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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Old Kent Road Gas Works - and goings on with Palmer

A gas works – or the remains of one - still stands in the Old Kent Road. The fine office block and the entrance gate are let to other interests and the statue of Sir George Livesey was been moved across the road to the Livesey Museum - although what its fate is since the Museum has closed is far from clear.

Two gas holders – both from the 1870s – remain in use. Brian Sturt has commented ‘the entrance gate in its present position is only about 50 years old. The original entrance exited into what became Devonshire Grove. This entrance was moved for various reasons, most of which have probably been forgotten, but which include the construction of a new booster house and, just possibly, a final clear up after war damage.

This is not, however, the site on which the works which opened in 1833 since successive land sales have moved it considerably to the east. 'Peckham New Town' shown on a map of the early 1840s, showing a settlement which was eventually to be completely engulfed by the gas works. Although the canal is now a distant memory the road layout remains much the same today. The Surrey Canal once crossed Old Kent Road slightly east of Verney Street but remains of it are increasingly hard to find. Hidden among the light industry is a terrace of pretty Georgian cottages – Canal Grove – and in 1830 they stood alone by the canal, by the main road, opposite the Kent Pond.

The Old Kent Gas works was built alongside the canal, and the cottages rented by the company for their employees housing. Maps show the area adjacent to the gas works described as 'Peckham New Town'. The gas works straggled out along the canal and a triangle was filled with little streets. Backing onto the works was Caroline Street where a mission stood, frequented by gas workers, it was to become today's Sandgate Street. Another road completed a triangle from Old Kent Road - Church Road - going to Christ Church built in 1838 immediately opposite the gas works at the end of Caroline Street. Christ Church had been built to serve the district under the parish of Camberwell. Officiating there was a beadle with 'gold braid'. The pinnacles of the tower were to be transferred in due course to the clock tower in the gas works. After the church was moved, Church Road became Ruby Street.[3] To the south east of these streets was a large piece of vacant land into which the gas works was eventually to move.

By 1834 the South Met. Works had already been built. The designer and engineer to the company was George Holsworthy Palmer. Volumes could be written about Palmer, who had already had a very varied and lively career in a number of gas companies – we have met him elsewhere already. He had been a draughtsman taken on at the Chartered Company and trained as an engineer by Clegg. He had then gone to Macclesfield and later worked at the Royal Mint under Accum and as superintendent at the Imperial's St.Pancras and Haggerston works. He had been dismissed with ignominy on more than one occasion. There are no records of the start of Palmer's career with South Met. but at other companies he had tendered to build the works with a revolutionary design for a gas works - which, he would relate to directors who were apparently ignorant of both his past and gas making practice, would make their fortunes.

At South Met. in 1834, however, things still looked reasonable. The works was in order and starting to make gas. It had been built by direct labour because Palmer thought it cheaper - he clearly thought very little else about cost as the Board constantly reminded him to 'think of economy'. Generally however South Met. began to pull out of its troubled past. Disaster was soon to strike again.

Meanwhile the works grew and some important customers were supplied. Astey's Theatre for one took South Met. Gas. 'A gentleman' from the Greenwich Railway, then under construction, called and discussed gas supply with them. Palmer was experimenting with ways to use 'naphtha' - the volatile oil which was a distillate of coal tar. He was kept very quiet about what he was doing. By May 1836 things had got so bad that Palmer had ceased to communicate with Blakesley and he had also 'made some allegations'. The Board accepted that he was 'over excited' but wanted to know what he was doing. They called on him 'to explain his allegations'. Palmer refused and was dismissed. A number of the Company's workmen promptly went on strike demanding his reinstatement. He remained on site however in his company house in Canal Grove. He did not collect the salary due to him but demanded to be allowed to collect his property which was on site. A month later he was still in the house and refusing to answer letters or respond to calls at the door. A committee of proprietors was set up and called for a general meeting to 'investigate certain reports'. It was assumed that Palmer was behind all these moves.

The situation was resolved with some suddenness on the 8th of October when a major explosion shook the works. Blakesley came to the works and set about rescue work - unhindered by Palmer who refused to help and then left the site himself at high speed. Others came to help - including Frederick Albert Winsor Jnr. the son of the originator of the Gas Light and Coke Company.

An enquiry showed that the explosion had been caused because of the lack of ventilation in Palmer's octagonal purifying house - into which a workman had gone with a naked light. Windows were broken for a mile radius around the site. It was only three weeks after this that one of the gas holders 'grounded', and, once again, the company were unable to fulfil the lighting contracts for which they were had contracted. It was a Saturday night and the night watchman was sacked. Brian Sturt has commented ‘a holder grounding means that it is empty, and in those days of low pressures probably meant the lift came to rest on the stops in the tank. It is very unlikely that the holder collapsed. The embarrassing bit if you grounded a holder, for whatever reason, that there was then no gas for the customer – who never saw the fun side of it!

At the same time a row developed with the company's coal supplier, the Marquis of Lothian. This was for the cannel coal which, the company claimed, made it distinctive. They were forced to use 'common coal' and to make 'common gas'. The company now had no engineer and were coping with the help of Mr. Kirkham of the Imperial Company and Mr. Blakesley who was managing the works on a day to day basis. Something had to be done.

There was to be a happy ending to this saga – although one which takes us well beyond the remit of this work. South Met. took into employment a Thomas Livesey, nephew of the Deputy Governor of the Gas Light and Coke Company and some with some years of experience of gas company management there. Thomas was to revolutionise South Met. – and was succeeded by his heroic son, George.

This work cannot even begin to discuss George Livesey and his contribution to the gas industry. He is covered in most standard biographical dictionaries and histories of the gas industry. It might also be noted that his contribution to the temperence movement was very considerable and he is sometimes mentioned in relevant histories of the movement. Hopefully I can include a biography of him here in due course.

In 1842 Thomas put South Met., at last, on a proper legal footing with its own Act of Parliament and a properly constituted board.

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