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  • Archaeologists provide a glimpse of living and working conditions in nineteenth century Castleford, on the site of the town’s bus station.

Between the demolition and rebuilding of Castleford bus station, in April and May 2014, a team from Wessex Archaeology excavated the site to establish whether any Roman activity had taken place in the area, which is just to the west of the vicus, the civilian settlement which sprung up alongside the fort of Lagentium. However, before reaching the Roman level, the excavators uncovered a fascinating – and possibly historically significant – slice of mid- to late-nineteenth Victorian Castleford, both domestic and industrial.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century this was the site of one of two bottle works, owned by Sykes Macvay & Co, both of which were named the Albion Glass Works (the other was on a site further along Albion Street close by the railway crossing, currently the home of CBR Engineering and previously part of the United Glass/John Lumb & Co plant). In 1890 the world’s first bottle-moulding machine, patented by Ferrybridge iron foundry owner H M Ashley and Josiah Arnall four years previously, went into production at one of the Albion Glass Works sites, revolutionising the manufacture and use of bottles by eliminating the manual blowing of glass and allowing a threaded neck to be created for use with a screw top. The so-called ‘plank machine’ could produce bottles at ten times the rate of a five-man team of glassblowers, meaning Castleford – and perhaps this site – led the world in transforming bottle-making from a time-honoured manual operation to the industrial process it remains today.

Sykes Macvay advert

At the time of this posting, only the half of the bus station nearest Albion Street had been demolished and excavated: hopefully, the coming weeks will see the rest of the site undergoing the same treatment, since more of the bottle works lies beneath there.

February 205 update: the rest of the site was not excavated since it only forms the parking and turning area for the buses and thus a simple resurfacing sufficed.

Please refer to the extract from the 25 inches to 1 mile Ordnance Survey map of 1892, at the end of this post, for the position of the excavated features in the pictures which follow.

Albion St 1

Picture A

This shows part of the floor and internal brick structures of one of the glasshouses (these were circular or, in this case, square buildings with a central chimney in which the raw materials were smelted and the glass then blown or moulded) of the Albion Glass Works. Most of the visible bricks have indentations – ‘frogs’ – indicating they are machine-made, rather than hand-cut, and so will date from the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century. However, the bricks forming the centre part of the floor which runs diagonally across the picture (the section from which a number are missing) are made from a lighter clay and look as though they might be older firebricks. Towards the far corner of the building, the bricks appear blackened, either by burning or having ash and cinders dumped on them. The stepped-up area of solid brickwork is possibly a base for machinery.

Albion St 2

Picture B

This cambered and kerbed surface appears to be an external roadway within the Albion Glass Works. Reference to the 1892 map suggests it was accessed via a ginnel off Albion Street. It was located to the west of the glasshouse shown in Picture A and has been cut by a later trench, possibly during construction of the bus station in the 1960s. Although it was the location of a world-leading breakthrough in glass production, the Albion works did not impress one of the company’s shareholders, who told the 1890 annual general meeting he had “never in my life seen such a disjointed, disconnected, slovenly place as Castleford. It was a disgrace to the company”.

Albion St 3

Picture C

The two lines of bricks running diagonally across the picture, with another line of bricks running between them at an angle of 90 degrees, are possibly the bases of the front, rear and dividing walls of two ‘one up, one down’ cottages, part of a terrace on the west side of the former Albion Place. This was a typical yard or court, running off Albion Street at right angles, although there were only houses on one side of the yard, the other (east) side comprising a wall dividing it from the rear yards of properties on parallel Wainwright Street. The backs of the houses abutted directly on to the Albion Glass Works and, most likely, did not have windows or doors on that side. Note how the walls are only a single course of bricks, indicating how cheaply-built were such houses. The poor condition of the visible bricks and lack of indentation indicates they date from the pre machine-produced period, that is earlier than around the mid-1860s.

Albion St 4

Picture D

Cellars of a pair of houses in a terrace on the west side of the former Wainwright Street. As with the foundations on Albion Place, note the poor-quality hand-cut bricks and single-course construction. The block of undisturbed soil between the two cellars suggests a gap between the two houses, in which case they can be identified on the 1892 map as those standing either side of a passageway through to a small yard at the rear. It was in a house in this vicinity that Benjamin Babbage, who inspected the state of the town after the 1849 cholera outbreak, found a family of eight – including a son aged twenty-four and a daughter aged nineteen – sleeping in a 13ft by 8ft room: the inhabitants of the hovels in this picture must have suffered similar privations, since their equally cramped dimensions are clear to see.

Albion St 5

Picture E

Looking across the site from east to west, standing on the course of Wainwright Street with the cellar of one of the two houses detailed in Picture D in the foreground. The stone slabs among the rubble may be hearths or steps. In the background can be seen the base of a wall of much more solid construction: closer inspection showed it to be three courses thick on a four-course foundation, although still constructed from hand-cut bricks and thus likely to be either contemporary with, or not much later than, the houses on Albion Place and Wainwright Street. The glasshouse in Picture A is in front of the line of orange barriers in the background; the road surface in Picture B is behind them.

Albion Glass Works

The Albion Glass Works and surrounding area: the letters A–E show the location of the features in Pictures A–E. Right-click to open a full-size version in a separate window.