Guilherme Stephens (1731–1803)

In eighteenth-century Portugal, Guilherme (originally William) Stephens developed the glass industry and gained a national monopoly, with his brother João Diogo (originally John James, 1747–1826).

Stephens was born in Cornwall, England, where his father was a schoolteacher. At the age of around 15, after his parents died, he went to work with his uncle, John Stephens, who was a merchant in Lisbon. He trained there as an accountant but their business was ruined by the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In 1757, still in his mid-20s, Stephens proposed building lime kilns at Alcântara using imported coal from Britain to make mortar for reconstruction. He was awarded loans and a monopoly by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (later Marqués de Pombal), the Portuguese Secretary of State, who became his patron. The reconstruction of Lisbon was delayed by the Seven Years War but by 1764 the limekilns were prospering.

In 1769, Pombal gave Stephens the opportunity to make window glass for the reconstruction by taking over the failed royal glass works at Marinha Grande, north of Lisbon. The works had been established first at Coina south of Lisbon in 1719 and was relocated to Marinha Grande in around 1747 by the Irish glass-maker John Beare to use local supplies of sand and charcoal. Stephens expanded the works with finance from Pombal. He built new workshops, brought experienced workers from England and Genoa and was given rights to take charcoal from the Leiria pine forest. The glass was shipped 150 km to the capital. Initially the works had 68 employees but within three years there were 300 people making window glass and some tableware. In 1773 Stephens was awarded the monopoly to supply glass for Portugal and its colonies.

Exceptionally for this period, Stephens provided a school, medical care, pensions and even a theatre to promote music and drama. He remained well connected with the government: both Pombal and Queen Maria stayed with him in the grand villa he built in the middle of the town. His brother João inherited the business, becoming probably the richest man in Lisbon. The factory thrived until Napoleon’s invasion when it was taken over. João reconstructed the furnaces in 1812 and whe he died in 1826 the glassworks was left to the Portuguese government. Marinha Grande is still the leading centre for glassmaking in Portugal. The mansion Palácio Stephens is a museum of the glass industry.