An extremely successful gas works in South London which remained on site for over a hundred years. It was on the river front and placed on the boundaries of two local authority areas. It had a recognisable management from the start and was - as the Phoenix Company - to have a group of proprietors consisting of some of the wealthiest liberal and philanthropic minds of the day.
The area around the Bankside Works c.1820. The building of Southwark Street across an east/west axis has changed the area greatly.
While gas works were built in east London others were appearing on the south side of the river. The earliest works in South London was on the riverside almost opposite another early works - that of the City of London Gas Company at Blackfriars. This south London gasworks was on Bankside down river of Blackfriars Bridge and its earliest days - like so many others - are clouded in mystery.
It has been said that the Bankside gas works was opened in 1814 but the evidence for this is unclear and it seems likely that historians in the past - who were usually company employees - might have had access to deed information which has now disappeared.
Zeriah Colburn said that the works was built on ‘Rennie’s site’. This seems unlikely since Bankside gas works, although adjacent to Rennie’s wharf near Blackfriars Bridge, is not actually on it. There are however some early reports that the gas works itself may have moved from its first site early on in its existence -in which case it could indeed originally have been on Rennie’s Wharf.
In a local directory of 1817 ‘Morrow and Co. are listed as ‘Gas and Coke Merchants’ at 64 Bankside - in 1870 the Phoenix Gas Works was 70 Bankside, which might imply some continuity of use.
There are no records for the earliest years of the Bankside Works. It appears to have been built and managed by ‘Monro and Evans’. Nothing has been traced about Evans - unless he was one of the Evans family active in the Gas Light and Coke as managers, or perhaps one of the Bermondsey based boatbuilders - nor about Monro. A Robert Monro seems to have been involved for many years, as was, later, a William Monro who from the early 1820s was employed as Works Engineer. Robert is known to have lived in Nelson Square, Southwark and then to have moved to Wimbledon - and it might be speculated that they were brothers, or father and son.
In 1821 Monro and Evans became, or were taken over by, the South London Gas Co. - Monro stayed with the company. Chairman of the new Company was Alderman Christopher Smith, a wine merchant with a London based business with links in Oporto. He had already stood for Parliament and would eventually become Member for St.Albans - and Lord Mayor of London. In the mid 1820s he was also Mayor of Southwark.
Who were the men who set up the South London Gas Company? The following list is taken from the preamble to the Company’s first enabling Act of Parliament and describes those who were prepared to put their name to it.
William Seale Evans – not identified
John Jones – not identified
Robert Munro – see above
In 1824 the South London was itself taken over by the Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Co. - but Monro continued to manage the works. Smith too continued as Chairman. In 1888 it became part of the South Metropolitan Gas Co.'s empire and remained as one of their main works until 1919 when work began to be scaled down. The site was eventually sold in 1938.
In ‘Rogues, Speculators and Competing Monopolies’ Derek Matthews said that it ‘was not a successful company’ - basing this judgement on a rogue employee in the early 1830s and on the eventual competition from South Metropolitan Gas Co.
The works seems to have run reliably for almost 120 years and - perhaps as a credit to Monro’s management - very little of note seems to have happened there. The company went about its business, supplied its customers with lighting gas - and, as a side line, filled numerous balloons. There are a few sparse references from outside sources - for instance, in March 1822 Elizabeth Pearson, living in Greenwich, recorded that her brother, a friend of Munro, came home late because of an ‘accident at the gas works’.
The 1873 Ordnance Survey map shows this works at the height of its existence - the Head Works of a large and successful gas company. It stands on the south side of Bankside with a relatively restricted access to the river and is surrounded by the factories of industrial Southwark which, no doubt, it helped to power and light. The site today is entirely under the Bankside Power Station, now part of the ‘Tate Modern’ Gallery.
Grace Goolden in 'Old Bankside' remembered its last years “the illusion of a dark world lit only by the glare of burning coal gas from an open retort... the glitter of lurching pistons” but she remembered more practical details too - that the retort house was opposite the gateway, that river water was used in the ‘cleansing house’, that tar and ammoniacal liquor went into barges lying at the wharf, the generating station built over the river and provided power for the pumps and lifts throughout the works and that the meter house was the ‘holy of holies’ where ‘accuracy was worshipped’ and gas was measured in ‘a meter decorated with Doric pilasters and pediment’.