Penrose, George (1722–96), merchant and co-founder of the Waterford glass works, was born 5 September 1722, ninth son among twelve children of William Penrose I, merchant, and Margaret Penrose (née Godfrey), of Co. Waterford. The Penroses were one of a close knit group of quaker families who arrived in Ireland in the mid seventeenth century and set up businesses in towns across Leinster and Munster. One branch of the Penrose family was established in the city of Waterford by c.1700. Quakers tended to have large families, and by the 1740s there were numerous members of the Penrose family with dwellings, tanning yards, and warehouses in Waterford city. In 1746 William Penrose I was wealthy enough to leave a large house to his son Samuel and £1,100 in his will to his son Francis. George Penrose became a merchant with premises on the quay (now Merchant's Quay) and acquired plots of land in the city and built dwelling houses with lofts, cellars, coach houses, tan yards, and bacon yards. In 1783 he decided to add a glass manufactory to his portfolio. His nephew William Penrose II (1746–99) became a joint investor in this enterprise. William was born 22 October 1746, third son among seven children of Francis Penrose, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth (née Beale), from Waterford city. By the early 1780s William, like his uncle, was well established as a merchant with a wide variety of interests. He is described in a contemporary poem penned by his wife Rachel as a man preoccupied each day buying beef, pork, and butter from all over Munster and inspecting his warehouses. He also owned a large number of properties in the John's Gate area of the city.
George and William had no prior experience of glass production when they opened their factory in 1783; a glass house called ‘Gurteens’ in Waterford, established by an earlier entrepreneur, had very limited success in the 1730s, and closed decades before their venture. From 1780 Irish glass manufacturers were free to export their wares to England and the colonies and in 1781 the excise duty on the sand used for glass production was removed. English manufacturers, who incurred heavy duties on glass to help finance the war in America, protested loudly about Ireland's competitive advantage but it was not until 1797 that Irish glass began to be subject to new taxes. In the intervening years the Penroses – as well as other entrepreneurs with even bigger glass works in Belfast, Dublin, and Cork – were determined to exploit the situation. On 4 October 1783 the Dublin Evening Post noted that an ‘extensive glass manufactory’ had been opened in Waterford and that the ‘public may be supplied with all kinds of cut flint glass useful and ornamental’. Given the ‘vast expense attending this weighty undertaking’, the proprietors explained that they could only sell wares for ‘ready money’. In a petition to the Irish parliament in November 1783 George and William argued that they had laid out £10,000 to set up the factory and employed between fifty and seventy people. The new glass works and warehouse were erected on a prime site on the quay. Glass production at Waterford would not have been possible without the skill of John Hill, a fellow quaker, who was brought over from Stourbridge along with a team of eight to ten of the finest craftsmen in England. Hill left Waterford abruptly in 1786 and moved to France. It appears that he was accused by William Penrose's wife of some indiscretion. Hill passed on his secret glass compounding formula to his close friend Jonathan Gatchell, who was then a lowly clerk at the glass works. The Penroses had no choice but to elevate Gatchell to the position of chief compounder.
The Waterford glass works was extremely successful between 1783 and 1800 and produced a variety of wares almost indistinguishable in quality from those manufactured at the best works in England. In the 1790s and early 1800s the factory may have employed as many as 200 workers. One contemporary commented in 1795 that the Waterford works had ‘improved and extended itself to an astonishing degree’ (Essay on the best means of providing employment, 321). The company prided itself on making very clear white coloured glasses, decanters, and fancy wares such as candlesticks and scent bottles, but also produced blue, green, and enamel varieties (some of the glass was mould-marked ‘Penrose. Waterford’). Most of the glass was blown, partly moulded, cut and engraved on site. North America proved to be the most important market and in 1799 alone 40,000 drinking glasses were exported to New York. Penrose glass was also dispatched from Waterford to France, Spain, Portugal, Jersey, Madeira, Jamaica, the West Indies, and Newfoundland.
Though neither George nor William could claim to be responsible for the quality of the glassware that bore their name, they were adept at exploiting marketing and retailing opportunities. In 1788, for example, a set of glassware was sent over to Milford for the royal family, and in 1790 the countess of Westmorland and other grandees visited the factory showroom. Blank glassware was also sent to merchants and retailers so that they could cut and engrave the glass for specific customers. Their valuable contacts in America, no doubt as a result of their previous experience trading tallow, hides, beef, and butter from Munster, also gave them a competitive edge over most other glass manufacturers in England and Ireland. It would appear that many of their customers did not share the same honest business practices as the quakers. An advertisement in the Waterford Chronicle of 12 December 1799 explains that the glassware for sale in a ‘newly opened shop on the quay’ will only be sold for ‘ready money’ as a result of the ‘many losses sustained by the late proprietors by retailing on credit’. Though the majority of Irish glass exported in this period was made in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork, good marketing and strict quality controls at the Penrose factory may in part explain why ‘Waterford glass’ has become a generic term to describe any piece of good quality unmarked Irish and even some English glass from the period 1783–1851. In reality only a tiny number of authentic Penrose-period Waterford pieces survive. The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, has a representative selection. In 1799 the Waterford glass works was acquired by Jonathan Gatchell, James Ramsey, and Ambrose Barcroft. After 1815 the profitability of the works declined as a result of new taxes and the factory closed in 1851.
George Penrose married (date unknown) Elizabeth, daughter of William and Margaret Duchett of Philipstown, King's Co. (Offaly); they had seven daughters (Jane, Sarah, Margaret, Elizabeth, Jane, Charlotte, and Rebecca) and three sons (John, William, and George). Six of these ten children died during childhood. George Penrose died 8 May 1796 in Waterford city. His youngest son George was responsible for disposing of his share of the glass works in 1799. William Penrose II married (date unknown) Rachel, daughter of Thomas and Rachel Nevins, from Edenderry, King's Co.; they had four sons (Francis, William, John, and Thomas) and two daughters (Elizabeth and Susan). William Penrose II died 12 January 1799 in Waterford city. His eldest son Francis was responsible for disposing of his share of the glass works in 1799.