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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Curtain Road

The second works of the Gas Light and Coke Company, was started by Accum, and finished, more practically by Clegg. It was situated to the immediate north of the City of London it was built to supply gas to the tiny ‘Liberty’ of Norton Folgate. Like Westminster it had no water access being a long way from the river or canal.

The searcher after an early gas works' site should go north from Liverpool Street station to Hearn Street and look at the taxi depot on the eastern corner of Hearn and Worship Streets. The present occupants are friendly enough and will, if you are lucky, invite you into their canteen. Cynical taxi drivers will show no surprise when you tell them it is the site of one of the earliest gas works ever built. If you look around you can see many, very interesting, signs of the coal depot, which previously occupied the site. I might stick my neck out and say that there is a possibility that parts of the perimeter wall could be that of the old gas works - although the only picture shows the works under demolition - but the gate posts seem to be in the same place.

One of the interesting things about this site is its location. In the very first years of the Gas Light and Coke Company, the Court of Governors worked very hard to get their local authority lighting contracts. In addition to Westminster, one of the earliest was just north of the City of London. This, their second works, was built to supply gas to the Liberty of Norton Folgate, just north of Bishopsgate.

At Norton Folgate, one of the GLCC Governors had influence over 'one of the Trustees'. The Trustees (vestrymen) were interested in the constant issues of lower rates and cutting crime and so, by deciding to find a solution in improved street lighting using gas, this tiny area became the one of the first to have its own public supply gas works.

The site was leased from two coal merchants James Weston and Thomas White and the works was designed and begun by Accum, working with Joseph Cooper, one of the other directors. Faced with his first practical chance of implementation of his theories on gas lighting Accum fudged it and the works was finished by Samuel Clegg.

Everard gives details of the problems caused by the single gas holder - the collapse of which caused a crisis and a resolution that future works must have two holders. Everard also tells the story of an early visit of directors to Curtain Road in 1813. He quotes a letter warning of springs underlying the works - springs which must lie on the line of the upper reaches of the Walbrook.

Despite this underground river Curtain Road was, like Westminster, not on a navigable watercourse which meant similar problems with coal delivery. Coal had to be carted across the City from the Westminster Wharf.

This is not the place to give a lot of detail on the works itself -what became known as 'Curtain Road' had an interesting history as one of the earliest gas works in the world. As time went by it became less and less important, always on the brink of being closed. In 1865 the new North London Railway lines into Broad Street passed down the east side of the works and a complicated agreement was entered into with the railway whereby coal sidings would be built into the site and the railway would deliver 'coal and all other materials' from Poplar Dock at 1/2d. per ton. Other arrangements concerned the use of Gas Light and Coke Co. gas for lighting in North London Railway stations and works and a promise that they would try and persuade LNWR to do so too.

Within six years the gas company had decided to close the works. A giant new works on a greenfield site in Barking – the works which became known as Beckton – which allowed the Gas Light and Coke Company to close Curtain Road. A print of the works under demolition is sometimes reproduced with the claim that this was to enable the new Great Eastern Railway terminus to be built. However, the site shown in the print, is west of the existing North London Railway, whereas the Great Eastern lines are to the east. Plans in the London Metropolitan Archive make it clear that demolition was actually carried out to allow for a widening of the North London Railway into Broad Street Station. It is possible to stand in Hearn Street at the same angle from which the print was drawn and see where the railway lines have been widened and the line of the wall changed. A large gasholder stood at the eastern end of the site now partly covered by the railway. There is no apparent sign of this within the site itself.

In the late 1870s the site returned to its previous use as a coal yard and is shown as that on subsequent maps. Remains of a coal delivery system from the railway can still be seen on some of the walls. The future fate of the railway viaduct is not clear but will presumably be demolished as part of the planned East London Line Extension. Detailed investigation might still throw up clues to the past of this interesting old site and things might become clearer when and if building work commences.

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