One of the things André and I love most about our job is meeting so many interesting and talented people from all walks of life. When we met Cath and Alan Bell last year, of Bell's Glass & Glazing, Rainham, we were fascinated by their family story and delighted to be asked to collaborate on a piece of work that would help them celebrate a truly special occasion....
A glass slipper changed the life of Cinderella forever, but she’s not the only one for whom glass has been rather lucky. This year heralds the celebration of 70 years in the glass trade for one Kentish business, that has been passed down from father to son for three generations, with help from a fourth!
HR Bell, as it was then known, was established in 1947 by glazing contractor Harry Bell in the city of Canterbury. Harry was born in 1915 and learnt his trade working for another glass company that went out of business. Like many young men of his generation, he spent some time in the army, but decided after the Second World War to start his own glazing business. After the war, glass was in very short supply, so he had to travel all the way to London to collect each sheet of glass, but business soon flourished thanks to contacts gained during his training and plenty of work due to Luftewaffe bombing damage in Kent. Even Harry’s father-in-law helped out in the business by re-silvering mirrors in his garden shed, due to the expense of buying new mirrors in post-war Britain.
Harry was a real character, and well known in the local area for transporting the sheets of glass using his motorbike and sidecar, with his brave wife Norah, crouching in the sidecar beside him, clinging onto the glass for dear life as he zoomed along the Kentish roads. As business improved, Harry was able to invest in some small vans to replace the famous motorbike…much to Norah’s relief, no doubt!
Within a couple of years, the family business had already grown enough to employ 18 members of staff, but his family remembers him as not having been overly keen on having a business at all - wishing to avoid the stress that often comes with it. However, the demand was there and the success of the business snowballed and, much to the appreciation of younger members of the family, he decided to stick with it.
Sadly, Harry’s life was cut tragically short in a gliding accident at Rochester airport in 1967 aged just 52, and his son Mike Bell, who shared his passion for gliding as a hobby, was left to pick up the pieces of the business after the loss of his father.
Although Mike initially felt he had no choice in the matter of taking over the family firm, he soon developed a great passion for the business and with a strong worth ethic he pushed the company forward into new directions. By the 1980s, Mike had grown the company to having 95 employees and several branches, but still thought of it as a family business and employed people who he thought would love working with him and whom he saw as extended members of the family.
Michael retired in 1996 and now the business (these days trading as Bell’s Glass & Glazing in Rainham) is managed with pride and passion by Michael’s son, Alan Bell, who continues it as a largely family-run business; with his own children, Charlotte and Thomas, learning the glass trade with plans to follow in the footsteps of their father, grandfather and great-grandfather before them. Alan believes the lasting success of the business is down to following in the work ethic of his father and grandfather before him, being the first one in and the last to leave each day; high standards of work with good, consistent customer relationships and a really personal service that you get from dealing with a reliable Kentish family business.
In honour of this amazing family achievement of 70 years in the glass trade, Alan and his wife, Cath, looked around for a special way to celebrate their business success and mark a very important milestone for the whole family. This is when Cath approached Rockabelly Lifecasts and asked us about creating a bespoke piece of art for Bell’s showroom. We were delighted to help Alan and Cath and set to work creating a unique piece of art formed from casts of Cath and Alan’s entwined hands recreated in…of course…glass! The lead crystal glass sculpture took many weeks to produce and every stage of the process was hand-made to Cath and Alan’s specifications.
“When Cath and Alan approached me,” CJ said, “I wanted to create something for them that paid homage to the nature of their family business, the beauty of the medium of glass itself, and also reflected the close family ties that have given the business its strength over the years.”
Now Cath and Alan Bell have been immortalised in glass sculpture in celebration of 70 years and counting with this wonderful Kentish family business, and they look forward to passing on the baton to their own children when they are ready to take the reins. We hope you will join us in wishing this very special family business a very happy anniversary indeed.