Dumbarton's glassworks was established in 1777, and from 1800 to the 1830s was the most influential glassworks in Britain. In the few years before Queen Victoria's succession, 1814-1826, the glassworks produced 92.5% of all approved glass made in Scotland and 35.4% of glass purchased in England.
The most prominent owners of the glassworks were the Dixon family, who established control in 1817 which lasted until 1832. The Dixons became one of the wealthiest glass manufactures in Scotland and were closely involved in the life of Dumbarton, going as far as offering the town large sums of money to pay off debts. Three of the Town's Provosts were from the family: John Dixon, Provost from 1810-1821; Jacob Dixon, from 1822-1830; and Anthony Dixon, from 1831-32. After the sudden deaths of three of the Dixon family partners, James Christie bought the company in 1838 and operated it until its closure in 1850.
The glassworks owned, at various stages: five coal works; four tramways; two wharves; two bottle works; a brewery; a farm; and seven sailing vessels providing transport to other areas in Scotland, England and Ireland. The company also had shops or sold to others in Dumbarton, Glasgow, London, Liverpool and New York. It was a massive enterprise, almost completely self-sufficient, from the raw materials (coal) and kelp (burnt seaweed) to transport for the finished product.
Dumbarton glassworks extended over six acres. The glasshouses themselves, a distinct cone shape, dominated the town. The last one was finished in 1791 but collapsed as the scaffolding was being taken down, killing six men. It then had to be rebuilt. Dumbarton was so significant on the glassmaking stage that the accident was reported in The London Star on the 14th November 1791. It has been argued that the first glasshouse of the famous Pilkington Works was modelled on those of Dumbarton.
Initially, the company produced bottles but, early on in its history, switched to producing glass for windows. This involved a little used technique, Crown Glass. The popular method, at the time, was to produce glass using the Cylinder Method which meant that molten glass came into contact with other surfaces and became grimy and polluted.
The conditions in the glassworks were very uncomfortable. Work was extremely hot and the glasshouses were dark and had little ventilation. It is not surprising that the employees were described as "very decent fellows but given to drinking."
It is not known exactly how many men were employed in the Works, but three hundred is a popular estimate for workers at Dumbarton. Unskilled labour was recruited locally whilst craftsmen were imported from other parts of the United Kingdom, and even Europe. Thomas Gerrard, a skilled glassworker, was persuaded to work in Dumbarton from Pilkingtons in 1849. After nine months he left and went to Birmingham, and from there, to America and Canada where he worked as a blower in New Jersey, Montreal and Philadelphia. He then returned to the UK where he worked for Pilkingtons again, Sunderland, Nailsea and then returned to Pilkingtons. Craftsmen were in demand!
By 1850, the Glassworks had ceased to be a profitable business due to the repeal of tariffs on foreign glass. Cheaper imports flooded the markets and Christie sold his works to Alexander Denny who cleared the site to build his engineering works.