In the 16th century Rosedale was a hive of black-market glass-making. England’s only surviving furnace from the period is on show. MATT CLARK discovers its secrets.

ONLY a few shards remain these days. This is not surprising as the glass made in this furnace at Ryedale Folk Museum is more than 400 years old, but there are enough pieces to get you thinking.

Take this dainty bottle neck, which is green, not through choice, apparently, but because that's the colour you get with the sort of iron-rich soil found in these parts. Then there are fine pieces of handle, dimpled remains of vase, even elegant stems.

And all of it illegal.

This glass was made in the remote wilderness of Elizabethan Rosedale by a group of French refugees from a secret camp in the woods. Few could understand them, fewer still knew why they had come.

But we do now. Their furnace, which was discovered in Rosedale in the 1960s, is identical to those of the period found in northern France. Another clue came from the church records at nearby Lastingham, which between 1567 and 1597 lists foreign names that never appear again.

That is almost the precise period of the French Civil War.

These men were Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution at home. They were also master glass workers, who, on arriving in England, found a nasty surprise waiting.

In the 16th century a special licence was required to produce glass and not many were granted. Indeed London based Italian Jacopo Verzelini had the monopoly for making drinking vessels.

So there was only one thing for it, go under cover.

Rosedale proved to be a perfect spot. Isolated from built-up areas and prying official eyes, it also boasted local sand and lime, thick broadleaved woods, to both hide in and to provide fuel for the furnace, plus a key ingredient, bracken, which when burned yields sodium oxide that helps sand melt.

There was also clay in abundance to make heatproof crucibles in which the ingredients were melted.

The men looked no further.

"Their glass was made on the sly, in furnaces hidden in the woods and sold illegally on the black market," says Jennifer Smith of Ryedale Folk Museum.

"There was one in Rosedale, one in Hutton-le-Hole and another Farndale, so although there may have been only one official glass maker in England, within five miles we had three."

The Museum's Huguenot furnace was found by accident in 1968. Until then no one ever imagined the area had been a centre for glass.

There was no mention of it by historians, but when archaeologist Raymond Hayes was out searching for ancient iron mines, he instead stumbled over something that would rewrite the history books.

York Press:
Archaeologists work on the Elizabethan black market glass furnace where it was discovered in Rosedale

As was the fashion in the Sixties, the furnace was later dismantled and carted to the Ryedale Folk Museum. No mean feat across inhospitable moors with stones weighing up to half a tonne.

This is is the only reconstruction of its sort in Britain and today a new thatched cover will be unveiled, which Jennifer says will play a vital role in the furnace's conservation.

"There was a shelter until four years ago which came down in a heavy snow. Ever since the base has been subject to the elements. Now we have received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to put up this lovely oak framed and thatched building, which is probably similar to the original."

One puzzle has never been solved, though: why was the furnace suddenly abandoned? The answer could be as simple as the French Civil War coming to an end in 1598 and Henri de Bourbon's Edict of Nantes which gave Huguenots widespread religious liberty, not to mention the chance to come home.

But there are other, more clandestine, possibilities. In 1592 the monopoly to make vessel glass was granted to Sir Jerome Bowes, Verzelini's successor, and he was in no mood to let bootleggers stand in his way.

Sir Jerome insisted all illegal furnaces were closed and he dispatched his men the length and breadth of the land to see to it. Whether they arrived in Rosedale isn't known, but it could well be why the French left in such a hurry.

Another theory is that it was all James I's fault. When he took the English throne, the king banned the burning of timber, preferring, instead, to keep it for ship building. That simple act soon put paid to forest glass-making in England and with no job, why else would these Huguenot artisans stay in freezing cold North Yorkshire?

"In its day, this was an organised cottage industry and being so remote who would bat an eyelid?" asks Jennifer. "Keeping the right people, locally, on their side probably meant they did pretty well."

A good point, after all a bunch of foreigners turning up in a rural backwater must have got tongues wagging, especially as they all disappeared surreptitiously into the woods. What on earth were they doing in there? people must have thought.

"I also wonder who the glass was sold to," says Jennifer. "From the shards of debris discovered during the excavation, we can see it was beautiful stuff. Was it being transported to York or London? And how was it getting around if it was illegal?"

Ryedale Folk Museum's Elizabethan glass furnace will be featured in BBC One's Secret Britain next Wednesday.

The museum is open daily until December 6. Admission charges are adults £7, children £6 family (two adults and two children) £22.50. Concessions, group and school rates apply

Contact: Tel: 01751 417367