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Saturday, 8 August 2009

Raw ammoniacal liquor from 19th gas companies in east London

As well as selling ammonia salts The London Gas companies also sold raw ammoniacal liquor. Some of this was sold to independent makers of ammonia salts as has just been described. The following chapter gives a few general details of the people who bought the raw liquor - as discovered in the company minute books - and then, following that, will be some detailed stories of individual chemists.

Liquor was produced in substantial quantities. An idea of the amounts can be gauged from figures given by Samuel Clegg to William Congreve’s Enquiry of 1823 into the London Gas Industry. He said that the Westminster, Great Peter Street, gasworks produced 102,102 gallons of liquor 1821. Westminster was one of the larger of the early London gas works and thus produced more liquor than some of the smaller works but clearly the total quantity produced in gas works of the period was very substantial.

Clegg's figures were taken up and publicised by Joseph Hedley who had a 'gas fitting and ironmongery' business based in Cheapside and was the father of a family of gas engineers. He became involved in a pamphlet war on gas pricing, which involved the gas publicist, William Matthews.

All this raw ammoniacal liquor had to be disposed of somehow. The minute books of the various London gas companies gave some data but not an actual analysis of liquor stocks and disposal. What records there are seem to show that the bulk of liquor went to local manufacturing chemists - many of them the same people who bought and/or made ammonia salts.

In many histories of the gas industry - and in general histories - it is said that the early gas companies found it hard to dispose of the ammoniacal liquor. In Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution A.E. Musson & Eric Robinson describe residuals as 'an embarrassing problem, often being dumped in rivers'.Derek Matthews, in his thesis on the early London gas industry, has said that 'in the early decades of the industry the London gas companies literally could not give their ammoniacal liquor away'. Stories are quoted like that told by George Anderson in his 1871 paper on 'Manufacture of Sulphate of Ammonia' given to the British Association of Gas Managers. His memories were of the horrors associated with the disposal of ammoniacal liquor, which, he said, incurred 'great expense' and had to be 'carted away in barges'.

This picture is not borne out by the early gas company minute books which make it quite clear that the liquor was sold by the companies and that customers were often seemed eager to buy.

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