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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Greenwich Railway Gas Works

In the 1820s gas lighting in Greenwich was supplied by the Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company from their gas works in Thames Street. In 1829 the gas from the South Metroplitan’s Old Kent Road works began supply some of the area to the west. Deptford lay between the two and, as more and towns had gas works of their own, Deptford people began to want their own gas lighting supply from their own works. In due course they were to get it – but from a very unlikely source.

In October 1834 Kentish Mercury announced a meeting 'for the purpose of considering the expediency of immediately forming a GAS LIGHT ESTABLISHMENT'. It was agreed that Deptford 'presents peculiar local facilities for the advantageous formation' of such a body and it was proposed to call it the 'Deptford and Greenwich GasLight Company'. In due course The Mercury carried a notice of the formation of the company. After such a good start it is shame to have to relate that nothing else seems to be heard about this body.

The Mercury reported later however that a Deptford Gas Works had received an Act of Parliament and, although this cannot be found in the official records, a celebratory dinner was held in a pub on Deptford Broadway. It was a 'sumptuous entertainment' for a 'numerous and highly respectable' company. They toasted everyone and everything from ‘The Old Oak Tree' to ' The Army and Navy' – but I do not think they ever built a gas works.

The only little bit of doubt in my mind is because there was a gas works – a very small one – near the Blackhorse Bridge on the Surrey Canal. As recently as 1986 there was a small gas installation there with a notice inviting you to ring the South Eastern Gas Board at New Cross for information. Perhaps that was the much toasted Deptford Gas Works. Although Brian Sturt has said ‘Blackhorse Bridge was a subsidiary holder station for The Surrey Consumers, Rotherhithe works was always short of space.

Meanwhile, as the 1830s progressed, excitement and innovation was in the air in Greenwich. A steam railway – the first suburban railway in the world - was to come to Greenwich. As plans advanced for the scheme so the Greenwich pamphleteers and satirists were, as usual, out in force. Not only was this railway to be the first in London but it also would incorporate a number of novel features. Along with the boulevard and the inclined plane at Deptford were plans for an integrated scheme of gas lighting.

The engineer to the London and Greenwich Railway Company was George Landmann. He had had a distinguished career in the Royal Engineers but had sold his commission in 1824. In the intervening ten years he had worked as Engineer to the Imperial Continental Gas Association – travelling round Europe to construct gas works in Continental towns. In turning his hand to railway construction it is only natural that he should also think about how gas could be used as part of his railway scheme.

A separate company – The Greenwich Railway Gas Company – was set up in 1836 with the same board membership as the railway itself. It was proposed to light the line with gas lamps –"lights at a distance of 21 yards on each side of the railway and also a number of lights for the stopping places each end of the road making in all about 700 lights" and to supply gas lighting to stations and to cottages built in the arches under the railways. In a revolutionary step it was also proposed to supply the cottages with gas cooking apparatus. It seems very likely that another part of the plan was to make coke on site for use by the locomotives. The gas works itself was to occupy the site upriver of the railway on the Deptford side of Deptford Creek – a site which is very easy to see from the train today and which now holds a small ecology centre.

As plans for the railway began to emerge the Phoenix Gas Company became concerned about the potential of the railway for damage to the gas mains and Mr. Tilson, acting as the company's solicitor, took steps to see that a clause was inserted in the railway’s Parliamentary Bill requiring compensation for any damage. When the railway opened in 1836 Phoenix supplied the coke for their locomotives. What Phoenix did not know was that Colonel Landmann had been discussion with the rival South Metropolitan Company, based in the Old Kent Road, on the question of a supply of gas for the stations and for the line. When Phoenix found this out in 1836 they were not amused and pointed out that they had not been allowed to tender for these lights. But, we should ask, why did the railway company not use its own gas for lighting, and its own coke for fuel?

The Greenwich Railway Gas Company does not seem to have been a success - and it is very unclear if it actually ever did supply gas to the railway line. There have been descriptions of the lights which people saw 1837 and 1838 but we now know that the gas for them was supplied by South Met. Gas Works not the railway’s own gas making plant.

By 1838 the railway company had given up trying to make gas and the new works was abandoned and the site was sold. The gasworks was taken over and finished by the Deptford, Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Gas Light and Coke Co. This had a board consisting of Charles Barlee, a Deptford coke merchant, Webster Flockton and Bermondsey tar distiller, John Wells MP and ex local shipbuilder, and John Twells deputy chairman of the Greenwich Railway. This means that it was controlled by people who had an interest in the railway rather than the local dignitaries who had made up the proposed Deptford and Greenwich Company a few years earlier. A fifth member of the board was John Barlow and it was he who built and operated the works.

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