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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Great Peter Street

This is the first fully functioning public supply gas works. It was designed and initially managed by Samuel Clegg. He had trained under Boulton and Watt and had a strong scientific background. It was built in the centre of Westminster to be near customers - and showing a strong presence near the seat of Government. It was however in the middle of crowded streets and with no water access - although the river was not far away. It was to become a show piece works and continued to supply gas for about sixty years. The site remained as the Head Office of the Company until nationalisation in the late 1940s - and remains of the site are still important enough to be the subject of a great deal discussion in Parliament and elsewhere.

The Gas Light and Coke Company were to build three works in the first few years of operations but initially they opened a new works in Great Peter Street, Westminster.

Hansard of 1st Marsh 1975 records a House of Lords discussion about the demolition of the Department of the Environment's Marsham Street, SW1, building. Viscount Ullswater told the House that this was the site of 'the first public gas works'. From the gas historian's point of view the site is anything but obscure. It was the 'first operational public gas works', set up by Winsor, Grant, Hargreaves and Barlow, and made to work by Samuel Clegg. For nearly sixty years the works functioned on the doorstep of Parliament - and even today, 130 years after its closure it is still making news .

The yard at Westminster Works.The first contracts for lighting parts of Westminster had been agreed with some difficulty. Grant was ‘assiduous in pursuing contracts’ but without any ‘expansion of the works’. The first gas lights went in operation sometime between August and October 1813 - this was for public street lighting, but some private lights were installed shortly afterwards. It became increasingly clear that a ‘practical engineer’ was needed by the Company - since little sense could be gained from either Winsor or Accum. The Court therefore recruited Samuel Clegg, from Manchester and trained by Boulton and Watt as a consultant. He recommended the construction of new plant on a larger site and a site just off Great Peter Street was acquired.

Before 1811 the site, Providence Court, had been the site of a cudbear works. This was a lichen and ammonia based dye developed in Scotland by the industrial chemist, Charles Mackintosh, but illicitly passed by one of his workers to a Mr. Grant. It may be co-incidental that the first Chairman of the Gas Light and Coke Co. had the same name - James Ludovic Grant. The lease was however owned by a different director, John White, and it was through him that the site was acquired.

In due course Cannon Row was closed and Providence Court became the first functioning gas works of the first functioning gas company. Soon, it began to expand - initially to neighbouring Laundry Court. There was however, a problem with the site, which was to cause endless difficulties as time went on. Unlike Cannon Row, or indeed unlike Winsor’s Millbank site, it had no water access. Deliveries of coal - and removal of chemical waste products - were to become a problem. Coal was delivered to a wharf at Westminster and taken to the works by road.

The first accident with gas - an explosion in a gas storage area, was recorded in October 1813. With it began the long history of public concern about these inner city gas works. As a result the Government made its first attempts at regulation of the new industry.

In 1813 the Home Secretary asked the Royal Society to undertake an investigation into the new industry. The Enquiry was chaired by Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Society - his involvement in this role was clearly a measure of the importance with which it was viewed.

The personnel of the Enquiry made up an impressive group of scientific talent:

William Congreve - a key figure in the early gas industry - a biographic article is included in the section about the Imperial Company.

James Lawson - an employee of the Boulton and Watt Partnership and in 1814 their Superintendent of Machinery at the Royal Mint. In Birmingham, he had been part of the development team working on gas making equipment.

John Rennie - the Civil Engineer who had been involved in lobbying for the new gas company. However, in 1814, he refused to comment on the workings of the Westminster Works’ steam engine when approached by one of the Directors at a party.

George Saunders - the Surveyor for Middlesex and Chairman of the Commission of Sewers.

Charles Blagden - a well-known chemist and future secretary of the Royal Society, who had previously worked in Paris where he had liaised on the subject of gases between Cavendish and Lavoisier.

Smithson Tennant - Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge and an expert on the chemistry of gases. Together with Hyde Wollaston he produced a paper for the Royal Society on explosions in small tubes based on investigations undertaken for this Enquiry.

William Hyde Wollaston - a well known contemporary physician and chemist who was be a subscriber to several other gas companies.

Thomas Young – Scientist, who among many other things founded the Cambridge School of Materials and Structures. In the early nineteenth century he had developed important theories on the nature of light.

Although distinguished, this Committee of Enquiry was elderly - within seven years half of them were dead. Their examination of safety at the works was particularly marked by the notorious occasion when Samuel Clegg, asked about the danger of explosion, simply knocked a hole in a gas holder and lit the ensuing gas leak.

What happened as the result of this Enquiry? The Report was not published for nearly ten years although the Government did however, add a clause to the 1816 Act of the Chartered Company ensuring that their works were open to inspection by the Home Office. The clauses used in these early Acts of the Chartered Company were to become standard for all later London gas companies as they were set up.

To return to the internal management of the Gas Light and Coke Company: - at around the same time, in October 1813, a small group of shareholders began to press for changes in the Company. From this group emerged Thomas Livesey, who was to become Deputy Governor of the Company for the next twenty-five years and was the first of a gas making dynasty of Liveseys through his brother’s family.

Gradually, with some difficulties, the technology was sorted out and things began to improve. This is not the place to go into detail about all the different technologies which were developed at Westminster as well as at the Gas Light and Coke Company’s two other works. It was one of the earliest gas works and needs must sort out the problems. Samuel Clegg had brought with him a group of experienced workers - ‘Clegg’s young men’ - and many of them were very young - went out to start gas works of their own around the country.

This inner city site was never really big enough and expansion began almost before things had started. By 1814 there was a problem with increasing amounts of noxious effluent. It was even considered floating great lakes of the stuff in the area now covered by the Tate Gallery! There were continual and increasing complaints about pollution of the river and sewers. The works grew and grew and by the end of 1822, as the largest gas works in London fed it into fifty seven miles of main, serving 10,660 private burners, 2,248 street lamps and 3,894 burners in public buildings and theatres.

Bcause the Westminster Works was so central and so famous visitors were allowed to look around, so long as they had a ticket of admission. One of these was a Frenchwoman, Flora Tristam, who looked round the works in the early 1840s. She was appalled at what she saw there - ‘a veritable hell’. The place smelt ‘foul exhalations of gas and the stench of coal and tar pursued me’... it was dirty - ‘pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish’... and ‘appalling’ ... ‘nothing could be more terrible and majestic than the sight of so many mouths all pouring flames’. Even worse were the conditions for the workmen ‘Dear God! Have these men no mother, sister, wife or daughter waiting at the door as they emerge from that hell?'

In 1848 the plant at Westminster was very largely rebuilt by Frederick Evans, the then engineer, and a wharf at Millbank was specially designed for coal deliveries to Westminster. When plans for the Victoria Embankment jeopardised the future of this wharf plans were put forward for a dock system in Pimlico but this did not take place. Instead an extension to the works for gas storage was built at a site later known as Vincent Street. By the early 1870s the Westminster works was thought to have a ‘discreditable appearance’ - which, given its site so near the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey is not surprising! The works was reduced then to supplying only the peak load and in 1875 it was closed for gas making. In 1883 the site was cleared and two large gas holders were built on it.

By the 1940s the offices in Horseferry Road could be described as ‘a charming survival of the Victorian period. ‘The main entrance flanked on either side by decorative gas lamps. behind it was concealed a jumble of added offices’.

The two gasholders built on the site appear on contemporary maps and anyone who walks down Peter Street today can see that these holder sites appear to match the large circular structures on which the 1960s office block rests. E.G. Stewart explained that in 1941 the tanks of the two holders were converted into 'heavily reinforced underground strongholds each equipped to house several thousand Government officials ..joined by tube railway to similar strongholds'. Stewart gave no source for this information which has been repeated in several books on 'secret' or 'underground' London. In fact Viscount Ullswater told the Lords that 'the towers of 2 Marsham Street are built on the rotundas of two large gasholders'.

I have met several people who claim to have seen inside the rotundas, which are alleged to go down at least four storeys. This begs the question of how gas holder tanks from the 1880s could have been deep enough for thousands of civil servants and a tube railway. Does anything remain of the actual tanks? Marsham Street is to be sold, perhaps to developers, and 'when demolition takes place the base of the rotundas will be removed and contamination will be dealt with' (Vis. Ullswater again). We can be sure that the Ministry will have removed anything of real interest long before that. Meanwhile, is there an industrial archaeologist with security clearance who can go and have a look?

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