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Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Public Enquiry of 1809

As time went on the provisional committee of what was still called the National Heat and Light Company began to take charge of their affairs and put forward their own ideas. In the February or March of 1808 the Committee issued a pamphlet - "Considerations on the Intended Light And Heat Company". Both Elton and Hunt make the point that this was an opportunity for the committee ‘to return to sanity’ and to disown some of Winsor’s claims - since they needed to rescue the new company from any misconceived ideas about gas lighting. The new pamphlet pointed out that the ‘invention’ of coal gas was not Winsor’s - a point, which they must be then have been aware, was to become crucial. Winsor’s publications were, they said ‘ill adapted to promote his cause .. and have thrown an air of ridicule and improbability over the whole scheme’.

The leaflet describes a demonstration of coal gas manufacture which Winsor had made in front of an examining committee - consisting of James Grant, Baron Wolff, Mr.Oliphant and Mr. Hurry. These subscribers have all been described above but there was an interesting additional observer - Dr. Jenner, the promoter of vaccination. Jenner is not known to have had an interest in gas, or indeed to have had any other connection with the company and presumably he was recruited as a known a reputable scientist - or perhaps Winsors’ Cowpox and gas lights’ had a relevance which has escaped me.

The Committee then announced that they intended to apply to Parliament for a Charter of Incorporation.

Another meeting of subscribers was held on 26th May 1808 and James Grant issued another report on progress for the occasion. "Report of James Ludovic Grant Esq. and other acting trustees of the fund for assisting Mr. Winsor in his experiments, 26th May 1808". He said that there were more obstructions than the Committee had first realised - in particular, the Paving Committees of the various local authorities to whom they hoped to sell gas for street lighting, were not co-operative or willing to allow the opening of pavements. The Committee had also tried to get a Royal Charter directly from the King but they had been told by the Attorney General that it was necessary for them to get an enabling Act of Parliament. They had lobbied the Chancellor of the Exchequer - at that time Spencer Percival - for support and were told that he was not convinced of the need for the company. A suitable Bill could not go before Parliament until the next session. Percival was soon to be Prime Minister and it was under his administration that the gas industry began.

It was at this point, as the Committee struggled to get a legal status for the new company, that their problems really began. Gas making apparatus had been made by the Boulton and Watt Partnership in Birmingham for some years - but had never been patented - and clearly, they had been watching events in London for some time. It had been said that the first attempts at gas lighting had originally been developed by Boulton and Watt’s employee, William Murdoch, in Cornwall while working there as an engine erector in the 1780s. If there was any question of a patent - or of money to be made out of gas lighting - Boulton and Watt needed to establish that the idea belonged and originated with the Partnership. To be quite sure it would also have to be shown that such an idea pre-dated anything developed elsewhere in Europe.

The first reference to Murdoch’s experiments in Cornwall appears to have been made in 1805 with the publication of an article ‘Experiments on the gases obtained by the Destructive Distillation of Wood, Peat, Pit-Coal" by the Manchester based chemist, William Henry, who was then acting as a consultant to Boulton and Watt. Elton connected this letter with a memorandum written by James Watt Jnr, and he considered that the material used must have based on conversations with Murdoch himself.

James Watt Jnr.Early in 1808 James Watt Jnr. had asked one of his employees, Thomas Wilson, to find witnesses to Murdoch’s work in Cornwall. The evidence, outlined in the letters, was mainly from local people who had ‘a faint recollection or ‘said there was no doubt he did see it but....' and so on.

At around the same time a paper by Murdoch was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Elton points out that work had been going on to prepare this paper since the previous June when James Watt Jnr. had asked Henry Creighton, in charge of the team working on gas making equipment at Soho, for various details of gas making equipment. Elton also points out that the final paper is not in Murdoch's hand writing, while Griffiths in "The Third Man" says that corrections to the paper are by Murdoch. Both agree that Murdoch was in Portsmouth at the time the paper was written and Griffiths says that it was drafted by James Watt Jnr. and Mr. Weston, Boulton, and Watt’s lawyer.

The paper was read to the Royal Society by Sir Joseph Banks, to whom Watt had sent the paper. As a result William Murdoch was presented with the Rumford Medal by the Royal Society. As James Watt Jnr. wrote the paper’s ‘intended purpose (was to) secure to Mr. Murdoch the claim of the original idea’. He was of course aware that the new London based gas company would be able to argue that coal gas was now being made on such a large scale by them, and others, that Murdoch’s claims were irrelevant.

Thus, as 1808 drew to a close the London based Committee prepared their Parliamentary submission, while the Boulton and Watt Partnership watched, waited and also prepared their ground. Winsor’s flow of publications ceased - presumably the Committee had persuaded him to keep quiet.

In early 1809 a Bill was submitted to Parliament for the new gas company and following that counter petition was lodged in the name of William Murdoch calling for its rejection. In May 1809 the whole question was considered by a Parliamentary Committee - while, as Griffiths says, Boulton and Watt ‘pulled out all the stops'. To represent them as Counsel they employed Henry Brougham - the sharpest of Scottish lawyers and a future Lord Chancellor.

The Parliamentary Enquiry was initially chaired by Sir James Hall, chemist and geologist - and doubtless well known to James Watt Jnr. However as proceedings began the evidence given was not what might have been expected. Coal gas as a lighting medium was hardly mentioned and witnesses for the proposed gas company appeared who gave detailed evidence on the use of coke, tar and ammoniacal liquor - but not about lighting. The reason is now obvious - the London activists had to move the argument away from Murdoch’s petition if they were to prove their case.

This strategy of the London "Winsorians" was revealed twenty years later by Joseph Hedley in " Letter to the Rt. Hon the Lord Mayor on the Supply of Gas to the City of London", 1828. Hedley was one of a family whose were in the business of supplying ready-made gas works to local authorities and gas companies. In it he described how the Londoners' evidence to the Enquiry depended on the "celebrated Mr. Accum," their consultant. Their object was to show to the Committee the "immense value of the by-products"... "the Company were anxious to claim this as a discovery of their own" and so "represented these products therefore as being more valuable than the gas itself". Such a claim would not interfere with Murdoch's priority of invention and allow the Enquiry to disregard his petition and allow the Company to receive their Bill.

Lawyers for Boulton and Watt were well aware of this tactic and lobbied hard. In the case papers now in the archive at Birmingham, are bills for entertaining witnesses to steaks, oranges and brandy, and lists of Members of Parliament to be lobbied. There are also day to day notes on evidence given at the enquiry with the lawyer’s comments - Accum's unfortunate statement to the Enquiry that "with the tar I have made no experiments" was particularly noted by underlining in the lawyer's briefing document to James Watt Junior.

By comparing sets of notes the preparation of evidence can be seen. When James Watt Jnr gave evidence to the Enquiry on 13th May 1809 he was asked what Murdoch had done with the tar and ammonia produced by the gas making process, and replied that 'the pitch has been sold to boat builders in the neighbourhood' and also that 'Mr. Murdock has made experiments on the ammoniacal liquor, which I have seen, to ascertain the quantity of carbonate of ammonia contained in it'. Watt Jnr. seems to have written to William Henry and asked for details for this because on 29th May Henry wrote to him from Manchester, apparently in answer, and mentioned 'experiments with condensed liquid from coal made long ago with a view to procuring Carbonate of ammonia’ and gave some details of experiments he had undertaken, ending with 'the purification of this salt I suspect would be a matter of some difficulty. We are all anxious to know the event of your opposition to Winsor's importunate and uninformed claim'.

Minutes of the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry describe a wide range of prospective uses for the residual products of coal gas manufacture. A selection of witnesses were called, some of whom were already using these or similar products, others had been asked to test specimens from "Winsor's stove." It is irrelevant whether or not the new gas company actually intended to develop these uses, or whether they were put forward only to impress the Enquiry. In all of the days of the Enquiry neither William Murdoch nor of any of the financial promoters of the Bill were present.

The Bill was lost. A weak link in the Londoners' case had been Frederick Accum who under questioning had been made to "appear a fool... another greedy foreigner," together with Winsor's "outlandish claims." Brougham, who had investigated the subject as a scientist as well as a lawyer, ‘had no difficulty in exposing Accum’s ignorance of gas, despite his high scientific reputation’.

In Parliament Lord Wilberforce, in the context of Winsor’s leaflets, said that he could not encourage gambling - a speech which it was said cost the gas company their bill by 52 votes to 38. Opposition however centred on ‘the general principle of granting chartered monopolies to any great body of men, to the preclusion of all competition’. Rowlinson points out that in the current political climate ‘chartered monopolies’ were under attack and that Parliament ‘had recently authorised three new companies to break the monopolies in the London water supply’.

The plan for the new gas company was changed by reducing the capital to be raised to £200,000 and excluding Winsor and the Bill was re-submitted a year later. By then Wilberforce had changed his mind following a campaign of lobbying and it passed through Parliament with no trouble. In the Act the new ‘Gas Light and Coke Company’ was given powers which were restricted to the metropolitan area and explicitly denied a monopoly in that district - hence the many other London gas companies which will be described in due course.

Thanks to Boulton and Watt’s lobbying powers the Gas Light and Coke Company was prevented from making gas fittings - hence the cluster of fittings manufacturers which were to grow up around some of the earliest gas works (Sugg remained in Marsham Street long after the Westminster Gas Works had closed). Other clauses in the legislation protected the rights of oil suppliers and defined some of the conduct of relationships between the gas company and local authorities.

Everything was now in place for the opening of the first gas works - something which it was to turn out was not nearly as easy as it appeared.

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