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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

More fraud in Wapping.

An important gas making site was built by the Ratcliffe Gas Co. on the riverside in the heart of the shipbuilding and port area - surrounded by the cosmopolitan and impoverished people of the East End of London.

While Hercules Poynter was (or was not) tied up with Henry Pinkus on the subject of do-it-yourself gas works, he was also being persuaded by the people of east London to set up a gas works on their behalf.

Local business in the area of the Ratcliffe Gas Company had decided that the prices were too high and that they could do better on their own. This was not an uncommon feeling by businessmen in the vicinity of early gas companies and several such protest movements developed - usually led by local publicans.

A deputation asked Poynter to set the works up. He did this at a site known as Prusom’s Island which was, in fact, the site adjacent to the Ratcliffe Company’s Star Brewery wharf. This works first supplied gas in September 1829. It seems very likely that the works was another Barlow construction since the first manager was none other than George Barlow, himself.

In 1831 a ‘proper’ gas company was set up to manage this site, calling themselves ‘The East London Gas Light and Coke Co.’. A price war soon developed with the Ratcliffe Company and accusations began to fly around the Wapping area. The East London company began to complain that their profits were not so high as they had expected. Competition was very stiff in the area by then with a number of gas companies vying for consumers.

As the Ratcliffe Company was about to lose half the site of their works at Sun Tavern Fields to the Blackwall Railway they bought the, by then, ailing East London Company’s Wapping Works - conveniently next to a site of their own.

At that point Mr. Pinkus appeared claiming to hold 500 shares in the now defunct East London company and claiming to be in partnership with Hercules Poynter who had just, conveniently, declared himself bankrupt. Pinkus promptly sued for £18,000 damages and claimed fraud by the board of both Ratcliffe and East London Companies. Affidavits were filed by everyone who could conceivably have had an interest in the case at all - as can easily be seen from a quick look at the big bundle of case papers in the London Metropolitan Archive. Although the case was initially dismissed Pinkus carried on arguing up to the House of Lords and for another eight years afterwards.

Shortly after, the Wapping Works was amalgamated with that on the Star Brewery site and continued in use as one works - in fact the main works of the Ratcliffe Company. In 1875 Ratcliffe was bought up by the Commercial Company and the Wapping Works continued to be managed by them until in 1935, following a major fire, the works was closed.

Although the Wapping Gas Works was an important one which served the people of East London for over a hundred years, the remains of it are very hard to find. It is not even easy to find it on maps - usually appearing as an unmarked industrial site with no sign of the gas holders which once stood there. Only in old photographs of the riverside can the holders be seen sticking up above the roofs of warehouses and surrounding buildings.

Wapping is no longer industrial and since the 1980s has rapidly gentrified. Those areas which were once warehouses are now upmarket housing. There is no sign of the riverside wharves where coal was unloaded to power London’s industry. The site of the Wapping gas works - always slightly inland - is now an infant school. In the 1990s as consciousness of the dangers of old gas making sites grew the school was asked - did they know the past of their site? Yes, they replied, they had known for a long time and were always careful with playground activities. Most people who now live in the expensive flats all around the area will have no idea!

1 comment:

  1. Hallo, I'm hoping someone will be able to answer a query here about The Wapping Gas Works... I am researching the Star Brewery and would like to find out whether anyone knows if the Star Brewery Wharf was the same as the later Foundry Wharf? Apparently the Foundry Wharf formed the river frontage of the parish of St George-in-the-East, which was just 53 feet wide.
    Many thanks, Peter

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