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Friday, 7 August 2009

The first demonstration of gas lighting

Most histories of the gas industry begin by describing the period before coal gas for lighting was ‘invented’ - they run through a list of researchers and inventors and then go on to describe the first attempts to use coal gas for lighting. They explain how natural gas was first observed and lit by, and then how a succession of scientists worked out how to make a gas from coal in their laboratories, and how others experimented with piping gas and lighting it. Information comes mainly from papers published by the Royal Society of London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and many of the researchers were clergymen - who, presumably, had time on their hands, were educated and in a position to make scientific enquiries. None were London based, unless we include the Rev.Stephen Hales whose work was carried out in Teddington - now in Greater London. It was however part of the scientific research of the time and was carried forward as part of a theoretical discussion on the nature of gases which, later, would inform the progress of the London gas industry.

In the 1780s the possibility of using coal gas, or other inflammable, gases, for lighting had been around for some time and the ideas of scientists had been taken up by those who thought they could put them to practical effect. These experiments were not just based in Britain - they were part of a European movement in which, initially, the most important work was done in France, and then spread by enthusiasts from the states which are now part of Germany to Britain and elsewhere.

This book is about what happened in London and how the early gas industry began there. Although the scientific discussion took place in London, the experimentation went on elsewhere. The first traceable London site associated with the development of coal gas for lighting was experimental and although set up before gas lighting became a commercial possibility it was done with an eye to a prospective customer.

This early demonstration of gas lighting was mounted for a delegation from the Corporation of Trinity House in London. As the body partly responsible for lighthouses around the coast of Britain, they were clearly interested in finding a means of illumination for their lights, which could be both independent of the shore for considerable periods and would be suitably bright. It is clear from what follows that Trinity House was well informed about the possibilities of making and using coal gas for lighting by, at least, the 1780s - and it is likely that they were not alone in this knowledge.


This section describes a demonstration of gas lighting, which took place in Pimlico in the late 1780s. Its geographical location is of no significance - since it seems to have taken place in someone’s back garden. Its importance lies, firstly, in its early date, and, secondly, that it reveals a great deal of knowledge and interest in the applications of coal gas to lighting by both established industrialists and a national agency in search of a good source of bright light.

In the late eighteenth there were probably many unrecorded attempts to make a gas from the distillation of coal, light it and adapt the flame for light and heat. The episode described here is no more than a curiosity. It apparently led nowhere - but the story gives an insight into some of the activities, which preceded the building of the first gas works.

In 1828 a letter appeared in the popular press telling the story of an experimental gas lighting scheme that had been undertaken in London in 1789 - three years earlier than William Murdoch's Cornish experiments. The writer of the letter was a 'T.Hatchard' and he described how, in 1783, he had been employed to write a 'fair copy' of Lord Dundonald's patent for tar manufacture. Archibald Cochrane, Ninth Earl of Dundonald, had devised a means of manufacturing tar from coal in the early 1770s and the text of his patent gives plenty of hints on how to make gas from coal.

Hatchard said that in 1789 his neighbour was 'an elderly man called Campion who had lost large sums in Bristol making mixed metals'. ‘Campion’ can be firmly identified as John Champion one of a family involved in a number of industrial activities but mainly known for the manufacture of brass in Bristol and Anglesey. In fact, John Champion’s son had, like Dundonald, experimented with tar manufacture.

'Mr. Campion', said Hatchard, was very elderly but, as a Quaker, had a 'comfortable annuity allowed by his society'.

Hatchard’s address was 'Brewer Street, Pimlico' and Champion's was 5 New Buildings, Princes Row, or Warwick Row. This street is at right angles to Brewer Street, so their homes were adjacent, but not actually next door to each other.

Hatchard and Champion discussed the Dundonald patent. They then set up 'a fire place and chimney' in Hatchard's back garden. Hatchard said 'over the fire I placed an iron pot .. which held about a half-bushel of coals .... to which I attached a tin cylinder .. the smoke when lighted produced a column of bright flame .. which burned for six or seven hours'.

Brewer Street area from the Horwood Plan (c.1800) today Victoria Station lies just below the bottom of the map. Elliot's brewery is now Stag Place. Warwick Row is shown above Brewer Street.Champion then wrote to the Corporation of Trinity House to ask if they were interested in using the process for their lighthouses. A delegation of Elder Brethren visited and saw the 'light by means of vapour issuing from coal'. They granted Champion 20 guineas in thanks but the idea was not taken up. Hatchard said that this was because it might 'injure the (whale) oil trade which was considered a nursery for seamen' - a common fear at the time.

Champion also approached a 'Birmingham manufacturer' who wanted a share of the process but this time Champion himself broke off negotiations for fear of 'the effect of former failures'. That ‘manufacturer’ was Matthew Boulton of the Boulton and Watt Partnership, better known for their development of steam engine technology. This correspondence, which is preserved in the Birmingham Reference Library, tells a rather different story. It shows that Champion told Boulton about the 'trial made by Trinity Corporation at their expense' and offered a half share for £300 pounds. He met Boulton to discuss the matter and then heard no more, although he wrote again offering to explain further.

It might be pointed out that Matthew Boulton was William Murdoch’s employer and this episode demonstrates that Boulton knew about the methodology of gas lighting and its possible application two years before the Murdoch’s famous experiments in Cornwall.

Several other influential people knew about this gas lighting demonstration in the 1780s. John Champion told his nephews Nehemiah and Charles Lloyd, both prominent and wealthy industrialists in Bristol. A number of Trinity House brethren also witnessed it. None of them seem to have been particularly surprised - which suggests that the possibility of gas lighting was well known in the late 1700s.

Next, Hatchard said, 'Mr. Campion being about four score' the matter was dropped. Champion died, in Pimlico, in 1794.

When Hatchard wrote his letter in 1828 no one came to his defence to verify his story. The Mirror printed a tactful note from a John Davy, which pointed out that many people had demonstrated gas lighting before Murdoch. They added a note to say that they had declined to print a letter from ‘Verax’, which was 'impugning the veracity of Mr. H's statements on every point'.

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