When the Elder Brethren of Trinity House came to witness the demonstration of gas lighting mounted by Hatchard and Champion in Pimlico in 1789, described above, one of the witnesses was Joseph Cotton. His son, William, was to become the managing partner in a Limehouse rope works - and this may have been the site of one of the earliest gas lighting plants in London. Cotton's partner was Joseph Huddart who had patented a new method of making rope and the Limehouse factory was set up to make rope by his methods. Clearly it was to be a technologically advanced works and Boulton and Watt were asked to install the power raising equipment.
It seems likely that Huddart had known and investigated gas for lighting for some time. It has been suggested that Trinity House spent £500 on ‘spirit of coals’ as a lighthouse illuminant in the 1780s but that it was seen as too unreliable. Huddart later carried out experiments for Trinity House but reported badly on the brilliancy of the light produced, and also that coal for such plant would be difficult to use for lighthouses at sea - and that also Trinity House staff would need special training.
Huddart and Cotton had already purchased a steam engine for the rope works from Boulton and Watt, and it was to them that they went for gas making plant sometime between 1806 and 1811.
Plans for the plant at the Limehouse Ropeworks were drawn up by Boulton and Watt's gas design team. The drawings, as fresh as if they were prepared yesterday, can be found in the Birmingham City archives. They even still have the pencilled-in alterations, which look like the result of working discussions. At Limehouse Boulton and Watt's team sited the gas-making plant alongside the steam engine and boilers, which they had already supplied and perhaps, therefore, they saw the ensemble as one installation of gas and steam together. All of the equipment was in a single building alongside the main works.
In the first set of drawings, dated 1809, 2 retorts and a ‘gasometer pit' are situated next to the boilers with the engine at right angles beyond them. A wall was built between each part of the installation. Between the retorts and the 'gasometer' is a 'condenser' with pipes going to a 'tar pit' and a 'drain for waste water' sited below the retort and alongside the 'ash hole' for the boilers. There is also a 'rat trap'.
The gas making plant was probably installed after 1809; a note of 21st June 1811 gives instructions: 'Huddart & Co. Desire their Gazometer, Retorts, etc. to be sent as soon as possible'. Detailed instructions and plans are included for the lighting installations in the ropewalk and factory. For the rope walk itself - 'a pipe to join 2 cistern pipes and reserve 1 3/4 wrote iron pipe, upright. 160 feet 1 3/4 inch pipe 2 [angles]. 6 burners to fit 1 3/4 pipe'. The run of pipework is shown going from the 'gasometer', down the length of the ropewalk, with a branch to a three storey building and 'cable warehouses' and another to the 'cordage warehouses' and 'turners shop'. The position of burners is marked throughout.
The workings of this early gas lighting plant are not recorded. Huddart’s ropeworks continued in business, and subsequently became a lead works, and the site has since been redeveloped. In the late 1980s members of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society were able to walk the site and identify where the rope walk, manufactory and service buildings were located.
It perhaps should be said that this site is not in what many people today would recognise as Limehouse. The ‘works’ where the gas making plant was situated was just north of today’s Commercial Road alongside the Limehouse Cut. The rope walk itself stretched north into an area which was then roughly known as Bow Common and which covered a number of local authority areas - an area which today would probably be thought of as part of Bow or Stepney.