Search This Blog

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The first London gas works

By 1810 a number of contractors were in the business of supplying gas-making equipment to industry. Members of Boulton and Watt's team began to exploit their skills independently and so the number of active gas making plants began to increase. There were probably many which went unrecorded. Josiah Pemberton, an ex-employee of Boulton and Watt installed one early gas making plant in London just north of the City. It was at the Golden Lane Brewery, which itself was attempting to use new methods to make a traditional product.

There was a great deal of public interest in these projects. In Golden Lane 'the flame issuing from the chimneys has afforded amusement to frequenters of the neighbouring ale houses'.38 Despite the derision there was a realisation that great public benefit could come from this new medium. Matthew Wood, a City Alderman, arranged to use gas from the Golden Lane plant for a street lighting demonstration. Wood had a keen interest in 'improvement'. As time went on supporters of improvements to the urban environment became a great aid in the spread of gas fuelled street lighting and it was often included in the local Acts of Parliament, which they promoted.


At the same time that Golden Lane gas works was being developed moves began to set up the first public supply gas company in London. For gas historians this makes the London industry of particular interest because the new Company opened what most people would understand as the first gas works ‑ that is, a factory to make and sell coal gas for lighting.

It was started by a bizarre figure who entertained London 'Society' while he worked on the promotion of the idea of a gas company. This was Frederick Albert Winsor who came from the German state of Brunswick - leading to a suspicion of liaison with the Royal family, since Caroline, George IV's discarded wife, came from there. Winsor was good at having bright ideas but not so efficient at implementing them.

Winsor claimed to have made gas from coal as early as 1784. From 1804 onwards he wrote pamphlets to promote his ideas and also demonstrated how coal gas was made while he lectured on its potential wonders.43 He thus put the possibility of using coal gas for lighting firmly into the minds of those who attended the popular lecture circuit.

No examples of actual working installations have been connected with Winsor - beyond unsubstantiated rumours of a plant at his Woolwich home - although in 1826 a magazine article claimed that he had erected 'private gas appliances ... in different parts of the metropolis' before 1807.


Several gas histories have told in detail the story of the setting up and the first years of the first public supply gas company, which became known as the 'Chartered Company'.

Those who put their names to the first subscription lists were wealthy and influential with, predictably, a number of bankers, merchants and lawyers. They included the Duke of Athol, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a relation of the Company's first Governor. Like some others his subscription might have arisen from interest rather than investment. John Williams, another subscriber, for example, was a propagandist for putting service pipes underground and not a rich man.

It was necessary to obtain Parliamentary approval to raise enough capital for the company. A Parliamentary Bill was promoted in 1809 but Boulton and Watt challenged it and a Parliamentary Enquiry ensued. At a later, second, attempt the challenge was dropped and the company’s Charter was granted in 1812. This first ever gas company's legal name was 'The Gas Light and Coke Company' but it was commonly known as 'The Chartered Company' or simply 'The Chartered'. In order to prevent confusion this name will be used here.

What exactly did the new gas company propose to do which was different to the activities of Boulton and Watt who were already selling gas-making plant to be operated by the purchaser to light their premises? Winsor and the Chartered Company wanted to open a gas factory, which would make and distribute gas to whoever wanted to buy it.

No comments:

Post a Comment