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Tuesday 28 January 2020

West Greenwich - the forgotten gas works

This is a link to my Greenwih Weekender article on West Greenwich Gas Works - a major works in is day which we have all forgotten about

Monday 27 January 2020

Gas holder - article for local readers

Gas holder - article for local readers

I thought it was about time I wrote something about our poor doomed East Greenwich Gas holder.  The campaign and petition to try and stop demolition of the holder has had a far greater public supports than we expected and shows how much people value its dramatic presence on the Greenwich Peninsula. 

All over London gas holders are being demolished at a shocking rates - apparently the owners have been ‘tasked’ by their regulatory body to dismantle them all by 2029.  A few have been ‘listed’ and will remain, one of which is the big holder in the Old Kent Road.

South Metropolitan’s Chair, and the man who made all the decisions was George Livesey – clever and unconventional - but this article is about gasholders not about all the other things which Livesey did. He designed a series of gas holders for the company’s Old Kent Road works, each more technologically advanced than the last.  Three of these holders still stood until recently but I understand that only the very large holder, No.13, is going to stay, because it is listed.  That holder was built in 1879 and is technically a departure to what had gone before. It was built on a revolutionary ‘cylindrical shell principle’ which is very simple and very strong. It is said that this ‘set a new bench-mark in gas holder design’ also that this was ‘Concorde’ while other holders were ‘bi-planes’.

Back to East Greenwich.  Our great gas holder was one of two built in the 1880s by the South Metropolitan Gas Company for their new super works in Greenwich.  It followed the same design ideas as the No.13 holder at Old Kent Road and developed them. The Gas Company needed to expand and modernise away from their Old Kent Road base where they had been since the 1830s. East Greenwich was then marsh land and the new gas works was sited at its northern end, much of which was undeveloped. I do not think that another Gas Works has been built in London since East Greenwich and it therefore remains the most modern works ever built here. It embodied the highest possible standards of the latest of absolutely everything – and crucially it was planned from the start whereas older works had usually just ‘grown’ as and when necessary. South Met. was not a company to do things by halves.

No.1. gas holder which still stands (well just about) was the first of two holders and it was soon joined by another even bigger holder. It was described at the time as ‘a mountain of iron against the sky’.  Together they were said to be the biggest concentration of gas storage in the world.   There are good economic reasons for these huge sizes and the company could produce figures to prove the savings through storage on like this.

So East Greenwich No.1. was a development of his new ideas on holder design.  There is also a good reason why it stands so high.  Gas holders usually stand above an underground tank of water but at East Greenwich they are built on marsh land. When they tried to dig out the tank it just kept flooding so the holder is built on a little mound – you could still see it when I wrote this article.  There is still a tank below the holder but a third or so if it is above ground. The actual design work on the holder was done by George Livesey’s brother Frank –and despite being younger and better educated than George; he had to do what he was told.

The holder is very plain with none of the iron work decoration of earlier holders. Livesey was advised by an American military man that decoration was not necessary and that the design of the holder should express what it was it was he is and not try tone fancy.  These were the sort of ideas which would later come into fashion with the style of architecture known as the modern movement and we should put the holder into this context as an industrial building.

The holder has stood there for nearly 130 years and it seen a lot of things happen.  Soon after it was built there was a massive strike in the works. In 1917 it withstood the terrible munitions explosion in Silvertown while its neighbour No.2. was badly damaged by the shock wave. The gas supply was saved by quick thinking Frederick Innes, who later received an OBE.

Our holder was damaged by Second World War bombing. Worse than that in 1979 the IRA planted the bomb alongside it and the resulting explosion woke up most of South London, except for me (I slept through it). These holders are designed so that the gas escapes into upper atmosphere where it explodes. It’s very dramatic and frightening but does a lot less damage than if it exploded at ground level.  Only a few years later, in the mid-1980s, the second holder, No.2. was demolished.   No.1. continued to be used for storing gas – but now, not any more.

Gas is now stored underground and under pressure and these holders are redundant. It is seen as important by the authorities via the regulatory body, Ofgem, that they should all be demolished. A very small number were listed on the basis of a consultant’s report and they will remain. One of those is the big No.13 holder at Old Kent Road, and another is the one at Kennington which is always on the TV when cricket is played at the Oval. 

In some ways you can understand this view of the authorities. These huge structures are expensive to maintain and there is always the risk of danger to the public. They may present a temptation to urban explorers – or worse local ten year olds – as something to climb. Many of them are also on valuable sites which could be used for building.

However internationally all sorts of things have been done with gasholders, some are museums, or diving centres, or concert halls. In London it is now well known that flats have been built inside gas holders and there is a similar scheme in Dublin.  I also rather suspect that Manu gas industry staff is unhappy about seeing all these holders go. Many other holders have had local campaigns to keep them, and I know of none which have managed to prevent demolition of what many communities have seen as a local icon. We have always felt that we had a better case than most in Greenwich. Not just because the holder is valued by the community but also because of its size and advanced technology and design, and its monumentality in the landscape;

There have been attempts to get the East Greenwich holder listed since at least the mid-1990s but all applications were turned down, or deferred indefinitely.  What has happened –and this is a procedure which has been used for many other holders – it was declared, with very little consultation, that the holder had immunity from listing by the Secretary of State following an application from the owners to Historic England. They then told the Council that it was going to be demolished and asked them to agree the method of demolition, giving them only a very short time to decide. This was raised twice, once in just before Christmas and once just before an election when councillors are not allowed to make decisions.

The local campaigners set up a petition and quickly got over 1500 signatures.  Also some people went door to door and we are told that everybody felt strongly that the holder should be kept.  We had meetings with gas company officials - some of these have been with Councillors and Council officials and the campaigners were very grateful for their support.

So – with all this effort why is it still going to come down?  Partly of course, because the government seems determined to get them all down – but gas company officials tell us that all the rush is because of the Silvertown tunnel.  The tunnel won’t run under the holder, but it will go very near it.  So Greenwich will lose this valued monumental example of technological excellence - And for why?? You couldn’t’ make it up!

East Greenwich holder - demolition

East Greenwich holder - demolition

The East Greenwich gas holder is being demolished.  It was the largest holder in the world when it was built with revolutionary engineering. It remains a dramatic feature in the landscape and an icon for the area. But despite great public support to keep it or adapt it to another use - it’s going. Like all the other holders where local people asked for demolition to be halted and another solution found, the procedure is remorseless and unforgiving.  They are all going

The East Greenwich holder is the second in the series which Malcolm Tucker has described as the Livesey holders.   It was built for the South Metropolitan Gas Company as part of their new modern gasworks on the Greenwich Peninsula in the 1880s. South Metropolitan had originally been based in the Old Kent Road as a relatively small company dating from the late 1820s. In 1839 Thomas Livesey had been appointed as manager and he was determined to make the then insignificant South Metropolitan Company ‘take the lead’ in the London gas industry.  He died in 1871 and was replaced by his eldest son. George Livesey, clever and unconventional, was to become the dominant figure in the late 19th century gas industry with an involvement in almost every possible issue, often against the wishes of his Board. This included changing the basis of profit and price management in the industry as well as labour relations and much technology.  He was also a national figure in the temperance movement. 

George Livesey had been responsible for a series of gas holders at the Old Kent Road from 1865, each one embodying new ideas.  There was considerable interest in the trade press and among other engineers on the development of gas holder design in this period.  In 1881 gasholder No13 was put into use.  This had been designed by Livesey on what Malcolm Tucker has described as the ‘revolutionary cylindrical shell principle’.  It was of an unprecedented 5.5m cu ft. in capacity with three lifts making it 160 foot high. It  is also very plain with no applied decoration and. this was, in part, the result of recommendations made to Livesey by the American Major Dresser that structures should represent what they were and not carry historic design references. That foreshadows ideas for industrial buildings in the modern movement and has been described by Malcolm, as a ‘new benchmark for gas holder design’. Its construction costs were extraordinarily low at £8.10s per 1000 cwt.    It was also built in the knowledge that gas consumption was increasing by about 10% a year thus providing the necessary storage. This holder is now listed and will be preserved in situ in the Old Kent Road.

From the 1870s governments were keen to see small inner-city gas works replaced by a large efficient out of town works.  In this period Livesey had negotiated takeovers of most other South London gas companies and it was then decided to build a large modern works on what is now known as Greenwich Peninsula, then Greenwich Marsh. The Marsh had been rapidly industrialising since around 1800, mainly on Riverside sites concentrated on the West Bank.  South Met acquired roughly the northernmost third of the peninsula an area then known as Blackwall Point. It was originally planned to have five holders in the south east corner of the site but eventually construction began on one on the pattern of No.13 Old Kent Road with the majority of work on it to be done by George’s younger brother, Frank.  Early on problems were encountered. Water from the Marsh flooded into excavations for the tank ‘causing widespread mischief all around’.  As a result the holder was built slightly raised, the rim of tank being 4 m above ground level, surrounded by an earth mound.  It was described as an ‘iron Mountain against the sky’ and was the largest gas holder in the world

A Second larger holder was built adjacent to it with a more revolutionary structure which caused great excitement in the professional press of the day. Itsuffered a major accident in the Silvertown explosion in 1917 and was eventually demolished in the 1980s to little publicity or interest of anyone except myself.  Together the two holders have been described as constituting the largest concentration of gas storage ever.

The original number one holder remained on site increasingly isolated as industry around it closed. The gasworks itself closed in the 1970s. The holder is said to have been damaged both in the 1917 explosion and again in the Second World War but most particularly in 1979 when an IRA bomb it was exploded alongside.  Three bays were damaged on its western side but were repaired and the holder remained in use.  The associated gasworks had by 1976 stopped making gas but activity connected with the associated chemical and other works continued for some years. The gas holder itself appears to have been eventually decommissioned

There had been at least one attempt to get the holder listed in the 1990s and the processes surrounding this and later attempts have been explored through Freedom of Information requests by members of the campaign group.  In 2000 Malcolm Tucker was commissioned by what was then English Heritage to do a study of gas holders in London. East Greenwich was not included in his sample survey but there is a short chapter about it. This study has in many ways provides a benchmark for holders in the London area

News began to spread of holders worldwide which, rather than being demolished, were given other uses, some extremely imaginative. A conference was held in London in 2014 where gas holders were discussed and it became clear that demolitions would follow relatively quickly. OFGEM had provided money and an instruction that all gas holders, except those listed by English Heritage, were to come down in the interests of consumer price control. Work was already underway setting up processes for demolition by site owners. In Greenwich a small group was formed to try and do what we could do to either get listing for the holder or in some way ensure that it could be used in one of the many ways undertaken elsewhere.  Greenwich council appeared neutral on the subject but issued a planning brief for the area surrounding the site of the holder. this noted that” heritage assets and environment (should be) are conserved and enhanced”

We then learnt that the owners had applied for a Certificate of Immunity against listing order. This was granted and, with the demolition of gas holders being permitted development under planning legislation, meant that the local Council could not refuse planning consent to the demolition of the holder and could only comment on the management of such demolition. The council was also required to remove the hazardous substances order. The first application for management of demolition was submitted in Christmas week in 2017 and refused; the second application was submitted shortly before the 2018 council  elections in a period when councilors are not allowed to take decisions and it was then agreed on officers’ action.  We also learnt that Transport for London’s Silvertown Tunnel project would pass close by and that Southern Gas Networks were under some pressure because of this.

The campaign group set up a petition online which quickly achieved 1545 signatures. An associated paper petition was taken door-to-door where most residents were eager to sign. Clearly, also, the urban explorers have been to the top of the holder and their website contains several dramatic pictures.

The holder received a great deal of attention with articles in local papers and blogs.  We have had a series of meetings with the owners, Southern Gas Networks, along with Greenwich Planners and some councillors. These were all very friendly and as a result we have had two site visits. A detailed survey has been carried out by AOC Archaeology Group and this will be followed up as demolition proceeds.  SGN have agreed to commission an artwork associated with the holder and it is also possible that booklet will accompany it.

We are also aware of the context of other local holders. There have been campaigns north of the river all of which accept that this unsuccessful  - except possibly the Bethnal Green holder which is apparently now in other ownership. In south London our neighbours at Bell Green got their two holders locally listed by Lewisham Council but that did not prevent demolition which is now on going. The holder in Bromley by Tesco has gone and we understand St Mary‘s Cray will follow soon.

I think future generations will be appalled that these dramatic local structures will all be gone with little attempt at adaptive reuse.

The Gasholder - local blog artcle

The Gasholder – Darryl has actually hit the nail right on the head when he says the proposed demolition is about ‘safety and security’.   They are only proposing to pull down the framework,  but will leave the difficult bits at ground level, and – presumably – keep the site for a bit, where they still have functioning equipment.

Of course the empty frame is expensive to maintain and there are all sorts of safety implications around trespassers, vandalism, thieves and local ten year olds with an urge to climb!.  However, this is about an industry which has never really engaged with the public, and their only solution is to demolish.

Three or four years ago I went to a big conference about the future of our gasholders – it was run by the gas industry and they were taken aback that people had come from outside the industry – so suspicious were they that we all had to stand up and identify ourselves and explain why we were there.  Many distinguished industrial historians found their motives being challenged!!  One of the papers given was about an attempt to demolish a gasholder somewhere on the outskirts of Newcastle.  It was isolated on open ground but surrounded by a large council estate – and, when demolition began, the estate had erupted in fury.  It was their holder, they said, it was what made them different from other council estates – when they were away they could explain where they lived by referring to it and when they saw it they knew they had come home.

The gas industry just didn’t understand – and so they have missed a big and important opportunity to capitalise on their past. Would should have been assets have been turned into liabilities and working with local authorities and local communities has been beyond them.  All over London – and I am sure elsewhere – there has been community campaign after community campaign to keep – or rather to reuse – gasholders.  Most have been lost.  Lewisham have been quick to locally list Bell Green – but will the industry listen??  Poplar is coming down, despite vigorous campaigns there, as have holders on several sites in Hornsey  - and I could go on.  Sadly, for us, it means that Southern Gas Networks now have a lot of practice in getting demolition plans through Councils and putting down any opposition efficiently.

So – before I get onto the (very nasty) planning situation, can I recommend you have a look at the Report from the industry which is included with the planning papers. In most parts it is pretty good. 

The history of the holder is dealt with through Malcolm Tucker’s immaculate research for Historic England. Malcolm was however working here to a brief and there is some speculation he would not make in such a paper.  One of these is the issue of the holder as an early modern movement building. 

There are many indications of this in the ideas behind its great size and economies of scale, but mostly in the stripped down style.  I understand Malcolm’s problem here in that we have never managed to establish a link between the American design advisor and English industrial designers of the period (both with the same unusual surname).

Much of the paper is very interesting. There are some minor inaccuracies which I can spot quickly (ie the ‘gas stokers agitated for an eight-hour shift system’ – sort of right but they left their jobs for union recognition).   Some of this looks suspiciously like my research on Livesey (deposited with Southwark libraries) – although they only quote Francis Goodall in DNB and Malcolm in their list of references.

I am also not impressed with their constant harping on that the holder was built by Frank Livesey, not George. Frank had to do what George told him to do!!  Perhaps they should read some of the contemporary descriptions of the holder, rather than make assumptions.

It is some of the arguments they are using which are less impressive:

-          They say that the holder has ‘lost its context’ because the gas works itself has gone.  This has to be nonsense.  The two big holders were always on the edge of and slightly away from the main works – and in any case the industry commonly built holders, often at  a considerable distance from any gas works.

-          It notes Enderby House (thank you) as a local listed industrial structure but notes it is too far away to be associated with the holder. This too is nonsense – the holder looms over the whole area and is the first thing you see.  One of the things we are doing is looking at pathways through the peninsula and there is a well defined path between the holder and Enderby Wharf.  One idea about the holder site and its future as some sort of hub for the area  is its accessibility from Enderby Wharf, and other places.

-          Saying that the holder was the biggest in the world for only a short while is neither here nor there.  It was, and is, very much bigger than the rest. -          Together with No.2. it was the largest amount of gas storage ever.

So – can I also add in the community and place making aspects of all this.  It is very obvious that the holder is a landmark and an icon for the area, and particularly from the river.  As with the Newcastle Council estate holder – it is what marks our area out, and when you see it you know you are back in east Greenwich – and that means something to a lot of local people.

I am only too well aware that our community here in east Greenwich feels that they have lost something. They have gained vast numbers of new flats – far more than most other areas – and very little in the form of local amentities.  Some developers on the Peninsula have worked hard to put in facilities, art works and features for both their new residents and others – and – than you to them -  I would really not put them down.  But others have not done so and features which appeared in the original plans have sometimes not been built.   Quite honestly east Greenwich and the Peninsula need something to be proud of – which identifies them and also provides some facilities available for everyone.

Hence – as I said to start with – the gas industry has missed an opportunity here, as with all its holders. Use them, they should be an asset.

So to the current planning application.  Peter Luck has written an excellent analysis which he has appended to From the Murky Depths piece on the holder.  The application is a stitch up – and the Council has very little room, legally, to move in. Please don’t blame the Council – I do think they have tried to get this right.   

There is something in our society now, and in our institutions, which seems unable to think beyond short term finance – and the gas industry does not do imagination.

Winser on Shooters Hill


In 1883 a Mr. Thomas Boorman Winser of Shooters Hill Road wrote to The Standard. He said that old gas pipes had been found in a house demolished at Shooters Hill. Mr. Winser linked this with some old handbills in his possession which advertised 1807 demonstrations of gas lighting in London.   In 1883 the early gas industry under discussion as a possible centenary of the 'first attempt' neared. In September Samuel Smiles, also a Blackheath resident, lectured on the subject at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. Mr. Winser did not say, but he may have known, that there were stories about how the first ever "gasometer" was sited in the grounds of Shrewsbury House at Shooters Hill.
Today Shrewsbury House is a busy community centre. It was built in the 1920s, replacing an older house which was occupied in 1811 by the author of Mr. Winser's handbills, Frederick Albert Winsor.  Winsor (a spelling anglicised from Winzer) was, more than anyone else, responsible for bringing gas lighting to London.  His home on Shooters Hill links Kent not only with the start of the gas industry but with an eccentric and colourful personality.
Frederick Albert Winzer was a merchant from Brunswick who came to England in the early 1790s and married an English woman, Harriett Wilkinson.  His career had some strong royal parallels -in 1795 Princess Caroline of Brunswick had come to England to marry the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She lived in Blackheath after the failure of this marriage and her daughter, Princess Charlotte, heir to the throne, lived, as a child, at Shrewsbury House. Winsor demonstrated gas lighting to the Duke of Brunswick in 1802 while on a visit to Europe to buy gas making apparatus from the French inventor, Phillipe Lebon.  He also wrote strongly anti-French and pro-royalist leaflets, some of them under the pseudonym of 'Obadiah Prim', described as a Quaker.
Leaflet writing was something Winsor took up in a big way. In the years after 1800 he produced a whole barrage of them which put forward the advantages of coal gas. His claims were far from sober and his language was colourful and extreme. English was not his first language, and accent was difficult to understand but in writing both verse and prose, his imagery expanded and took off, to amazing heights.  It was 'A Philosophical, chemical, historical and legal Rhapsody on the primogeniture and genealogy of the Will o' the Wisp Lights or Ignis Fatuus vulgarly called Jack o'Lantern Lights'.
He said that coal gas could be used for lighting and also for cooking and heating - something which did not happen for many years. He wrote about the use of tar and ammonia, by-products of gas making, and one whole pamphlet was about coke.  His biggest and most important idea, was that of a gas works. Before Winsor gas for lighting had been produced in small installations which made only enough to light one building. Winsor's idea was to make gas in a factory, a gas 'works', and sell it to whoever wanted to buy.
He invited the public to a programme of lectures and demonstrations, first at the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand and later at the 'Theatre of Science' in Pall Mall where he worked with a popular lecturer, Professor Hardie. He was also lent premises at the Rhedarium in St.Marylebone, from where balloon flights had taken off. Balloonists, were also early experimenters in coal gas. 
Winsor's claims about the profitability of investing in gas became more and more amazing. There would, he said, be "a most cheering balance of 12 millions of profit which when divided into 20,000 shares, offer a most welcome annual bonus of #600 for each subscriber of only fifty pounds".  In 1807 he arranged a display of gas lights in Pall Mall to celebrate the Prince of Wales birthday.
As Winsor's ideas became better known he gathered around him a body of supporters to promote a 'National Heat and Light Company' (note the word 'national'; they were nothing if not ambitious). These supporters were all important men, bankers, lawyers and merchants and a duke. Because of the scale of the intended venture an Act of Parliament was necessary before they could start work.  This was opposed by manufacturers of equipment for factory lighting by gas and there was a Parliamentary Enquiry. It had become apparent that Winsor and his inflated claims were a potential liability to any respectable concern and he was dropped once the new gas company was formed.  They built the first gas works, as we know them, in Westminster and gas was first made and sold in 1813.
Did Winsor, therefore erect the first gasometer ever seen when he lived at Shrewsbury House in 1811? Unfortunately this is almost certainly untrue. One of the problems with the system of gas making which Winsor advertised is that it did not include a means of storing the gas. He actually thought gas holders were dangerous! In any case by 1811 there were industrial gas lighting installations in London and elsewhere. The first recorded in London was that at the Golden Lane Brewery in 1808 although it is very probable that there were others - some perhaps to Winsor's designs.
When Thomas Boorman Winser wrote to the press in 1883 he drew attention to gas pipes found in "an old house" under demolition. He didn't say that this was Shrewsbury House - which was not demolished until after his letter was written.  Was there perhaps someone else who experimented with gas at Shooters Hill? In 1811 many residents of the area were scientists working at the Royal Military Academy. Although there was no early gas works at the Royal Arsenal it would seem likely that someone there would have been interested in experimenting with this exciting new medium. Among those who worked at Woolwich at that time were at least three who are known to have experimented with coal gas - Sir William Congreve, James McCulloch and James Sadler.  Did Winsor know these scientists? Did they meet and discuss their ideas, perhaps in The Bull or The Red Lion?
After 1813 Winsor went to Paris to start the French gas industry. He died there, and is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. His son, also Frederick Albert, remained in England. He became a barrister and had a lifetime's involvement with that first gas company - which grew to be the famous Gas Light and Coke Co. He died at his London address, in Lincoln's Inn Fields and is buried at Kensal Green. Strangely, the Dictionary of National Biography describes him as 'of Shooters Hill'.
This leaves us with another mystery. Who was Thomas Boorman Winser, what did he know about the gas pipes and how did he get copies of Winsor's pamphlets? He an actuary and a pillar of Blackheath society. He was born at Salehurst in Sussex, and his father was a Mr. Thomas Winser. No connection has been traced between them and Frederick Albert, father or son.  However, the similarity of the name and the fact that Winsor was probably married at least twice raises a number of questions. His family's births, deaths and marriages in a variety of European countries provides complications.
Thomas Boorman Winsor was a keen collector, perhaps the items he described in the letter were just picked up out of interest. They almost certainly bought from him and may be the items in the British Library's Woodcraft Collection. Whether or not Thomas Boorman Winsor knew something about early gas making on Shooters Hill his letter represents an interesting link with one of the more colourful characters in our past.

Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Hill

Telegraph Hill at New Cross is only just inside what was once the Kent border.  The Manor of Hatcham, in which it stands,  has long been a disputed area, and, in 1636 was the subject of a legal action when its owner was assessed for ship-money from both Kent and Surrey. Today it is in the London Borough of Lewisham – but for the purposes of this article, unless we want to re-start the action of 1636, it is in Kent.
There is however a boundary marker and, walk a few yards from it and you are in a park.  Enter it at the top, near Haberdasher's Aske's school, and you will see a concrete octagon set in the ground. It looks like the base of a statue – but there is nothing there to tell you what stood  there.  It was, however,, a fountain and, to be  honest, I don't know where it has gone now but I do know   what it commemorated. Surprisingly enough it was all about strike breaking!
On a day in early November 1889  a man stood at that spot and looked down at South London beneath him. He was particularly concerned about the gas works – you can still see the big gasholder in Old Kent Road from Telegraph Hill today.  The man, tall, thin with a big beard, had walked a long way that morning, He had come from Reigate where he had left his wife having travelled with her from Eastbourne.  As he walked he had no doubt been going over in his mind a whole set of problems about the company of which he was Chairman. It would be easy to think that his main concern was trade union activity in the gas works down in Old Kent Road
below – but it was rather more complicated than that.
George Livesey was a complicated man.  He had been brought up in the Old Kent Road gasworks of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and for over fifty years had stayed there, seen it grow and change, and now he was Company Chairman.  George was not a conventional man; his instincts were always revolutionary. Since his father died in 1871 he had taken on the whole gas industry, tried to make them  efficient, introduced the concept of partnership with the customers, and, on the whole, changed things. That is, except for the hated, and enormous, North London based Gas Light and Coke Company, which remained elusively beyond his control. Since boyhood he had been immersed in the London temperance movement and the Church of England.  This had led him to a strong ideology, which was generally about partnership, working together and improving the lot of the working man by inducing him to self-help.  This was not a concept that he had been able to further in the gas works since even his own board, generally sycophantic, would not accept ideas of co-operation, or even profit linked bonuses.
In the summer of 1889 summer east London had been swept with the great Dock Strike. The dockers had won their 'tanner' and other groups of workers had wondered if they too could benefit from a little militant action. North of the river, in the works of the Gas Light and Coke Company, trade union activity had been stirring under the leadership of one, Will Thorne – previously a stoker at Old Kent Road.   The  agitation was around the re-arrangement of the shift system into stints of eight hours, rather than twelve.   As a result of this on 4th November a meeting had been held at the Cannon Street Hotel between the union leaders and representatives of the Boards of the various London gas companies.   Here the negotiations had moved on to the reduction of the hours worked on Sundays – something Livesey felt strongly about and had tried to tackle for years.  As the meeting had progressed Thorne and the north London managements grew closer together – became remarkably friendly in fact. While the two sides reached an agreement the South Metropolitan Gas Company stayed outside. In theory Livesey should have been in favour of the workers getting together to help themselves – it was something he had always advocated – but as far as Will Thorne's Gas Workers Union was concerned, Livesey hated them. He described them as 'outsiders' – people from outside 'his' gasworks, and, worse,  had started in North London and the Gas Light and Coke Company, In the future workers organisations at South Met. were ony encouraged so long as Livesey was in charge of them!
As he looked at the view and the beauties of the November morning Livesey clearly had a lot on his mind.  He later said that he thought how the area should be dedicated as a public park for the people of South London – but we must assume that mostly he thought about the Gas Workers Union.   What happened next is not entirely clear.  In fact, it must be said that accounts of this story vary considerably and that it is impossible to come to any exact conclusion on the sequence of events. Livesey was a strong Christian gentleman and we should not be tempted to think that he might have just possibly been making all this up – so, just in case,  perhaps we should take someone else's version of events.
Charles Tanner was the head foreman at the Old Kent Road gas works, but, in his account of events, he wisely misses out some crucial details.  He told the story  some twenty years later about how Livesey arrived at the works and that he asked Livesey 'how he could keep the men out of the hands of the Union'.  Livesey's own version was rather more dramatic. He said that he arrived at the works from his long walk to meet Charles Tanner, and that Tanner said ' we have lost all authority in the retort houses --- unless you do something -- we shall be completely in the power of the union!!!'  Livesey went on 'I had not thought out anything and cannot explain how or why this thing came to be but in a quarter of an hour on half a sheet of paper the scheme was set out in writing and when the Board met was submitted to them'.  This hastily thought out scheme was Livesey's triumph – a profit sharing scheme designed to offer the company's workforce an inventive by offering them a bonus based on profits while at the same time making future strike action impossible. Despite the drama and the walk from Telegraph Hill it was in fact the scheme that Livesey had been pressing on his reluctant Board
for years. Given the emergency, and the fact that Livesey had announced it all in advance, the Board had little choice but to agree.
This is an article about Telegraph Hill and it is not the place to go through all the details of the South London Gas Workers strike in the winter of 1889 – or, indeed, the long and successful history of the profit sharing scheme. Once Livesey had announced profit sharing the Gas Workers Union called a strike on the issue of 'liberty' – i.e. no compulsion to join the scheme and the right to join a union. Livesey then set about breaking the strike and smashing up the union with relentless and frightening efficiency (particularly for a Christian gentleman). By the time he had finished there was a different workforce in place, one that was only too keen to do whatsoever he wanted. As time went by the profit sharing scheme became 'Co-partnership' with many embellishments and a works 'Co-partnership' committee - the minutes of which exhibit an unbelievable level of sycophancy. For the last twenty years of Livesey's life he made a new career out of promoting it as a new way of reconciliation between master and men.

So – what about Telegraph Hill? After the strike was over South Metropolitan Gas Company felt that it had something to celebrate.  At the end of February 1890 two of the shareholders wrote to the Times asking that money – not more than two guineas each – should be subscribed to a fund as a testimonial to Livesey 'in recognition of the eminent services rendered to the community on the occasion of the recent stokers' strike'.   1,450 people subscribed and £2.216 was collected.  In August the testimonial committee presented a portrait of Livesey to the company which was hung in the Board Room. The balance - £1,700 – was given to Livesey who said that he 'wished it might be devoted to the  benefit of working people'.  He contacted the Greenwich Board of Works, offering them £2000. They voted another £2000 themselves as did the London County Council.  He then approached the Haberdasher's Company for the piece of land on which he had stood.

The area was, and is known as Telegraph Hill – and the early telegraph which once stood on it, although extremely interesting,  is not relevant here. Before the telegraph came the area had been called Plow Garlic Hill and at the opening ceremony of the park Faithfull Sturdee, the local historian, presented pictures of the telegraph to the dignitaries concerned..  The Haberdashers Company agreed to sell the land for the £6,000 which had been collected – although they valued it at £8000 thus allowing the reduction in price as their own contribution.  The park was, and is, in two sections. The southerly portion is where the telegraph stood – while the northern portion looks out –  as Livesey did – towards the Thames and inner London.  It is 160 feet high and, at the time, the view was said to be of Knockholt Beeches – although I am very unclear as to whether that area can still be seen now
The park was not easy to lay out because of the steep slope and rough nature of the ground. In particular the southern portion present problems with potential slippage of the clay, and a special drainage system had to be installed. £7,500 was spent in laying it out – although who paid for that it not clear, presumably the London County Council. The park was laid out and designed by the great Col. Sexby, Chief Officer of the LCC's  Park's Sub-Department - whose work on London parks of this period is one of the great design achievements of the late Victorian era.  There was a lake, flower beds, and a 'grove of trees', a wrought iron fence and a bandstand.  It was stepped in such a way as to be 'approachable even by persons whose climbing abilities are not conspicuous'.
On the top of the hill was a children's play area where 'half the children of the neighbourhood were rushing over the grass and standing on their heads … without their coats, in spite of the keen wind'.
The park was opened on April 6th 1895 by Arthur Arnold, then Chairman of the London County Council.   He was accompanied by other members - including Sydney Webb, the Fabian intellectual and founding father of the Labour Party. It was not a nice day. 'the wind had a great deal of the north in it .. dull heavy clouds driving before the wind …. and a sharp cold shower of rain'.  There were however colourful 'bannerettes' and an 'admirable' band playing, under Mr. Warwick Williams, 'a number of popular airs'.   Happily. seating for the official party was 'judiciously placed to the leeward of the bandstand' but they were watched from behind the railings
by a crowd 'who tried to look as if they liked the invigorating energy of the wind'.
Many of the speakers paid tribute to Livesey and his efforts which had made the opening of the park possible. Arnold spoke about 'the liberal and munificent spirit' which had made the money available and 'of the great social struggle in which Mr. Livesey had played a prominent part'. 

So, what about the empty plinth? Livesey donated a drinking fountain which was to be placed at the spot where he had looked down on south London. Many years ago I was given a copy of the plans for the inscription on this fountain when it had turned up among items being thrown out of the old Deptford Borough stores.  The anonymous sender pointed out that the inscribed name 'Sir George Livesey' has been altered and enlarged.    The fountain seems to have disappeared at some time since the second world war – but  I have never met anyone who actually remembers it. Why was it removed?  Was it damaged? It must have been a fairly heavy item to shift and difficult to destroy. I would be amazed if it had been taken much further than the council yard. Does it still lurk somewhere in a Lewisham Council depot, or, was it resurrected somewhere else? Has anyone ever seen it?  Was it actually taken down because someone remembered that it was really a monument to strike breaking?  I think we should be told.

Business History article on Livesey

PUBLISHED IN Business History

In a digest of recent articles with a business history interest  Philip Ollerenshaw, 'British Business History: A Review of Recent Periodical Literature', ”Business History• Vol 32 (1990) p76., attention has been given to an article on  profit sharing in the gas industry by Derek Matthews, ('Profit-sharing in the gas industry, 1889-1949'. ”Business History• Vol 30 (1988) p.306).  This outlines the progress and effectiveness of the profit sharing scheme set up at the South Metropolitan Gas Company in 1889. It is a valuable contribution to the under-researched field of workplace management in the last century; it attempts to analyse the success or failure of the scheme through a detailed examination of its progress from its inception in 1889 until its termination at nationalisation, and puts into a framework of current debate, research which has appeared in unpublished theses  (Derek Matthews. 'The London Gasworks: A Technical,  Commercial and Labour History to 1914' (unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. University of Hull 1983) Ch.6. Mary Mills. 'Profit Sharing in the South Metropolitan Gas Company' (unpublished M.Phil. Thesis. Thames Polytechnic, 1983).  However the two paragraph summary by Philip Ollerenshaw has highlighted some points which, while accurately carrying forward Derek Matthew's main argument, may also have distorted some details. One of these is on the nature of paternalism, the other concerns George Livesey the originator of the scheme at South Met. The review has highlighted the phrase 'the scheme was an example of unvarnished paternalism'. In this is implicit the central point which Derek Matthews is making:  'attempts to control the workforce'.  It is a phrase which he has used on several occasions and a question should be asked about what is meant by 'paternalism'. The concept of 'Paternalism' as a concept was something which had been considered by George Livesey.  Matthews quotes an extract from Livesey's paper following an attack on the South Metropolitan scheme by W.H.Lever in the course of correspondence on the subject in ”Economic Review• ( W.H.Lever, 'A Criticism of Profit Sharing in Relation to Workplace Management'. ”Economic Review • Jan 1901 & June 1901 G.T.Livesey, 'Profit-Sharing a Vindication', ”Economic Review• Oct.1901  p410  [which also included propagandists for the Labour Co-partnership Association and other interested parties]. These papers need to be read against the background of a considerable body of  contemporaneous literature which discusses the merits and otherwise of, for example;  'profit-sharing', 'co-partnership', 'prosperity sharing' and attempts to analyse the reasoning for and results of various schemes. The paper by Livesey, quoted by Derek Matthews, is primarily a discussion about the difference between his scheme and Lever's, which he describes following a more generalised attack on 'profit sharing' by Lever.  He cites N.P.Gilman's  ( '”A Dividend to Labour. A study of employers welfare institutions'. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Boston & New York. 1899)  distinction of French and German 'patronal' institutions, as corresponding with Lever's 'prosperity sharing'. He thus distinguishes very sharply between this and his own scheme at South Met. which,he says, was designed to enable the workforce to 'take a higher position in life and therefore  become better citizens' corresponding to the French definition of 'participation'.  Although he did not use the actual word 'paternalism' here Livesey can be seen as  being acutely aware that a variety of meanings and motivations can be  encompassed within idea.  As currently used it may not cover the sharp gradations of meaning of which those who were supposed to have practiced it were aware. This is not the place to refer these ideas to current discussions on  'paternalism' ( see for instance: Albert Weale. 'Paternalism and
Social Policy' ”Journal of Social Policy  Vol.7, Bo.1.(1978) , but it should be said that the concept is more complicated than it appears. Simply stated, it could be taken to mean that the effect is to inhibit freedom of action.  It must therefore be noted that, whatever the actual result, that Livesey's stated intention was the opposite   'Our working population have no share in its vast accumulated property ... the right to own property is the  foundation of liberty'  (G.T.Livesey ”Industrial Partnership and the Relief of Distress. in C.Loch (ed)  ”Methods of Social Advance. ” p.107. ”  He described the Lever schemes as 'libraries, recreation rooms'  and said 'it may be questioned whether it is really to the advantage of employees to have so much done for them. In short, does it tend to make men of them?'(Livesey, 'Industrial partnership' p.107)  It can of course be argued that attempts to 'make men of them' are themselves paternalistic and that Livesey's definition of 'liberty' amounted to, 'a delusive snare', to quote John Burns.(”Labour Co-partnership• February 1899 p.5.  The point nevertheless needs to be  made that 'paternalism' as a concept can have many variations and ought to be used more exactly.  If Livesey recognised their complexity then we should at least acknowledge that too and continue the discussion in the light of his comments; albeit critically.  It should also follow that a useful look might be taken at the background to some of Livesey's ideas. He spoke at some length about the influence of Mazzini on him and some others, for example Maurice. Mazzini had a considerable following in England and some influential support; it is possible that some of this circle were also involved in employee welfare work. (cf E.F.Richards '”Mazzini's Letters to an English Family'• London 1898.)   A serious discussion of the background to any such scheme as that set up in South Met. must include an investigation of these influences.
My second point concerns the brief description of Livesey himself. Philip Ollerenshaw has gone on to describe Livesey as 'an activist in the Free Labour Movement'. There is a body of evidence for this: much of it gained from William Collinson's chapter on Livesey ( William Collinson '”The Apostle of Free Labour• ”The Life Story of William Collinson. Told by Himself'• Hurst and Blackett. 1913)  There is also evidence from a number of pamphlet sources  For example: Labour Protection Association. '”The Law relating to picketing as laid down by recent judgments'   (London 1899) and ”Free Labour Gazette• shows some employee participation. (for example. Biographical article on C.Z.Burrows  ”Free Labour Gazette• June 1895 ”p.4•).  However, it must also be said that evidence of Livesey's involvement can be found in a whole range of organisations. For instance the Labour Co-partnership Association, which described him in 1906 as 'the one man who could not be left out'  (Editorial ”Labour Co-partnership• Nov.1906 p.5). Even more evidence can be produced for his life-long involvement with the Band of Hope and with numerous church bodies and professional organisations - like the Institution of Civil Engineers.  Livesey was involved in a lot of different organisations many with conflicting interests and ideologies.  This is one of the things that makes him so interesting and a bare comment on his association with free labour organisations does him a grave disservice and makes his involvement in profit sharing one-dimensional. 

Livesey's years as a working engineer and manager in a initially relatively insignificant gas company should be remembered together with his contribution to the industry as a whole. Gas industry historians would never describe Livesey in such a dismissive way and have given recognition  to this clever, busy, difficult and unconventional man 'the acknowledged leader of the gas industry .. founded on his technical grasp  ... commercial vision ... tactical ability  ( Matthews, Thesis p.93)'  This gas industry background should always be remembered in  discussions on the profit sharing scheme because so much of it is rooted in ideas about gas company financing and ownership put forward during the last century. Again it is crucial to look at this background in order to put the profit sharing scheme into context. If Livesey had only been a gas engineer his ideas on technology would have made him notable; if he only been a gas company manager his ideas on adminstration and the political organisation of the industry would have made him even more outstanding.  The fact that he also formulated a series of very original ideas about workplace management and the way society itself should be organised make him worthy of very serious notice indeed.  He wrote and spoke very largely about these ideas - it is a pity that most of what has been published recently has listed bare achievements without understanding them or the intellectual force and energy behind them.

”Mary Mills, BA, M.Phil (CNAA). Open University (Dept. History of Science and