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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

A background to the London gas industry

In the 1990s 'gas' for domestic use comes to us through pipes from the North Sea and is used as a fuel, for heat or cooking - but most older people can still remember when 'town gas' was made from coal. It came from a local 'gas works' and was also used in the home, and by industry, mainly as a source of heat. Coal gas, made in much the same way, had first been used nearly two hundred years previously - but to provide lighting for streets and large buildings.

The first 'gas works' for public supply was set up in London by the first gas company at the height of the period usually defined as 'the industrial revolution'. There are numerous publications about this period and most, as noted earlier, give very scant attention ‑if a mention at all - to either London or the early gas industry.

This chapter, then, is a brief introduction, first of all to the early gas industry itself, and then to its location in London. It provides a background to the subject matter of the rest of the book.


Coal gas was first used commercially for lighting at the start of the nineteenth century. Before this there was a long process of development. First, there had to be the realisation that gases from coal were inflammable,1 and that this might provide a source of light which could be harnessed. Then the possibility of making a similar gas artificially had to be discovered, and a reproducible method of doing so had to be 'invented'. Then equipment and a distribution methodology had to be designed.

Histories of the gas industry usually begin with a description of this 'run-in' period and the contributors to it.

Experimenters and observers examined natural gas, looked at the nature of gases and in particular at the gas, which came from coal. None of these experimenters lived and worked in London ‑except perhaps Stephen Hales who was vicar of Twickenham, now in Greater London. Knowledge based institutions in London provided a centralised information exchange for such ideas. In particular, London was the base for the Royal Society.

Although there was little in the way of any formal academic structure for technical subjects, London supported a lively network of independent lecturers and discussion groups. There were similar bodies in other large cities, but London could provide some sort of focus for all of them because it was the capital city.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr. Mills:

    Mary, I curse myself for having neglected my internet "research" for just two days and now arrive here just after the premier presentation of your enlightened gift to all of us who rate "gas" and "tar" as supremely important to all of urban history! Your installments are like tonic to the your colleagues in pursuit of yesteryear's events as they either influence or lurk about how derelict land becomes reused. And beyond that, there are torrents of side benefits to these cascading facts, as we serious researchers know that virtually every snippet of fact is correlative to all that is important about the history of manufactured gas, around the world.

    My thanks for your gift to greater fraternity of enthusiasts over the substance of the manufactured gas industry!

    Allen W. Hatheway
    Rolla, Missouri