamberlain’s design whereby all the windows whether on the attic floor or the service rooms or the families’ rooms shared a similar style of glazing, as did the entrance lodge The first reference to the glazing at Highbury had been in September 1879 in the Hardman’s Glass Order Book of April 1877-Dec 1879 (MS 175/A/4/3/2/8) and was for the box room ‘4 lights in 2 tints cathedral, 4 lights in horticultural one with casement’  and continued with orders for the dining room gable, the room over the kitchen, the china pantry and the servants’ hall. Further orders followed later that month for the windows of the morning room, drawing room,  bedrooms and the garden entrance.  ‘All the above to be geometrically leaded in cathedral glass in 2 tints casements ordered Oct 28.’ Whereas the tinted window lights in the lesser rooms were in rows of squares, in the principal rooms the designs were varied with circles and curves as in the windows of Beatrice’s bedroom and sitting room (below)and squares and stylised leaves in the breakfast room.

The order of September 29 1879 also included three special designs for windows in the hall. The designs are not described in the order book but can be ascribed to the architect as some can be discerned on the architect’s drawings of 1878, also in the Library of Birmingham (MS 1338). All these windows are set in stone mouldings in contrast to the mainly wooden casements in the rest of the mansion. The impressive window at the east end of  the hall, was design B3078. The  five lights have trefoil heads and there are  quatrefoils above. The glazing of the five lights is leaded in an irregular pattern of small red circles set in squares and lozenges with a large central quatrefoil of intertwining circles and straps with Celtic overtones and is in three colourways in shades of pinks and yellows.  The essence of the central quatrefoil design is repeated in the ornamental iron railing around the galleried landing. The quatrefoils at the top of the window are divided into five sections with freehand painting of designs of leaves.

Main window in the hall designed by J.H. Chamberlain and executed by John Hardman and Co. in 1880

 By contrast  the two windows on the stairs are an essay in natural history and this is continued in the carvings of the capitals of the archway at the top of the stairs. The first window, design B3082, is a double window with two lights with trefoil heads and a central quatrefoil above each, set in lancets.  One quatrefoil has a central circle of a heron and surrounding circles of scallop shells and the other has two owls in the central circle and autumn fruits and foliage in the other circles. The four main lights have geometric leading in two shades of blue and with a circle of mice, birds and shells respectively.  The second staircase window design, B3080, continues the vignettes of nature of the previous window. Two lights with foliate heads each have an inset circle, one of two swimming fish and the other of a robin. Above this is a sexfoil  with a central squirrel and stylised designs of artichokes and sunflowers. 

The four light and two light windows on the staircase, with details, designed by J. H. Chamberlain and executed by John Hardman and Co. in 1880

The most elaborate and expensive of the special windows  was for the bay in Joseph Chamberlain’s library, of 5 lights in cathedral glass with the top section ornamentally leaded with foliated patterns and set in circles with the heads of suitable literary subjects – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Caxton and Baskerville.

Joseph Chamberlain in his library with his private secretary, Mr Wilson. The upper lights of the bay window are ornamented with the heads of writers and printers. ©Illustrated London News 19 December 1903

The Hardman Glass Sales Day Book of July 1876-June 1882 (MS175/A/4/3/7/4 ) gives additional information on the costs of each element of the orders. The large hall window cost £8 5s with an additional 75 feet of ornamental painting costing £15 and one stanchion of saddle bars costing £1 4s. The first staircase window  cost £7.4. 8 with ornamental painting costing £6.15 . The staircase window of two lights, cost £2.2.0 with extra ornamental painting costing £4.10.0 The library bay window cost a total of £50.2.9 of which the special painting of the heads cost 5gns. These four windows cost the equivalent of £12,000 at today’s values.

If Chamberlain’s library glass was costly, concurrently with the Highbury  work the architect was ordering ornamental glass from Hardmans for his own house, Whetstone,s in Somerset road and for three pieces of glass containing heads of Giotto, Michaelangelo and Donatello J H Chamberlain was charged £111.6s (£14,000).

The Hardman glass at Highbury has survived in good condition overall particularly the special designs. There have been some losses. In the drawing room the doorway leading into the conservatory and the windows on either side originally had special designs, but in 1940 when the conservatory was demolished when Chamberlain House was built, the windows were blocked up and the glass from the top of one window was used to replace the original glass above the doorway. Some of the two tone leaded glazing has also been lost such as the garden door, the west window in the Library, now a door, and in several of the service rooms and servants’ bedrooms. Only one letter in the Hardman archives refers to the glazing which it appears was not finished by August 1880 (see below) but the glazing contract was relatively straightforward in contrast to the gas lighting contract which did not go smoothly.

Highbury was initially lit by gas and Hardmans did not receive the commission until May 1880. This was proceeded by enquiries from the architect, John Henry Chamberlain on April 20 about whether the firm could supply a brass fitting for a large lamp similar to one they supplied some years ago for Mr Chamberlain’s library at Southbourne. He required a further light for his new library but at the original cost. On April 30 the architect sent some drawings and sketches for the gas fittings at Highbury and further tracings from sketches on 2 June, a request for a detailed estimate having been sent on May 12. The contract was so large that it was decided to divide it and Hardmans were asked if they could agree to that. The other firm were Messrs Harts and it would appear that Hardmans did the fittings for the principal rooms. The Hardman Metal Sales Day Book for 1875-81 that would give the specification and price is too damaged to be consulted but the trials and tribulations of this contract can be traced from letters from the architect and the client to Hardmans. (MS175A/4/4/4/760 Jan-Dec 1880 Letters C)

On June 8 the architects sent Hardmans Joseph Chamberlain’s specifications for the chandelier in the hall:

the chandelier in the hall is to give a light equivalent of 20 five foot burners that being that which was found necessary when the experiment was made with plain rings. If there are fewer burners they must of course be more powerful but in any case it must be arranged that half the burners may be turned out at any time and not one side of the chandelier but alternative burners

Progress was slow and on August 10 1880 the architect sent the following letter:

Please do all that is in your power and more to hurry on your work both as to glazing and gas fitting. I cannot tell you how urgent this is. Mr Chamberlain is in a fever – he declares that Parliament is about to break up and he has no home to go in. I know we have written to you formally, but I write this to try and show you how urgent this matter is

The architect wrote about detailed specifications three days later:

Lugg’s burners give the best lights but may  not be suitable everywhere. Please see Mr Smith at the Gas Office. Regarding ventilating lights in the dining room and library Mr Chamberlain doesn’t want solid globes as dust collects at the bottom of them. His globes must be open at the bottom with a glass or opal tray suspended to catch any dust or soot and prevent it falling on the carpet

On August 26 Hardmans were informed that Mr Chamberlain’s sister and the servants ‘go into possession today and Mr Chamberlain and other members of his family on Saturday.’  The fittings were far from finished and there was no sign of the temporary light Hardmans had undertaken to supply for the hall, and on 6 September the architect stressed ‘Mr Chamberlain is particularly anxious to have the pendant in his breakfast room fixed tomorrow.’  A letter from the architects on 8 September headed ‘mansion at Moor Green’ reads:

We were at the above this morning and saw Mr Chamberlain. He is very much vexed that your share of the gas fittings is so much behind. Messrs Harts are all in their places and have been for some time. The family is greatly inconvenienced by the absence of yours. How is it that you cannot send to fix these fittings for Mr Clapp informed us that many are completed

On 11 September the gas pendant in the hall was still not up ‘if this pendant is not in a forward state we should be glad to omit it.’ A month later it was still not fitted, as a letter of 15 October makes clear:

We have been this morning to the above and are very much disappointed to find the gas fitting in the hall is not yet fixed and that your works so generally behind. You will remember that you made a definite promise with regards to this work as the whole of the other workmen are now clearing away from the house. Mr Chamberlain will be very much annoyed that your work is not complete

The hall at Highbury with the brass chandelier designed by J.H. Chamberlain and executed by John Hardman and Co. in 1880

A further letter on this pendant reads

‘Mr Chamberlain fixed the height of the pendant and we therefore  we think it had better not be altered. It will probably be possible to lengthen it upwards if he wishes it lower but his decision was come to after much consideration.’

The family had a narrow escape soon afterwards. In a letter of 29 October headed ‘ gas fitting in hall’ Mr Chamberlain had a very narrow escape of a gas explosion the night before last (Wednesday) owing to your men leaving three or four of the taps open through which the gas escaped into the hall and caused great trouble to Mr Chamberlain and his family to find out where the escape really was. We hope you have made arrangements so he can light his gas burner tomorrow as he has a large dinner party and does not want any trouble in this matter.’

Hardmans must have written on the same day to enquire about other problems because on November 1 Joseph Chamberlain wrote

Gentlemen in reply to your enquiries contained in your letter of 29 October I have to say I think the globes for the drawing room brackets would be better if they were quite plain and not cut, as the light shines through the cutting and it is rather dazzling. I should be much obliged if you would send me one or two plain ground globes to try. I should also wish the burners of these brackets to be altered to four feet the same as the two brackets already changed. The pendant appears to be at the right height from the floor and I do not think it can be improved in this respect.

The Highbury drawing room in 1888 with ‘the pedant’ supplied by John Hardman and Co. in 1880

There had been an earlier problem with the fitting of the drawing room lights as detailed by the architect in his letter of 15 October:

Mr Chamberlain will be very much annoyed that your work is not  complete with regard to the drawing room brackets. We think those each side of the fireplace will have to be moved nearer to the angle of the wall. This however can be easily done by putting in a bend without injuring the wall and paper materially. We do not know if you have noticed that two of the brackets against the conservatory door come in the wood panelling. This panelling has been fixed for many months and we hope you have adjusted your brackets in accordance with its requirements. We should be very glad if you would give these matters your very first attention

The final lighting was in the library. On 30 November the architect wrote ‘all the work in this room is completed with the exception of the gas pendant and as Mr Chamberlain is anxious to occupy  the room he is desirous of having this pendant fixed at your earliest convenience.’ It was still not fixed by December 20 when the architect wrote ‘Mr Chamberlain is very desirous to have his pendant fixed tomorrow. He has a large party on Wednesday and is particularly anxious to have the pendant up before that.’  However two days later ‘great disappointment to Mr Chamberlain not to get the pendants up today.’

By 30 December the pendant had been fixed but there was a further problem

‘Mr Chamberlain desires to call your attention to the burners you have put up in his library lights. He states that he particularly desired to have burners that would not hiss [hiss underlined twice]. Be good enough to attend to this as soon as you can.’

The last correspondence with Hardmans over the Highbury lighting was a postcard dated September 20 1881, ‘Please send a man up here to look to one of your chandeliers from which there is an escape of gas.’ The firm marked the card “no charge”.

The gas lighting at Highbury was subsequently adapted for electricity in several phases. Much of the house was lit by electric light by 1888 including the show glasshouses. A tour round them at night delighted Mary Chamberlain when she first arrived at Highbury in December 1888. It is claimed that Joseph Chamberlain designed the system himself which was powered by an engine near the stables. This  broke down and had to be replaced in 1891 at a cost of £150. It was not until 1905 that that the last of the bedrooms were lit by electricity ‘the electric light has to precede all decoration.’[2]

Phillada Ballard April 2022

[1] Chamberlain Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, BC/A/15 Joseph Chamberlain to Beatrice Chamberlain, Southbourne, Nov 16 1879

[2]  Chamberlain Collection, AC 4/3/1168 Mary Chamberlain to Mrs Endicott, Highbury, February 10 1905