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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Early buyers of tar from the first London gas works

Those who bought tar from the gas companies are mentioned intermittently in the minute books. They provide a record of the ideas and the efforts made to distil tar and to sell it. There were those who were prepared to buy it and sometimes income from by-products is recorded in the gas company minute books. During one week of 1817, for example, Chartered took £2 14s 3d. in tar sales.

By far the largest number of transactions involving tar appear in the Chartered Company minute books - although this may reflect their early start. The City Gas Co. also recorded several before 1820 while Imperial never minuted very much. All the smaller companies, except the Independent, noted some enquiries and sales.

Far fewer names in total are noted as purchasers of tar than those recorded for ammoniacal liquor - and this may well reflect difficulties and the unpopularity of coal tar in this period.

Before 1820, as is clear from the, sometimes increasingly desperate, minutes, that the Chartered had a surplus of tar and no very clear idea of where to dispose of it. Sometimes enquiries came from outsiders who had ideas and suggestions for using the tar, and the gas company was usually happy to offer surplus tar to them.

In 1823 Chartered advertised coal tar for sale.21 After that they, and other gas companies, negotiated contracts, which usually ran over a three-year period and sometimes included transport arrangements. By the late 1830s these contracts were with large specialist tar distillers although most of the gas companies also record a trickle of additional enquiries about tar. The system of awarding three-year contracts means that information in the minute books is very limited after 1840. Such contracts were never, in any case, given the same attention as other activities ‑ like buying coal and making gas.

Several potential customers only appear once in the gas company records in respect of tar. These were sometimes established customers who dealt regularly with the gas companies for other items. The Chartered Company sold tar to the Deptford bone merchant, Richard Torr, in 1833 although he usually bought ammoniacal liquor. Wilkinson normally bought ammoniacal liquor but bought tar in 1837. Marmeduke George Featherstonehaugh bought tar from the City Gas Company in 1819 - he usually bought scrap retorts and sold coal. Mr. Davey of Davey and Sawyer, Old Barge House usually sold coal to the gas companies but bought tar from Chartered in 1823. There is little or no indication why these customers wanted to buy tar on any of these occasions.

Sometimes new customers came to the companies for tar and were turned down. 'Mr. Hardlen of London, Paris and Hamburg Asphalt Company' and Mr. Micklen of Finch Street were both refused tar by Phoenix Gas Co. because Phoenix offered 'only one contract'. In 1831 Mr. Parker was refused tar by Chartered because the 'Company uses all the tar' and by Phoenix because they 'could not consent to part with it for less than 3d. a gallon' ‑ all of which suggests a seller's market. It also made difficulties for Mr. Parker who needed raw materials for his paint and varnish business in Deptford. It might also suggest some rigidity on the part of the gas companies who perhaps couldn't be bothered with added complications.

How much did the gas companies charge for their tar? This is not an easy question to answer because the prices minuted are those agreed at the end of a process of negotiation and are those which the Board have been asked to ratify at their meeting. Prices quoted have little consistency. The following list, taken from a selection of minutes, may serve to confuse things further, but demonstrate the paucity and inconsistency of the available evidence.

1815 ‑ 10‑×12 per ton
1816 ‑ 34/‑d. a barrel
1818 ‑ 2/2d per gallon beer measure
1818 ‑ 3d. per gallon beer measure
1818 ‑ £5 per ton
1826 ‑ 12/6d. a barrel
1831 ‑ 2d. a gallon
1831 ‑ 3d. per gallon
1833 ‑ 1d. a gallon
1845 ‑ 10d. delivered
1846 ‑ 11/6d. a butt of 108 gallons
1848 ‑ 10d. a gallon

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