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Friday, 7 August 2009

First of all - what this is about

This is a history of the early gas industry in east London - primarily a story of bright ideas.

Most people do not see old gas works as an attractive subject - in the early twenty-first century they are thought of as dangerous, polluted sites and a cause for public concern. This book is not a treatise on polluted sites but an exercise in historical detective work. The intention is to identify some of the early gas works, their promoters and locations and at the same time to describe how the industry was set up and developed in east London - a large industrial city.

The technology of coal gas lighting was developed, initially for use in single buildings, in France and the English Midlands. The first recognisable ‘gas works’, in the sense of a gas factory, was in London although gas plants to light individual industrial buildings are recorded as early as 1805/6 in, for instance, Sowerby Bridge.[1] Gas lighting was developed at the height of the ‘industrial revolution’ - as a technology it made a major contribution to that process but historians examining industrialisation have rarely discussed it in any depth.

The early gas industry involved a developing exploration of the technology with which it was dealing and a growing awareness of the commercial possibilities of the product. Before this process can be explored, it is important, first of all, to know something about the industry that is being examined.

In the mid-1950s E.G.Stewart collated a list of gasworks sites, past and present, in what was then the area of North Thames Gas. It was very thoroughly researched but clearly limited because South London was omitted. Even so, Stewart ended up with a huge and diverse collection of sites - his list includes huge modern works together with tiny, short-lived experimental plants and some purely conjectural private gas works. I would like first to pay tribute to Mr. Stewart and to say that without his list this book could not have been written.

In the early-1990s Friends of the Earth (FOE) published, with much publicity, a list of old gas works sites with the message that here lay pollution, both undiscovered and unrecorded. It emerged that FOE, had beem unaware of the existence of Stewart’s book, had used a list drawn up by the defunct Greater London Council and dome of the site locations in it were just plain wrong. Looking at this I decided to record what I knew about some of the earlier and more conjectural sites.

This book only attempts to identify gas works sites in east London before 1836. It must be admitted, however, that the definition of ‘east’ London is fairly eccentric. For good historical reasons it has been stretched west far enough to include the very first gas works at Westminster. It stretches to Woolwich in the South East but only as far as the banks of the river Lea on the north side of the Thames.

It has also proved difficult to find a way of handling the material in a way that makes sense. Each gas company is given date order, with a list of their original proprietors, if relevant. Then follows a brief history of the foundation and site of their works.

Not all the gas works listed are ‘gas factories’ providing coal gas for lighting to the public. Some early industrial plants for factory lighting are included, again in date order, together with some for scientific research and demonstration. It is hoped that this will demonstrate some the inter-relationships between commerce and the scientific establishment. Within these narratives is an important discussion in both sectors about the use of raw materials for gas manufacture – coal or oil.

Some of the narratives included here were originally used in a series of articles on early gas works sites in the Newsletter of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society and the articles about the Greenwich and Woolwich sites have appeared in Bygone Kent. I would also like to thank Brian Sturt, a historian who has specialised in the early gas industry, for his comments, which appear throughout this text.

There are many ways in which the influence of the gas industry could be examined in regard to its sense of place in the environment - I hope this work can demonstrate some of the ways this happened, but I would not claim to do more than indicate some of the milestones. Elsewhere I have attempted to describe some of the connections between the gas and other industries through the sale and exploitation of gas making by-products and to look at how; for example, the nineteenth century chemical industry in east London grew because of the gas industry.

There are several other ways in which the gas industry could be seen to influence society and the environment, all of which would repay detailed research. Numerous industries used gas industry waste products for raw materials - albeit often recycled through the chemical industry. Detailed research might reveal numerous industrial processes that were enabled by a process or a substance that emerged because the gas industry was able to provide it. Industries grow and feed off each other - how important was the gas industry in the process of industrial growth?

Some examples of its influence, which might repay such research, are:

The influence of the London gas industry on coal mining areas and the growth, in particular, of the Durham and Northumberland coal fields and communities during the early nineteenth century. The business links, which grew up between investors and owners in both London and the North East, are also important element of this.

The impact on shipping and river trades - in the ‘coal trade’ where coal was shipped from the North East to London. This might take in, for instance, ship design, the spread of wharves and wharfage regulation, the regulation of Thames and Tyne shipping, development of wharf machinery, and so on. There are also important industries, which developed through the need for return cargoes. This need for transport extends into railway development and transhipment methods - and thus illuminates important questions on the location and design of communities.

I hope that this book helps some of that research. It too is a ‘rag bag’ of sites and personalities - but I hope it puts them into context and give points to new ways forward for research.

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