Growing up in a small fishing village I have always had a fascination with lighthouses as I could see the light as it scanned the horizon each night and hear the beat of the foghorn as it warned ships of impending danger.
When I was 8 years old I met my first ‘lighthouse child’, a new arrival at our school from a recent assignment in the Orkneys, Brian Wright introduced me to Orkney Fudge and went on to become our football team goalkeeper until his family moved on to another lighthouse after their 3 year assignment at St Abbs Head was completed. We never kept in touch and I often wondered what became of Brian and his family as lighthouses shut down and a community of lighthouse keepers and their families diminished.
There have been a few reminders along the way. Some years ago a friend some used a massive bulb from a lighthouse lamp as an object in part of a lesson that he was teaching and recently I met a volunteer Scouter that had just purchased and restored a group of lighthouse cottages with some friends on St Anne’s head in Pembrokeshire.
I was; therefore, drawn to an article on the BBC website this week of an Australian man who travels the world recovering optics from Lighthouses that are being dismantled and using them to repair Lighthouses that are being restored – in effect he runs a lighthouse wreckers yard. His challenge is to find a glass blower that can produce glass of the quality that was used in the original Lighthouses.
The original manufacturers of the majority of Lighthouse lenses was a West Midlands based company called Chance Brothers Glassworks in Smethwick and manufactured glass used in everything from glazing the Houses of Parliament and the Crystal Palace to the production of novelty ashtrays. “If it was made in glass then Chance Brothers made it,” said Ray Drury, the firm’s final chief engineer, on its 150th anniversary.
When the company was founded in 1824, the world was changing rapidly. The booming shipping industry meant wrecks became a regular occurrence as more ships had to navigate treacherous coastlines. In response to this, Chance Brothers created optic lenses for lighthouses that were sent around the world, illuminating coasts and saving thousands of lives. However, since shutting its doors in 1981, the number of their lighthouses has dwindled and with it, the traditional skills needed to produce their hallmark glass.
Lighthouses are symbolic of a bygone era when British craftsmanship dominated a niche market in providing skills and products that were part of a technology boom, but failed to find other markets within which these skills could be continued as other technologies took over. The West Midlands meanwhile, is an area of the U.K. that has seen most of its traditional industries, and with them a whole range of specialist skills, lost to a new era of innovation and overseas competition.
The re-introduction of the apprentice system and the encouragement of UK organisations to create opportunities for skills development through this programme is certainly a positive step forward in providing young people with alternative career paths to Universities, particularly at a time when the introduction of University fees is causing many School-leavers to think very seriously about their options before ploughing ahead with incurring serious debt in return for their education. However, is this too little too late? The gap in preservation of these skills and the loss of most of these companies that were global leaders in their field means that the opportunity to develop these traditional skills is simply not there any more. Instead it is left to private entrepreneurs like the subject of the article, Melbourne based Tim Nguyen, to try and preserve, and perhaps even resurrect the skills of a bygone era.
The tides and lessons from change live with us and I hope that with the BBCs help that there might still be a spark left in some embers that could be fired up again. The bigger issue is how do we prepare ourselves for a Brexit in which we will once again need to differentiate ourselves distinctively in order to prove our worth in a much more competitive global marketplace. In the meantime I will use this as an inspiration in my own search for our former goalkeeper Brian and see what became of his journey, but also in our work at Emenex as we help organisations through transformational change to help employees across organisations to respond to and embrace the opportunities that innovation and global competition present.
Watch this space!