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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Imperial at Haggerston - more problems with Palmer

At the same time as St. Pancras works were built, Imperial constructed another works. This makes for some difficulty. In theory we should have the best possible description of the construction of these two works because the set of works minutes, with day to day instructions to the engineers, still exist. However, because the two works were built together it often difficult to disentangle which works a particular set of instructions refers to.

The works were in Whiston Street (once Gloucester Street) to the north of Shoreditch, on the area now known as Haggerston Park. This leads to some confusion since it was known originally as the ‘Shoreditch Works’ - yet it is not particularly near what would be described as Shoreditch today. The Haggerston Works belonged to an entirely different gas company and will be described later.

'Agostone' – the site before the works was built .The site was taken on a 60 year lease from Rhodes, the north London builders and brickmakers. There was a chapel on the site, which had to be demolished, and a large pond at the southern end. The works was built, as we have seen, at the same time as St.Pancras but with the attentions of George Holsworthy Palmer who worked on the construction as superintendent.

The Works Minutes show Palmer daily being given orders on how work was to proceed. Palmer was never the most amenable of employees and as early as September 1822 he ‘accosted the Clerk at Shoreditch.. and considered that much of the companies money would be wasted, or words to that effect’. For these comments he was admonished as ‘being disrespectful to the Committee.’ He continued however with the daily work of building a new gasworks ‘making an inventory of all drawings for the committee’ ..... and was directed to ‘put the new purifying engine together .. and fix the same ready for work in the spot alongside Scott’s pond’.

Disaster was not far away and in February 1823 the two gasholders fell because ‘Strutton’s tackle had failed’. The Committee of Works had been suspicious for some time about the nature of the materials used and they were not impressed. By October, Palmer was being warned to be ‘very circumspect in his conduct towards other officers’ and the Board refused to fund a staff dinner, which he had proposed. The shed erected for the purifying apparatus needed to be moved nearer to the pond and in December Palmer was sacked, the committee being ‘deeply impressed by his negligence or insufficiency’.

With Palmer’s departure, the works seems to have settled down into gas making for the next 130 years. In February 1824, a stretch of canal was opened to the ‘acclamation of the proprietors’ as ‘Haggerston Basin’ from the Regent’s Canal, into the works. This Basin formed the western boundary of the works and, although long filled in, can easily be traced in Haggerston Park today along with its junction with the main canal. This canal junction became increasingly important since no railway ever ran near enough to the works to effect a junction for coal deliveries.

The site was a very limited one and, although near the canal, had no frontage on it. Very soon space was needed for storage and as early as July 1824 negotiations were underway for a site further to the west near the Rosemary Branch pub (which still stands near the canal). In 1853 a site was bought on the Regents Canal nearer to Bethnal Green and it is this site which still stands with two gasholders - once four - still in use. Once again, the site contained a large pond, and an inlet with a lime wharf alongside was included.

The works in 1871.In 1911 an article in Co-partners Magazine described what they felt was one of the most ‘interesting’ features of the works - the Hunt automatic railway. It is not clear when this dated from since it is not apparent on maps and plans. Nor is it clear who ‘Hunt’ was. It was said however that it provided a ‘great fascination for the onlooker’ and that those who saw it were ‘charmed by its simplicity of action'. It ran, loaded with coal ‘apparently (and actually) of its own volition’ to the ’desired spot’ and then ’closes its own doors and returns to the place from whence it started’. In a special article, Co-partners Magazine went to some lengths to explain how this was achieved.

The Shoreditch works continued in use until 1954. Its longevity was attributed to its good position for coke sales - despite its smallness, its old-fashioned equipment and lack of a rail connection. The coke presumably went to local industry and the impoverished population in the surrounding streets of Hackney.

The site is now Haggerston Park, opened in 1956, where an investigative walk will find outlines of the canal, holders, etc. to be traced in the flowerbeds. The great brick wall of the works still exists along Whiston Road - providing an intimidating screen.

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