I was sitting at a meeting once, listening to a City of London planner explaining that they couldn't let any old, scruffy, boat moor along the Victoria Embankment because they had 'to preserve the original integrity of Bazalgette's design'. I was forced to point out that when Bazalgette built the embankment he had to accommodate a gasworks in his design and so included a tunnel underneath for coal transfer purposes - nevertheless scruffy colliers must have continued to deliver coal alongside.
This was The City of London Gas Company, whose holders can be seen in early photographs of the Embankment. Its Blackfriars works was slightly west of the mouth of the Fleet at Blackfriars on a site almost overburdened with historic interest. In the 17th century it was the site of a theatre, later Savery's workshop, later still headquarters and wharf of the New River Company.
It was, perhaps, the second gas company to be set up in London and was started by merchants and shopkeepers rather than the sort of grandees who often financed early gas companies. One of the instigators could have been James Grant, who had also been behind the Chartered Gas Company. Its' first works was at the bottom end of Fetter Lane but by 1815 was relocated to Dorset Street, or 'Water Lane', as it was also known. In 1819, it was rebuilt again and it is from this date that the proper company records start. Everard wrote a detailed history of their first years, describing them as 'money making, grasping and litigious'. By the 1820s, the company was in the hands of the New Cross based, Stansfield family.
An early engineer was John Perks, who designed the Blackfriars works. He was associated with Congreve who acted as a consultant to the company. Perks and Congreve were to go off with George Landmann, to tour Europe building gasworks. In 1822 one of his successors was thrown over a gas holder by an explosion and killed.
The holders of the City of London gas works seen on the skyline next to St. Paul's Cathedral in 1864.In 1815, the proprietors were in court for polluting the atmosphere and the City of London never let the company off the pollution hook again. It became increasingly clear that the works would not be allowed to remain on this congested inner city site. The story of the City improvements is a long and complicated one and gas supply played a major role in this. City of London activists - Charles Pearson aided and abetted by Angus Croll - promoted the Great Central Gas Company out at Bow Common to supply the City. Political pressure to make gas companies more efficient led in the end to amalgamation of the City Company with the Chartered and subsequent closure of the Blackfriars works in 1873.
In the early 1880, the City of London School was built on the site of the Blackfriars Gas Works. At the back of that building, in Tudor Street, part of a governor house survived into the mid-1980s, with art-nouveau motifs from the Gas Light and Coke Company (why did I never photograph it?) In the 1980s, the school was converted into the Morgan Bank HQ and the Museum of London undertook a dig on the site. Some of us went down to see but it was clear that what the archaeologists were really into was the medieval remains down underneath the interesting bits. A report was published into the dig. Today, although the frontage of the school remains, the sheer walls of the bank make it difficult to imagine what used to be there. This is one of the key sites in the City of London and the siting of such an early gas works on it demonstrates the importance of gas in the economy of the City.
Despite the reasonably successful future of the Blackfriars Works, its early years had not been so easy. In 1816 Sparrow and Knight had opposed a Parliamentary Bill put forward by the ‘Chartered’ Gas Light and Coke Company, saying that a statutory company had an unfair competitive advantage. Chartered had been in discussion on the Blackfriars Works for some years and in 1817 Sparrow and Knight offered to sell the works to the Chartered for £45,000 - an offer which, if accepted, the Chartered’ Court of Directors said would ‘lead to mirth and derision’. Thus, Knight and Sparrow felt that they had no alternative but to seek statutory powers themselves. Their Act was obtained without difficulty, following expensive alterations because of a prosecution for nuisance. In an agreement with the Chartered Company the new City Company agreed not to invade the Chartered’s district or steal its customers, and to exchange technical information.
The City of London School was built on the site after the City Gas Works had closed – the building was converted into a trading floor during the late 1980s.