From the earliest days books on the gas industry often included some historical information. The London industry was the earliest, and descriptions of its beginnings were included in many works. Frederick Accum's Practical Treatise, published in 1815, included a section on the discovery of gas for light and his second book, was described as "a compendium of all the best information of the practice of the art down to the present moment."
In 1819 Peckston's Theory and Practice of Gas Lighting included "a historical sketch of the rise and progress of the science" and was described twenty years later as a "disgraceful intermixture of quackery and false pretension". Peckston, a junior engineer at the Westminster Gas Works, was related, through marriage, to the Malam family of gas engineers and to Samuel Clegg.
Journal articles began to appear on the early industry - an 1827 article by D. Atkins is one of the earliest. Books include various works by William Matthews - his Historical Sketch of 1827 and Compendium of Gas Lighting, published in the same year. Matthews never worked for the industry as a biography, by one of his descendants, shows.
Later historians have used Peckston, Accum and Matthews as source material. All three wrote about recent events and had their own versions of them. Peckston's enthusiasm about his relations' work led to some criticisms "deficiencies have arisen through the circumstances of Mr. P. confining himself too much to his own experience".
Priority of "invention" was sometimes mentioned. Some of these early writers reference the 1739 work of Clayton in this. Clearly this was, and is, a subject for research. By the mid-1830s attention was being paid to the contribution of Samuel Clegg, the Boulton and Watt trained engineer who provided engineering expertise for the first London public gas works and industry. A biographical article was published in 1835 and in 1841, Samuel Clegg Junior, who enjoyed "access to and the free use of my father's manuscripts and notes", produced his Treatise, "a complete and true history of the rise and progress of gas light manufacture".
In the 1880s there was a focus on William Murdoch, the Boulton and Watt Engineer, as the "inventor" and in the 1890s the centenary of the discovery of gas lighting was announced. R.B. Prosser of Birmingham arranged for reproduction of William Murdoch's Letter to a Member of Parliament and William McFie, of Highbury, lectured on the subject of William Murdoch at the Royal Aquarium in 1883. The Blackheath based historian, Samuel Smiles, was in the chair and a year later published Men of Industry and Invention, with a chapter on William Murdoch.
A more comprehensive history of the early gas industry was written in 1907 by Charles Hunt, a gas engineer, originally from South London who spent most of his working life as Engineer to Birmingham Corporation Gas Department. He was a great admirer of George Livesey and eventually, after Livesey’s death, succeeded him as Chairman of the South Suburban Gas Company at Bell Green. His book includes a number of "source" documents. No other such work was to appear for sixty years.
Nationalisation in 1949 brought a number of books; in particular The Rise of the Gas Industry in Britain, by Dean Chandler and Douglas Lacey; a basic text which never strayed far from the received view of gas as put forward by Accum, Peckston and Matthews. The most important book to come out of this era is Sterling Everard’s massive History of the Gas Light and Coke Company. Everard had been PA to the Governor of the Gas Light and Coke and hence had access to much archive material – some of which we must assume has been lost. The main problem with this readable, detailed work is its lack of references and bibliography – but nevertheless few companies can have left such a well written account of their existence. Since then the industry itself has commissioned popular writers to write its history; for example, The Vital Flame, by Compton MacKenzie, published in 1947. Sponsored by the British Gas Council it is written in the first person and with a popular audience in mind. Similarly, New Flame sponsored by Southern Gas has sacrificed a great deal of accuracy in the cause of popularity, despite its attempt to describe the history of gas throughout England, rather than London alone.
The Science Museum published a history by E.G. Stewart in 1958. Stewart had corresponded with Sir Arthur Elton whose unpublished The Triumph of Gas Lights, ostensibly a life of Murdoch, is unusually, written by someone outside and not funded by the industry. Another Science Museum book. Gas, An Energy Industry, by Susan Messham, was published in 1976, and makes a brave attempt in forty-four pages to do a thorough job. These three titles do indicate a move away from people within the industry writing its history for itself.
As economic, labour and business histories began to be written the gas industry became a subject of academic interest. Malcolm Faulkus's 1982 article, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, concluded that we should revise early accounts of the "heroic" view of early gas enterprise and this has been followed by numerous works by academic economic and labour historians.
There are very many regional histories and others of specialist subjects, the history of lighting, etc. Histories of the gas industry often seem to imply that the London industry was the first. Many, having disposed of the invention of gas, continue with a history of the Gas Light and Coke Co. in London. London should be seen in the context of a country-wide movement, and in no sense as the main-spring of the industry.
The history of that first company; the Chartered is the subject of a major company history, The History of the Gas Light and Coke Company, written in 1949, giving some detail about other companies in London, in particular the Imperial and the City Companies. In addition an official company history of The Gas Light and Coke Co. exists as does one of the British Company. E.G. Stewart, attempted to list all gas works which had existed in the North Thames Gas Area. An article of 1972 by D.A. Chatterton put the gas industry in London into the context of government controls. Another article on this subject, by Derek Matthews, whose PhD thesis had been on the London Gas Industry, has given some political background; a chapter from it has appeared as an article in London Journal.
Gas Companies south of the River have fared rather worse in terms of their written history. A company history of the South Metropolitan appeared in the 1920s following another more popular one in its house journal. A history of the South London companies was serialised in the trade press during the 1950s with an unexplained abrupt finish at 1919.
Despite this wealth of written material on the London gas industry there has been little attempt to put individual companies into their settings. All have a tendency to view the industry as a discrete unit. A study of gas company minute books will demonstrate its close relationship with surrounding industry, politics, entertainments, and life in general.
There is a difference between the academic historians Matthews, Faulkus and Chatterton, and those with an industry or local history background. Sterling Everard was an employee of the Gas Light and Coke Co.; Mr. Layton and Mr. Garton were both employees of the South Metropolitan, all three wrote histories taken from the company minute books; and their associated research is unknown because none give bibliographies. They are quick to pick on records of human or local interest through which they hope to make the history accessible to an informed audience. Everard, for example, goes into details about the sort of casks and barrels available in 1816 and Garton gives exact details as to the unsuitability of Heginbotham's patent retort in 1838.
Layton was the author of numerous articles of local history interest in the South Metropolitan Company’s Co-partnership Journal and, as its editor, published many pieces describing the use of gas by surrounding industry. Even so his history of South Met. rarely moves beyond the works wall. Articles were also carried by the Gas Light and Coke Company’s Co-partners Magazine, and in also in great detail by the Commercial Company’s Co-Partnership Herald.
In the 1970s and 1980s as gas works began to close down a number of those inside the industry began to collect fast disappearing artefacts. Eventually the London Gas Museum was set up at Bromley by Bow and another collection at the Old Kent Road. A number of short company histories began to appear. In particular in South London Brian Sturt produced his influential Low pressure gas storage and Brian followed this with a number of other articles including one on South London for the Lewisham Local History Journal. A number of other authors have followed with brief articles on local gas works - often associated with development of the site. An unpublished survey by the Greater London Council was quoted by Friends of the Earth in a report published by them.
In late 2001 a study of gasholders in London was been prepared for English Heritage by a consultant.
As the 1990s ended and privatisation of the gas industry continued the two museums were closed down as their sites were redeveloped and financial support for the collections could not be found. The Bromley by Bow archive was partly dispersed to the National Gas Archive, at Partington, near Accrington, and to some London based collections.
A large archive of gas industry material survives. At nationalisation British Gas was to deposit minute books in County archives. In London a large deposit of North Thames Gas material was made in the 1950s with the Greater London Council and a smaller deposit in the late 70s from south of the Thames. This archive covers most companies which were in existence in the 1870s although some of the earlier ones have not survived and some others are in the City of London archive. In some cases, sets of works minutes exist but in others the records are so damaged as to be difficult to interpret, and in some cases access is denied by the archivists.
The National Gas Archive at Partington has acquired part of the collections once at Old Kent Road and at Bromley. What has happened to those items which did not go there is not known - and probably some items are now in private hands as a result. Archivists at Partington have not had time to sort what was given to them and as a result the location of a great deal of very valuable source material is now completely unknown. I am very aware, while writing this book, of missing archive material – some listed by Arthur Elton in 1949 – which might have thrown more light on the early industry, had it been available. For example, I briefly noted some items in a box at Bromley by Bow, including the script of a short play written about the early Court of the Gas Light and Coke Company – no-one now appears to have any idea what has happened to this unique piece of gas industry history. Arthur Elton said that he had seen large books full of press cuttings – where are they now? On the bright side some material was rescued before being sent to the north of England and is now in the library at the Institution of Gas Engineers, which has been greatly expanded as a result. It is to be hoped that both the Institute’s collection and those at the London Metropolitan Archive, the Science Museum and the Goldsmith’s Collection at Senate House will not only remain in London but be expanded – is it too much to hope that what has been lost will be returned?