Post-industrial Landscapes between the Rhône and the Loire: The Glassworks of Givor
By Nadine Halitim-Dubois
There is a territory between the Rhône and the Loire which forms a dividing line between the two basins, both marked by a strong industrial identity. The landscapes have been shaped by economic activity, and are made up of built structures along with topography, the hydrographic network and the communicating pathways which have had a direct impact on the territory.
Perhaps one should question “the traces and memories of industry” which exist in this territory – common and singular spaces, generated by deindustrialization. In the particular case of the glassmaking industry and the large glassworks which were important elements in the territory at the end of the 18th century, one continues to find in these landscapes elements which are true signs, such as the chimney-water tower, the final man-made construction of the Glassworks of Givors.
In the middle of the 18th century, the state decided to limit the felling of trees which supplied glassworks, large consumers of energy, with charcoal. The beginning of the exploitation of coalmines that occurred during the same period in the valley of the Gier provided an alternative solution and attracted glassmakers to a region where they had been few and far between.
In 1780, the opening of a canal between Givors and Rive-de-Gier, allowed the sand taken from the Rhône (required for the manufacturing of glass, combined with a compound of soot, potash and alkaline-earth products heated to a temperature of 1,500°) to be transported near to the coal mines, and this was an important factor in the boom experienced by the industry. Thus the glassmakers were pioneers in the industrialization of this area of the coal field of the Loire, preceding the master iron-makers by a number of years. More than 10 glassworks were set up close to Givors, with a number of them moving their from Franche-Comté, a region which had benefitted from a royal privilege, accorded in 1749 for a period of 20 years, which gave it a monopoly on glass production in France.
It was after this privilege expired in 1800 that Melchior Neuvesel, in association with a glassmaker from Franche-Comté, Henri Bollot, created the firm “Bollot-Neuvesel et Cie” in Givors, locating it in the so-called “port des verriers” (port of the Glassworks). In 1819 the company was dissolved, with Melchior holding onto two ovens, and then, in association with his brotherJoseph, he founded the company “Neuvesel Frères”. In 1853, the glassworks became part of the “Société Générale des Verreries de la Loire et du Rhône”. This structure grouped together glassworks located in Saint-Etienne, Rive-de-Gier and Givors. Jean-Baptiste Neuvesel was part of the board of Directors and went on with Jean-Baptiste Momain in 1864, to create “les Nouvelles Verreries de Givors” (“The new Glassworks of Givors”), where he would remain the merchant-owner, after the purchase of the glassworks by Jean-Baptiste May et Cie on the site where the glassworks is currently located.
In 1869, his son Fleury joined the firm to take charge of accounting and exercise the trade of glass blower. At the time the glassworks possessed 3 fusion ovens with 8 large crucibles, each having 10 places, as well as the usual annexes, such as steam presses, a brickworks, crucible chambers, a forge and a wickerworks. It produced hollow glass, bottles, canisters of all sizes and shapes with its crucible ovens, with all of the operations being done by hand at the time.
1878 saw the introduction of an important innovation, with the 3 existing ovens being transformed into Siemens ovens, thus reducing energy consumption and allowing the continuous manufacture of a large quantity of products. This would lead to the introduction of a night shift.
In 1900, Fleury Neuvesel took over from his father Jean-Baptiste. His daughter Marie married Eugène Souchon, an engineer in the company who would become Director of the glassworks in 1907. The first semi-automatic Boucher machines were installed in a new oven. This was the first move towards the mechanization of the glass industry which would be transformed gradually, “blowing” once done by the breath and mouths of men was now done with compressed air. This new boom would generate a number of economic agreements with mineral water companies: Vittel, Evian and Vals.
In 1921, production was completely mechanized with machines manufactured by O’Neill and Lynch and feeders made by Rankin allowing glass “gathering” operations to be performed automatically. In the period between 1939 and 1945, the factory was bombed a number of times by allied planes. In 1970, the merger between VSN (hollow glass) and the glaces de Boussois (sheet glass), gave birth to the firm BSN, “Boussois-Souchon-Neuvesel”, headed by Antoine Riboud. In 1986, the Verreries Mécaniques Champenoises (VMC) became part of the group. In 1993 and 1994, BSN reinforced its sheet glass activities on a European level and undertook a strategy of diversification in food and drinks packaging: Kronenbourg, Evian…
All of this led to a merger between BSN and Gervais-Danone in 2001. At the time 300 people worked in the glassworks located in Givors. Following the merger, the company abandoned the sheet glass activity in order to focus on food packaging. Very quickly it was planned to close the factory down in late 2002. A sign was placed at the entry to the workers’ allotments located beside the factory which indicated that the firm VMC would be recovering possession of the land on March 31st, 2003. The Givors site of the firm VMC-BSN-Glasspack, which had been bought by O-I Manufacturing, finally closed down between January 15th (technical closure) and June 2003 (administrative closure).
Throughout its history the number of employees has varied according to the number of ovens. In 1864, there were 55 workers for a single oven (not counting the children), in 1869, with 3 ovens it grew to 300 workers. With the arrival of the Siemens oven in 1878, the number increased to 400 glassworkers, and from 1911 to 1930, 600 people were employed in the glassworks, including seasonal workers. This number would decrease at the beginning of the First World War to around 480 people.
For a number of years a collective procedure pushing for recognition of work related illnesses was attempted by the glassmakers. In early 2017, the Court of cassation confirmed the judgement given by the Court of appeals of Lyon which recognized the cancer that killed a glassworker in Givors, who had been exposed to asbestos dust and the fumes of oils that had been transformed into PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) for over 33 years, as a work related illness.
And so today the last visible remaining trace of this history of glass is the chimney, with its conic structure rising to a height of 51.65 m. It supports a 200m3 water tower which sits on top of it, 16 meters from the ground. Added in 1929, it is an unusual and atypical feature in the landscape surrounding Givors. Lacking the protection of historical monuments, having no protection at all in fact, it continues to remain standing perhaps because it is well placed, aligned with the street, and perhaps because of how much it would cost to demolish due to the decontamination work that would be required.
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Translated by Derek Byrne
Nadine Halitim-Dubois is an historian and researcher attached to the heritage departement (direction de la culture et du patrimoine) for the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. She is a member of the regional commission of architecture and heritage and of the scintific comity for the Tony Garnier Urban Museum.