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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Imperial Co and Sir William Congreve

The Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company got its enabling Act of Parliament in 1821 after a number of false starts. By it they were allowed to serve the whole of north London. They were to be even larger and even grander than the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company. Everard, who wrote a chapter on them, commented that ‘everything was to be done on a large scale’. It should also be noted that despite the famous names and the money they raised that the company was riven with financial and other scandals.

The three works, designed by Clegg, were sited alongside canals so that coal deliveries would be simplified. The initial plan was for three works strategically placed around the metropolis.

This work does not include the Imperial Company’s Fulham Works - since it does not fall within the area covered. At Fulham however, the company has left the oldest gas holder in existence, the site of Sandford Manor and a fine set of Victorian workers cottages in Imperial Square.

William Congreve’s role in the early gas industry has already been mentioned in relation to the Gas Light and Coke Company, together with his attempt at a public display of gas lighting and his contribution as a scientist and arms procurer. He was involved in many different fields. He is of course, well known, for his military inventions, his ‘rockets’ in particular, but he was also an experimenter with perpetual motion, with clocks (like others involved in the Imperial Company), and with bank notes - and, no doubt, much more. He was to be closely involved with a number of gas companies and to play an important role in the Government regulation of the new industry.

The Royal Society had examined the earliest gas works for safety in 1814 - and little had come about because of this. In 1822 the Home Office appointed Congreve - who was a Member of Parliament - to inspect the safety and regulation of the gas industry in London. He gathered together information about the various works, which was published in the form of a report, to which the Royal Society Report of 1814 was appended - and an inspector was appointed to make regular reports. While most of his concerns were with safety he was also concerned with how they were governed and in 1823 he began to ask questions on their business arrangements. This was because the Government intended to impose commercial regulation on them - but, as has been pointed out by almost every writer on the subject - it was information which would have been very useful to Congreve in his role as a promoter of gas companies.

In 1823 Congreve reported to the Government making a number of safety recommendations but also commenting on the need for price controls to offset monopoly and on the need - and wish of many of the gas companies - for exclusive areas of supply, a practice to be known as districting. This report and subsequent legislation was to form the cornerstone of gas company regulation in London for much of the industry’s existence.

These important recommendations on gas industry regulation were however carried out by someone who was more than closely involved in the industry at both a commercial and technical level. William Congreve had a degree of involvement in a number of gas companies already covered here - The City of London, The London and Westminster Oil Gas and the British. He was to be even more closely involved with the Imperial Company - the next to be described here. It was to be his involvement with some of the Imperial’s proprietors - particularly Joseph Clarke - and their mutual investment in the Arigna Iron Company, which was to be his ultimate downfall. The resulting financial scandal and his marriage to a Portuguese woman sent him abroad where he died in Toulouse in 1828.

Congreve was also involved with another Gas Company, not covered here. This was the Imperial Continental Gas Association - a body set up to extend the gas industry to Continental Europe. The company existed into the 1980s and eventually owned much of the European gas industry. It had many of the same proprietors, as the British Gas Light Company but Congreve's role was more central. He set off with George Landmann - the ex-Royal Engineer who was to build the Greenwich Railway and an old school friend - to travel around Europe promoting the company and arranging for works to be built.

This note had only covered a fraction of William Congreve's work in the early gas industry - and in many ways he was crucial to it. Whatever his failings in mingling Government regulation with his own commercial interests, he provided a useful link between Government, technology and finance. He had the contacts and interests to act where it was needed and at the same time to bring the industry to the attention of those with influence.

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