If you go down the Old Kent Road and look behind the shops on the corner of Trafalgar Avenue, you will find a big old house. In 1860, an old man died there.looked after by his daughter, a Mrs. Donkin. Despite his 90 years the old man had been, until the previous week, the active Governor of the Court of Directors of the oldest gas company in the world, the Gas Light & Coke Company.
Old Barge House on the west of Blackfriars Bridge. c.1830. The area is now covered with shops, galleries and the Oxo Tower. Although this old man is not in the Dictionary of National Biography, you will find his father and son there. His father was a doctor, who founded the Royal Humane Society, and his son was a politician. His name was Benjamin Hawes and he had founded what became the largest soap works in London. It was at Old Barge House, on the river bank slightly to the west of Blackfriars Bridge.
That he was Governor of the Gas Light & Coke Company demonstrates a remarkable change of allegiances because in the 1820s Hawes' soap works had been the site of a gas works fuelled by oil. Sufficient to say that there had been considerable commercial rivalry between coal and oil gas manufacturers. For a soap manufacturer to make gas from oil made a lot of sense because oils used to make soap could be used for gas, and an on site gas works could take oil rejected by the soap maker for reasons of quality. Sadly, most of the oil came from whales, but palm and coconut oil was also used. About 100 cubic foot of gas was made from one gallon of oil.
The younger Benjamin Hawes –government minister, I.K.Brunel's brother in law, and the son of the Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company. He promoted gas made from oil to light the family's soap works.The gas making apparatus had been supplied to Hawes by Taylor and Martineau. The plant, about ten feet from the main works, was run by one man 'chosen for his regularity and sobriety'. There was a 'gasometer' in the yard. The gas was not purified in any way, or even washed. Smell, he said, did not matter; soap making was after all 'not the most savoury operation'.
The gas was made for lighting the soap works, in particular the cellar, which was lit day and night. Gas was also supplied, at 45s. per 1,000 cubit feet, to neighbourhood shops and pubs via a two inch main. In Old Barge House itself, gas was burnt in the bedrooms, dressing rooms, nursery, hall and stairs.
The soap works was run by another brother, William. It is described in Dodds' Days at the Factories. The Hawes were an influential family. The names of Benjamin and William permeate industrial enterprises of the nineteenth century: breweries, dock companies, railways. Many of projects which they supported were those of I.K. Brunel who was a frequent visitor to Old Barge House both before and after his sister's marriage to Benjamin Jnr.
It is not clear when the oil gas works closed and Benjamin Snr. became a leading light in the coal gas world. The family influence in gas was to continue through the engineering company into which Caroline Hawes had married: the Bryan Donkin Company Ltd. were to be leaders in the supply of gas distribution equipment.
Old Barge House has recently been cleaned up and turned into a complex of restaurants, art galleries and smart businesses - long forgotten are the soap works and the associated gas making plant.