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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Shrewsbury House

A domestic gas making plant in the home of what is perhaps the best known enthusiast for gas lighting in this period. The evidence for anything at Shrewsbury House is flimsy in the extreme - and based on unsubstantiated rumour.

In the 1880s a local resident of the Shooters Hill Area wrote to a national newspaper with some speculations claims about early gas making at Shrewsbury House – one of the local 'big ' houses where Frederick Albert Winsor is known to have lived. This claim was taken up by a historian of the area and has since been repeated and magnified in various ways. Is it possible that Winsor had a small gas works at home in 1811?

Frederick Albert Winsor’s career in the London gas industry came to an end in 1813 when he seemed unable to give any sensible answers about gas making to the Gas Light and Coke Company’s sub committee on gas manufacture. He left the country for Paris in 1813, tried to start a gas company there and eventually died in 1830. His son, also Frederick Albert Winsor, was to be associated, in different capacities, with the Gas Light and Coke Company for many years, retiring in 1872.

In the years between the first success of the Gas Light and Coke Company and his departure to France Winsor seems to have lived in some comfort in a mansion on the slopes of Shooters Hill, Shrewsbury House. There are a number of stories about gas making equipment there.

Shrewsbury House two hundred years ago – the house has since been rebuilt and is used as a community centre.In 1883 a Mr. Thomas Boorman Winser (sic) of Shooters Hill Road in Blackheath wrote to The Standard about some old gas pipes found in a house being demolished at Shooters Hill. He linked this with some old handbills in his possession which advertised 1807 demonstrations of gas lighting in London. When he wrote in 1883 discussion was under way for possible celebrations of the centenary of the 'first attempt' to make coal gas for lighting. In September of that year Samuel Smiles, also a Blackheath resident, lectured on the subject at the Royal Aquarium, Westminster.

Mr. Winser must have known there were stories that the first ever "gasometer" had been sited in the grounds of Shrewsbury House on Shooters Hill. Modern Shrewsbury House is a community centre built in the 1920s, replacing an older house occupied in 1811 by the author of Mr. Winser's handbills, Frederick Albert Winsor. But before Winsor there had been occupant even more in the public’s eye.

In 1795, Princess Caroline of Brunswick had come to England to marry the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. When the marriage failed she went to live in Blackheath and her daughter, Princess Charlotte, heir to the throne, lived, as a child, at Shrewsbury House. Winsor himself had demonstrated gas lighting to the Duke of Brunswick in 1802. He was also the author of some strongly anti-French and pro-royalist leaflets - so the fact that he too lived at Shrewsbury House is of some significance.

Did Winsor erect the first gasometer ever seen when he lived at Shrewsbury House in 1811? Unfortunately, this is very unlikely. One of the problems with the system of gas making which Winsor advertised is that it did not include a means of storing the gas. He actually thought gasholders were dangerous!

Thomas Boorman Winser also neglected to tell the press in 1883 that the "old house" under demolition was not Winsor’s home - since Shrewsbury House was not demolished until after his letter was written! Was there anyone else who might have experimented with gas at Shooters Hill? In 1811, many residents of the area were scientists working at the Royal Military Academy. Although there was no early gas works recorded at the Royal Arsenal, there were those there who were interested in this exciting new medium. Among those who worked at Woolwich at that time were two who are known to have experimented with coal gas - Sir William Congreve and James MacCulloch. Did Winsor know these scientists? Did they meet and discuss their ideas, perhaps in The Bull or The Red Lion?

In 1813 Winsor went to Paris where he died and is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. His son, also Frederick Albert, remained in England. He became a barrister and had a lifetime's involvement with that first gas company - which grew to be the famous Gas Light and Coke Co. He died at his London address, in Lincoln's Inn Fields and is buried at Kensal Green. Strangely, the Dictionary of National Biography describes him as 'of Shooters Hill'.

This leaves us with only one more mystery. Who was Thomas Boorman Winser, what did he know about the gas pipes and how did he get copies of Winsor's pamphlets? Records show that he was an actuary and a pillar of Blackheath society. He was born at Salehurst in Sussex, and his father was a Mr. Thomas Winser. No connection has been traced between them and Frederick Albert, father or son. However, the similarity of the name and the fact that Winsor was probably married at least twice raises a number of questions. The family's births, deaths and marriages in a variety of European countries provides complications for the researcher.

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