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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Brick Lane - The Great Gas Manufactury

I was driving up Goswell Road one day in the early 1990s when I saw that the office block which had stood in front of Samuel Clegg's Brick Lane Gas Works had been demolished. The gas works had been ‘The Great Gas Manufactory’ and justly famous. Now - for a few months - the buildings of the old works were there to be seen from Goswell Road. This alone of the earliest generation of gas works is still in use by the industry, as a depot for Transco.

I had always hoped to get on site at Clerkenwell and describe it from the inside - but there is little chance of that while it is still in use. A developer will one day make a tidy profit on the site - it cost the Chartered Company £3,000 to buy in 1814.

Brick Lane closed as a site for coal gas manufacture in 1871 when the giant out of town works at Beckton was opened but it stayed in use with showrooms and workshops. Some holders remained there until 1898. British Gas, and later Transco, vans could be still seen around in the 1990s. This site in Clerkenwell has been in use by the gas industry for longer than any other. It will be regrettable if it were to pass from them without any commemoration.

The works opened in the world of Georgian Clerkenwell - very different from today. Brick Lane has since become Central Street. Before gas manufacture began on site, it is shown on the Horwood Plan (1813) as a 'cooperage'. The street plan of Peartree Street, with its little kink, was much the same then. Between the site boundary and Seward Street was a burial ground and north of Seward Street was a rope walk. All around were dye works and chemical manufactories of all kinds. Clerkenwell is one of those areas which turned Britain into the 'workshop of the world'. An enormous list could be drawn up of industries which started there - Hancock and rubber, a different Hancock and cables, Bessemer, Moreland, endless breweries and distilleries, printworks, all sorts of workshop trades, and much, much more. Many moved out to larger premises and their London origins have been forgotten. These trades were lit with gas from Brick Lane -and sometimes it supplied waste products for raw materials to the nascent chemical industry in the area. Without the gas works would industry in the area have flourished so much? What role did the gas works have in the development of surrounding trades?

The builders of Brick Lane Gas Works knew so little about the nature of the trade on which they had embarked that they made no provision for coal deliveries. After this gas works were usually built on navigable water or beside the railway. Here everything came in by road -- imagine the coal carts in and the coke carts out. Sulphuric acid and lime in and noxious Blue Billy out - to be dumped - as well as tar and ammoniacal liquor for the chemical trade - all carted through the streets of Clerkenwell.

Visiting the site today it seems small and narrow - the gas works originally occupied about a third of what is there now. Yet, people came from all over the world to marvel at it.
The site of the Brick Lane Gas Works seen on a street plan of the 1840s. The street plan has changed very little since then.

Those big dark holders overlooking narrow Peartree Street were stared at by young enthusiasts. ‘Clegg’s young men’ have already been mentioned. No doubt they were as excited by the new technology they found in the gas industry as young men are today by computers and electronics. Who knows what lies hidden there? This was one of the earliest gas works ever, and it has been in the same ownership ever since. There is no other site like it. It could tell us so much.

It may be that development can take place on the site without any return to the planning process - and if so then any chance of investigation is lost. Hopefully the gas industry will stay on site and preserve what remains for the future. But that doesn't seem to be how things happen these days.

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