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Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Aldgate Gas Light and Coke Co

One - or perhaps two - tiny works in an overcrowded inner city area. A gas works here would find it difficult to be viable - with little chance of expansion and water transport unavailable. There is little indication as to who was responsible for this scheme, or what happened to them.

The story of the gas companies and their works in the east end - Whitechapel, Wapping, Stepney, Limehouse, Poplar and Millwall - is a complicated and tangled one. From the evidence available to us we may never know how many works there were and where they were sited. In the early part of the nineteenth century Aldgate, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Mile End were a ferment of innovative small works and inventors - engineering, chemicals, sugar. Gas lighting was one of several exciting new technologies .

Stewart listed two Whitechapel Gas Works; the first in 'Castle Alley', and a second, in Goulston Square. He gives Sterling Everard's History of the Gas Light and Coke Co. as his source for both works. Everard gives no references and both he and Stewart seem to have had access to information which I have been unable to trace. Thus, the very early Aldgate Gas Company has left no records and its existence can only be traced by brief comments and inference. However, a lot of walking round the site has given me some doubts about what both Stewart and Everard had to say on this subject.

Goulston Square was in effect a widening half way up Goulston Street, E1 and a semi derelict building now covers its area. Behind this is the site of the 1851 Whitechapel Baths (a pediment saying 'Wash House' is still to be seen in Old Castle Street, which runs parallel). Castle Alley is now under the buildings of the City Guildhall University but it ran from Whitechapel High Street between Old Castle and Goulston Streets to the rear of the old baths. This shows that these two early gas works must have been very close, to say the least of it.

Castle Alley had an earlier name of 'Moses and Aaron Alley' and it is still listed as such in the ratebooks of 1818. The St.Mary's ratebooks show a 'Gas Light Co' in Whitechapel High Street next to the entrance to this alley way. The Sewer Commissioner’s rate books however show a 'Gas Light Co' which is round the corner in Goulston Square (on the next site there was a 'Mr. Grant' - why is there so often a Mr.Grant in the vicinity of early London gas works?). No rate book gives two gas works.

The sites are so close as to throw considerable doubt - in my mind at least - as to whether these were two completely separate works. In those days, factories took up a much smaller space than would seem reasonable to us and here in the inner city everything was huddled up to everything else - there was also at least one sugar refinery in Goulston Square in 1815. Nevertheless, the two rate book entries are for sites so close that they could easily refer to different ends of one quite small works. I very much doubt if either Everard or Stewart ever walked round Whitechapel to see how close together these sites really are.

We don't know who opened this (or these) works - the mysterious Mr. Grant perhaps? Stewart says that the Castle Alley works was built by 'J.Peto' - was he perhaps a connection of Henry Peto of Peto and Grissell? In 1815 ownership passed to the Aldgate Gas Light and Coke Co. and it is said that they then built the Goulston Square works - or was this in fact an extension and re-equipping of the existing works?

In 1816, the Aldgate Gas Company approached Aaron Manby, the Shropshire ironmaster, for gas making equipment. They wanted it 'on the same plan as the old gas company'. What ‘old gas company’? Did they mean previous equipment, which had been bought by the Aldgate Company or a different company altogether? He was also approached by the 'Whitechapel Company'. Were they the same as the ‘Aldgate Company’ or different? ‘Whitechapel’ tends to be a loose definition for a very large slice of east London. Is Stewart right that there were perhaps two works - one owned by the Whitechapel Company, and one by the Aldgate, and that one of these replaced the other? The rate books throw no light on this at all.

Stewart says that the equipment at Aldgate/Whitechapel included a 'Clegg collapsible tent gasholder' - this must be the 'flexible' gas holder which was sold to a George Mackintosh in 1820 - described as 'two large canvas bags of about 15,000 cubic feet each - a blacksmiths forge placed near to one of them'. This Mr. Mackintosh was the man who built a gas works in Limehouse and who Stewart and Everard both assume to be contractor who built the docks - but that contractor's name was not George - so who was he? Mackintosh’s identity is discussed later under ‘Limehouse’.

The Aldgate Company was taken over by the Blackfriars based City of London Gas Light and Coke Company in 1819. The reasons for the take over seem, inevitably, to have been financial. In November 1818 Mr. Peto told the City of London Gas Company Board that he needed money quickly because Mr. Mackintosh was suing him for a large sum, that it would come to trial next Monday and that his 'character would be injured'. Was the story of the Aldgate Gas Company the usual one of fraud and incompetence?

Stewart says that the City of London Company closed down the Aldgate works in 1823. The superintendent had been a Mr. Gronous - described, by Everard, as a 'half-pay naval purser'. He was kept on and eventually became superintendent at Blackfriars - despite, as Everard again records, a spell in a debtor's prison in the 1820s. I am informed by a GLIAS member, Richard Graham, that John Gronous was a purser appointed to HMS Mercurious on 25th April 1812 and his first warrant was '27 later amended to 30 December 1813'. He does not appear in a list after July 1815. Richard Graham suggests he may have fallen victim to 'defence cuts' following the defeat of Napoleon. He continues to appear, without a ship, until June 1837.

Although Stewart calls these two sites 'Whitechapel', in other references, they are called 'Aldgate'. In reality the boundaries are so close that what is strictly Aldgate and strictly, Whitechapel is anyone’s guess. Goulston Square and Castle Alley are more at the Aldgate end of the area than Whitechapel proper - but some distance from the City gate of that name. To understand these sites you need to walk round them, and to know the east end.

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