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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Golden Lane Brewery

While Winsor was promoting his ideas about coal gas in London the idea of gas lighting was beginning to catch on elsewhere. In Birmingham the Boulton and Watt Partnership were selling apparatus to make gas for lighting factories. This first traceable gas lighting installation in a London factory does not seem to have been installed by either Boulton and Watt or by Winsor. It was, however, effect the first commercial plant sited in London which could make coal gas for lighting.

Devotees of real ale should note that even in 1800 people thought that big breweries were ruining the beer. If they examine the Horwood Plan they will see a 'Genuine Beer Brewery' shown on the east side of Golden Lane just north of the City boundary - and technically in an area then known as ‘St.Luke’s’. Today it is in the London Borough of Islington.

This was the site of the best known of London's early gas making plants, and already very well written up by a number of historians. However, some writers have made a very basic mistake and have assumed that ‘the Golden Lane Brewery’ was something to do with the famous Whitbread Brewery, which stood until very recently, a hundred yards away in Chiswell Street.The Golden Lane Brewery was nothing to do with Whitbread's, who had a different gas making plant of their own. Whitbread were a big commercial porter brewer and the deadliest rivals of the Golden Lane Company.

The Golden Lane Brewery has a fascinating history which has been detailed by Peter Mathias in ‘The Brewing Industry in England 1700‑1830’. They were essentially an idealistic company set up on co-operative principles, supported by publicans rather than financiers in order to provide a traditional product which they thought was under threat because of the factory-scale manufacture and sale of porter - made by brewers like Whitbread's.

The August 1807 number of The Athenaeum reported on the Golden Lane gasworks saying that the brewery had had recently installed a carbonising furnace in the brewery. Seven lamps in Golden Lane and four in nearby Beech Street were supplied by pipes branching at right angles from a main source each terminating in a lantern where the gas was burnt, via three small holes pierced in the end of the pipe. It gave a ‘very brilliant’ light. These lamps were about twenty yards apart. The furthermost was about seven hundred feet from the carbonising furnace and the light it gave was dim, though still stronger than an equivalent oil lamp. The Athenaeum commented that this meant that seven hundred feet might be the optimum length of main through which gas could be conducted from its source. They also thought that the smell was disagreeable, particularly when the lamps were first lighted, but that it diminished after a while - although people would get used to it. The shortness of possible run of pipes the smell, the expense of firing the retorts and the difficulty of finding sites for them suggested to The Athenaeum that gas could not readily be used to light a city. However, if this could be overcome, they thought, gas lights could be cheaper than oil.

One of the most interesting and important things about this little gas making plant is that it was used for a demonstration of street lighting. This was arranged by the local Alderman, Matthew Wood, a City of London 'improver'; who may also have had an interest in the brewery. Later, he supported a number of other, more commercial, gas companies.

It is not known who installed the Golden Lane gas making plant and this subject has been discussed by writers on the early gas industry. It does not appear in the list of Boulton and Watt’s customers in the Birmingham archive so it is unlikely it was installed by them. Winsor disclaimed it publicly. Sir Arthur Elton speculated that it might have a been a free lance effort by Boulton and Watt’s engineer, William Murdoch, who was involved with an isinglass manufacturer opposite the brewery in Golden Lane. It seems likely that the Brewery owners had taken over a Boulton and Watt steam engine installed by the previous occupant so that they were in touch with them and Murdoch may well have visited the brewery. E.G.Stewart ascribed it to Pemberton - a Birmingham factory owner who also had some connections with Boulton and Watt. The fact is however, that there are no records.

One of the most interesting things about the Golden Lane Brewery is that they were prepared to invest in the new technology that gas represented. The company was set up to make a traditional product but used the very latest methods to do so. Alderman Wood’s contribution should not be underestimated here.

It is typical of London cynicism that the locals were not impressed: "the flame issuing from the chimneys has afforded nightly amusement to the frequenters of the neighbouring alehouses'. The point is however that the public was beginning to be aware of this new way of providing light. The Athenaeum was quick to comment about the ‘length of time’ that they waited to see such a demonstration undertaken. Gas was fast becoming a desirable commodity - something which people knew would be of use to them.

Today the Golden Lane Brewery site is covered with housing owned by the Peabody Trust and owned by the City of London although in the London Borough of Islington.

1 comment:

  1. My 4xgreat grandfather was William Robert Henry Brown (1767-1853), co-founder of the Golden Lane Brewery (Joseph Parry was his partner), so I really enjoyed reading your article!

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