Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson has one major question about his family tree: “What happened to the money?”
He’s not talking about riches from the Clarkson side of his family, who all turn out to have lived in and around the town of Tickhill in Yorkshire, but the Kilners, who once owned a thriving glass manufacturing business.
The Kilner Jar, a rubber-sealed screw-topped affair, was famously used by cooks for vacuum-sealing food, such as homemade jams and preserves. Jeremy knows that a Kilner owned one of the first cars, the equivalent of owning a private jet today, so there was certainly cash around. However, a family quarrel means Jeremy’s mother never saw her own grandmother, Annie Kilner, so she knows little about her family.
To learn more, Jeremy needs to head to Yorkshire. It was here that Jeremy’s remarkable great-great-great-great grandfather, John Kilner (1792-1857), worked in the glass trade. He formed a partnership with four friends, who raised a working capital of £70. However, Jeremy finds “just weeds” at the former site of their factory in Whitwood.
Fifteen years later, John decided to go it alone, setting up a factory in Thornhill Lees. Soon, there were two factories, with a second site at Conisbrough. By 1894, the family business was manufacturing more than 3,000 different varieties of bottles and jars. The company owned warehouses in London so it could sell its wares in the capital.
The latter part of the 19th century was hugely successful for the Kilners. During the Victorian era, there were no death duties, so the firm passed intact to John’s four sons, George (Jeremy’s great-great-great grandfather), William, John and Caleb, who each started on the shop floor. In 1862, Kilner Brothers won a medal at the Great Exhibition. George’s son, Caleb (1843-1920), oversaw the business at its peak.
That’s not to say the family didn’t face problems.
In Huddersfield, Jeremy sees papers related to an 1871 court case brought by the estate of the Earl of Scarborough against the Kilners. It was argued that smoke from the Thornhill Lees factory was polluting land around the factory. The judge ruled against the Kilners arguing that, “no man has the right to interfere with the supply of pure air”.
The Kilners were given three months to buy six gas furnaces at the then huge cost of £1,500 each. Jeremy has stumbled on the “dawn of Greenpeace”. No fan of environmentalists, he’s not impressed, preferring to point out that Huddersfield’s grand civic buildings were “paid for by smoke”.
But the Kilners absorbed the cost and when new investment was needed with mechanisation in the early 20th century, the Kilners invested in the latest American technology. So what exactly did go wrong? Why did the Kilners’ business fail?
The answer lies in changes to the glass industry in the first part of the 20th century, when British manufacturers faced increased competition. For the Kilners, this led to a spectacular reversal of fortune, which comes home to Jeremy when he visits his great-great grandfather Caleb’s former home, Ivanhoe Lodge.
The current owner found a copy of Caleb’s will in the attic. Caleb left a substantial fortune to his son, George, yet George mortgaged the family home in 1931. To have survived and prospered, the Kilners would have needed to knock down their factories and build again with new machinery, probably in partnership with another manufacturer. Instead, the business closed in 1937.
Nevertheless, as he meets the current holder of the Kilner Jar trademark in Cheshire and learns the jars are still being manufactured, Jeremy isn’t too downhearted. Long fascinated by Victorian engineers, he’s proud to have ancestors who were integral to the “patchwork quilt of ingenuity” that made the industrial revolution.