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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The spread of gas works in early 19th century London

Almost before The Chartered Company began work other gas companies emerged. The City of London Gas Company probably had an operational works by 1815. It had a subscription list of local traders and, following a false start, built its’ works at the point at which the river Fleet flows into the Thames at Blackfriars.

Almost opposite the City Company's works, on the south bank of the Thames, the 'South London' Company took over a works on Bankside in 1814 and was itself taken over by the Phoenix' Company in 1824. Phoenix was said to have a 'philanthropic or Whiggish tinge' and was to last into the early 1880s.

Many more gas works followed in the early 1820s. Some, which never became statutory, were set up and built works which opened quickly and as quickly disappeared. Many more such works may be unknown because they left no records.

Larger, more permanent, companies obtained the proper enabling legislation and gas company Acts of Parliament followed thick and fast throughout the 1820s. For instance, the 'Ratcliffe Gas Company ', opened a works in Shadwell and obtained an Act of Parliament with the support of a local subscription list. Another early company was the 'Shoreditch Independent' which became the statutory 'Independent' Company. It had a works at Haggerston on the Regents Canal and, like many others, it was not without its share of scandals. The 'British' Company, intended to supply gas throughout the country, and built its first works in Limehouse. The "Imperial Gas Company" was 'a much grander affair’, which planned to cover most of London in districts, each with its own local works. It was also 'ambitious and highly speculative, promoted by a group of rogues'. Some members of the Board of the Imperial were to be involved in the Aringa scandal involving fraudulent mining shares. Another Imperial proprietor accused of misappropriation was Aubone Surtees, probably brother in law of Lord Eldon, later Lord Chancellor.


Some entrepreneurs set up gas companies with 'different' features. There was an attempt to make gas from oil ‑successful in some whaling ports. John Martineau and John Taylor, the mining engineer, built London's first oil gas works at Bow for the Whitechapel Road Gas Light Co.

A company based in Clerkenwell sold 'portable gas' made from oil put into pressurised cylinders.

Specialist contractors built gas works either as a speculation or on behalf of local interests. For example, in 1820 members of the Barlow family built a gas works in Poplar as a speculation to pass on to a local body for management.

A good example of the balance between speculation and local pressure took place in Greenwich in the early 1820s. Two contractors, Hedley and Gostling approached the Greenwich Vestry where members were concerned about public safety ‑'the horrible instances of robbery and murder ... good and proper light. will be the best preventative'. It could not have foretold that the new gas works would never be finished, and that, following a writ of Mandamus a new Vestry would be elected because of the loss of public money.


By 1830 a network of public supply gas works covered east and south London. There has been a recent debate, beyond the remit of this work, on the effects of government policies towards the gas industry. Throughout the century, until the 1880s, companies were set up and works continued to be opened. Sometimes they reflected the dissatisfaction of local authorities and businesses with existing suppliers. Some 'consumer' companies were given a pricing structure that reflected these concerns.

From the 1860's pressure of land use, need for expanded supplies and improving technology led some of the bigger companies to build large out‑of‑town works. Of these the well‑known works of the Chartered Company at Beckton is the supreme example.

This is the background of gas companies in east London. Some were very successful, others incompetent and frankly fraudulent. When they made gas all of them produced waste products and that will be the subject of the rest of this story.

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