Victorian furnace for making flint glass

Monday 18 December 2017 6:45pm

The Swedenborg Society
20-21 Bloomsbury Way (Hall entrance on Barter St)
London WC1A 2TH

For a PDF map of the venue please click here

Free – booking recommended
Book here

In the spring of 1873 the foundations for a revolutionary new glass factory were laid in Shinagawa, Tokyo, the like of which had never been seen in Japan before. Employing British experts and, within ten years, making all kinds of common and industrial goods, it completely transformed the Japanese approach to glass, and set the seed for the country’s primary role in glassmaking across the world today. This lecture presents the story of one of those British men, Thomas Walton, the man who knew about furnaces.

At the time, Japanese glass craftsmen understood very little about how glass was then being made in Europe, where ordinary products such as glass for windows, the domestic table and science had long been mastered. But from about the 1860s as Japan began to modernise, they wanted to learn all the latest Western techniques, recipes and fashions so they could bring to market the kinds of glassware which modern Western countries had.

The beating heart of any glass factory is a set of furnaces, and it was Thomas Walton from Manchester, England, who shouldered the responsibility of setting up Japan’s first Western-style industrial glass furnaces in the 1870s. This illustrated lecture will explore his background in the Victorian glass industry, his interesting experience at Shinagawa and the significance of his contribution to Japan.

A set of Edo kiriko glass pieces by artist Toru Horiguchi will be displayed on the day. We are grateful to Horiguchi Kiriko for its support.

Sally Haden was born in 1948 into a family steeped in British manufacturing, including the Victorian glass industry. It was the discovery eleven years ago that her Scottish great grandfather taught glassmaking in early Meiji Japan which set her on the path to becoming a glass historian, with a special interest in the transfer of glass technology to Japan. Her writing has been published by the Society of Glass Technology, the Glass Association, and the Association for Glass Art Studies, Japan, and she has twice visited Japan to do first hand research and meet leading glassmakers and manufacturers.

To reserve your place, please call the Japan Society office on 020 3075 1996 or email


A. B. Mitford and the Birth of Japan as a Modern State: Letters Home
by Robert Morton
Renaissance Books (2017)
ISBN-13: 978-1898823476

Review by Sir David Warren

Algernon Bertram (“Bertie”) Mitford was one of the earliest British diplomats in Japan: he served in the Legation there from 1866 to 1870. He was born into an aristocratic family of letters. His great-grandfather William wrote a five-volume History of Greece, and one of his mother, Lady Georgina Ashburnham’s, ancestors had attended on Charles I on the morning of his execution (the family retained the King’s bloody shirt as a keepsake, until Mitford’s grandmother inadvertently washed it). Japan was a small element of Mitford’s life, but his occasional writings on the country reached a wide audience in Britain and helped to fuel the enthusiasm for things Japanese in the 1870s and 1880s.

Mitford himself left the Foreign Office in 1873. He was a success as Secretary to the Board of Works (appointed by Disraeli) from 1874 to 1886, when he resigned on inheriting an estate and a fortune from his cousin. Thereafter, he concentrated on rebuilding the estate and garden, and on his writing, publishing his memoirs in 1915, by which time he had been elevated to the peerage as the first Baron Redesdale. He died the following year at the age of 79. He was an affectionately-regarded member of the aristocratic society of his time: ‘he had the dandy’s charm’, as his admirer Edmund Gosse wrote in his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Robert Morton’s excellent and readable biography gives a sympathetic portrait of the man and an evocative study of his life and times. Mitford, like his friend and colleague Ernest Satow, was an eye-witness of the events leading up to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. He had arrived in Japan after the clashes at Kagoshima and Shimonoseki, in which Britain and the other great Powers had asserted their rights under the commercial Treaties they had forced the Shogun’s administration to sign as the country opened up in the 1850s. The foreign Powers’ focus was now on enforcing trading links.

The Shogun’s government was weak, in the face both of foreign pressure and of the rebellion of the daimyo (feudal lords), loyal to the Emperor. Some daimyo were determined to follow the Emperor’s call for the foreign barbarians to be expelled. Others, including some younger samurai who had illegally travelled and studied abroad, saw the value of acquiring Western know-how as they forged a new and united Japanese nation. The British, and their main rivals the French, had to promote their interests in a volatile and uncertain environment, where it was not clear who was in charge or how the struggle for power would play out.

There was an element of the adventurer and dilettante about Mitford. As a young man about town in London, his social contacts – he was a friend of the Prince of Wales – had taken him effortlessly into the Foreign Office, although he had chosen to serve in China and Japan, well outside the traditional charmed circle of European Chancelleries. He was an excellent linguist, as Satow observed in his memoirs, and clearly also a brave and resourceful man. The Minister under whom he worked in the Legation, Sir Harry Parkes, left Mitford alone and in charge of the British representation in Osaka from March to July 1868, after the Powers had presented their credentials to the newly-restored Emperor Meiji; he discharged his responsibilities very capably.

He was also interested in, and sensitive to, the strange and unfamiliar culture in which he was now living and working. The assorted collection of stories and sketches he published in 1871, Tales of Old Japan, was admired by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lafcadio Hearn; and his eye-witness account of a hara-kiri – the first published in English – was quoted approvingly by Japanese authors. While he gave an exaggerated impression of Japan as a country of great violence and bloodshed, he also helped to give British readers a more human sense of the Japanese people, rooted in a respect for their values and culture.

Mitford’s actual career as a diplomat was brief. The policy of the British Government in the pre-Meiji period was one of strict neutrality between the Shogun and the daimyo, and while ‘it is reasonable to speculate’, as Robert Morton writes, that Mitford may have interpreted this flexibly, and sent encouraging signals to the daimyo that a challenge to the Shogun would not be unwelcome to the British, there is little evidence that he was a figure of real influence. Mitford’s reactions to Japan are often superficial: he recast the most disobliging of them in his later writings. Shortly after his arrival in Japan, he wrote to his father: ‘I hate the Japanese. Treachery and hatred are the only qualities which they show to us’. Six months later, he is still complaining: ‘[Japan] is the most overpraised country I ever saw … and as for the people, my contempt for them is boundless’.

In his memoirs, however, he intimates that he fell in love with the country more or less at first sight, after the inevitable disappointment of arriving in this new fairy land in the pouring rain: ‘… suddenly coming in full view of Mount Fuji … I was caught by the fever of intoxication … which burns to this day, and will continue to burn in my veins to the end of my life’. There is a sentimental streak in his attitude to Japan. He describes the hara-kiri he witnessed not as a horrific mediaeval ceremony, but as an act of self-sacrifice of which a Victorian gentleman could approve, and the violent ronin marauding around the country as ‘somewhat disreputable knights-errant’. His values are those of the Victorian aristocrat – traditional and conventional. He bounded between extremes of enthusiasm and revulsion. The man he was working for, Sir Harry Parkes, slightly caricatured in this book as no more than a belligerent brute (although he was generous in his appreciation of Mitford’s work), was a harder-headed and ultimately shrewder judge of where Britain’s interests lay and how to promote them.

In telling Mitford’s story, Robert Morton draws not only on his published writings and official records, but also on his letters to his father, uncovered in the 1980s by Sir Hugh Cortazzi. His use of multiple sources is expert, and he wisely structures the book so as to focus on Mitford’s years in Japan, in which he was an engaging observer of a fascinating and tumultuous period of change. And he draws a portrait of Mitford which is fair and judicious, giving full rein to the man’s generosity of spirit while not ignoring his other qualities. Mitford was louchely typical of his era in several ways. In common with many young foreign men in Japan, he had a Japanese mistress and fathered an illegitimate child; and although he had a long and successful marriage, with nine children, he also had many affairs, including it is believed with his wife’s elder sister, which may possibly have made him the father of Clementine Hozier, who married Winston Churchill.

It is unfair to attribute to him the racist attitudes of his two ghastly grand-daughters, Unity Mitford and Diana Mosley: he was not an anti-Semite. But the admiring introduction he wrote to the pro-Aryan writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, can most kindly be described as an unwise hostage to fortune, not least as many years later it enabled Hitler to tell the two Mitford girls what an honour it was to be visiting the grave of Wagner with the grand-daughters of the great Lord Redesdale. He later retracted his admiration for Chamberlain. But the episode was typical of Mitford’s impetuous inconsistency where other writers would have proceeded with greater care.

Robert Morton handles all these difficult areas with good sense. He also writes fluently and accessibly: this is a book which can be read without a detailed knowledge of the complex politics of Japan as it began to open up to the outside the world in the 1860s. He tells Mitford’s story with a sense of proportion. Mitford was not a profound analyst of the dramatic developments through which he lived. But he was a sympathetic observer of Japan, and his affection for it helped to build greater knowledge of Japan among British people and a deeper understanding of the country. And his official and personal papers give us a lively impression of a historical moment of great significance. Robert Morton’s biography is a fitting memorial.

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