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Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Rhedarium

Apart from Winsor’s attempts to contact Lebon in France, and his own vague references to youthful experiments, nothing has emerged about Winsor’s technical experience in making gas - and his knowledge, on the evidence of his pamphlets seems to have been sketchy, to say the least. There is just one contemporary comment that he was responsible for some small scale gas making plants. He is however known to have had two bases for experimental work, the earliest in a building once associated with balloon ascents.

One of the few clues which we have about the earliest gas making plant in London comes from William Matthews. Matthews could be described as a sort of early gas ‘groupie’. There were a number of them about, but Matthews wrote down what he saw going on at the time. He said that Winsor was backed by a ‘Mr.Kenzie’ who lent him premises. This ‘Kenzie’ was, he said, a retired coach builder who 'lived near Green Park'. This story is backed by one of Winsor’s young assistants whose name was Stephen Hutchinson. Hutchinson claimed to have invented a gas purification system himself while working for Winsor in ‘Green Street’. In fact one of Winsor’s publications gives an address - 41 Green Street.

The Horwood Plan, which is of about the right date, shows some very interesting information about this address. 41 Green Street is shown as the entrance to a very large open space which seems to fill up an entire block at the back of the street. It is marked ‘Rhedarium’ - and this is described in the relevant volume of the ‘Survey of London’ whose anonymous researcher has also picked up the connection with Winsor and his experiments with coal gas. The Rhedarium had been built as military stables in 1738 and then sold, in 1784, to be used as a coach manufactory by a Mr. Murdoch MacKenzie.

There are yet more tantalising connections - since, on 30th November 1784, it had been the site of departure for one of Blanchard’s balloon flights. That balloon had used hydrogen gas prepared by Argand (the Swiss inventor of the oil burner) himself. Of such interest was the flight that Matthew Boulton, William Murdoch’s employer, was kept informed of events throughout.

So - who was Murdoch MacKenzie? What, and who, did he know? What was his interest? Why did he support Winsor? Who were his associates and backers? Unfortunately, it has not been possible to answer these questions. There is however, another co-incidence in Green Street – nearby was the home of the future naval hero and adventurer, Thomas Cochrane. He was the son of the Earl of Dundonald, one of the earliest demonstrators of gas lighting and himself an inventor of lighting systems based on coal oils. In 1809 he was to pioneer the use of Congreve's rockets in the battle of the Aix Roads.

As with so much else in the early gas industry it is tempting to ask - what was really going on? The Rhedarium was demolished in 1914. The block of buildings which surrounded it are now diplomatic buildings and the road abuts directly onto Park Lane. 41 Green Street has been rebuilt and the old entrance blocked up. To the rear is Wood Mews where 'Renaissance Court’, bearing the date of 1887, appears as a pastiche of an earlier stable block. Inside the block is a big, inaccessible garden full of large mature trees - some of them could well date from Winsor’s day. A garden which might yet hold a lot of secrets.

What did Winsor’s work in Green Street amount to? Probably just a small demonstration plant -‘simple and informal’ consisting of two retorts, one on each side of a kitchen fire. Gas made was led to a condenser and taken by pipe to the parlour above. It generated enough gas to light four candlesticks and a glass globe which served to heat, or to boil water or warm dishes - thus ‘inflammable air may.. be led from the kitchen to any room to be applied for cooking, heating and lighting at the same time’. This small scale and domestic arrangement was the forerunner, not only of massive gas works, but of many small gas lighting plants, designed to heat and light a house and which represent a popular, but almost totally unresearched, field in which the gas industry grew.

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