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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Sun Tavern Fields

A gas works set up to serve the public by a group of local shopkeepers. It was in the heart of the industrial and port area of the east end of London - but, once again, with no water access.

Stewart said that the Sun Tavern Fields gas works site was opened by the Ratcliffe Gas Company in 1817 - although he gives no source for this date. An account of the early days of the Ratcliffe Company published in Co-partnership Herald cites a lease document for the site - a document presumably now in the North Thames Gas collection at the London Metropolitan Archive, but not yet traced there.

The Horwood plan of 1817 shows Sun Tavern Fields as a large piece of open land stretching east from King David’s Lane between what is now Cable Street and The Highway. The works was not sited on the Fields themselves, but to the north of them on the northern boundary road, Back Lane, now Cable Street. It was on a long narrow site fitting between existing rope walks which ran north-south down from the Commercial Road. Interestingly it sat just inside the angle of the boundaries of the Parish of St. George in the East with the parishes of Ratcliffe and Shadwell. On the Horwood Plan a large institutional building of some sort it shown with a frontage marked as ‘Crown Court’ - perhaps a site was acquired from the local vestry.

A possible earlier gasmaking plant on this site, or nearby, has already been described. This was the apparatus supplied, probably in 1811, by Boulton and Watt to Stein, Smith and Ditchley and managed by a Mr. Sims. Sims rope walk was in Sun Tavern Fields - but although there were a number of rope walks on Sun Tavern Fields in this period none of them appears to be on, or adjacent to, the site on which the gas works was to be built. However, it is possible that this existing plant was taken over by the promoters of the Ratcliffe Gas Company and used by them.

The Ratcliffe Gas Company appears to have been set up by a group of local businessmen who, as far as they can be traced, were publicans or from other similar trades. The works seems to have opened for public supply in 1817.

By 1828 they were running out of money and became involved with Robert Munro who had set up the Bankside Gas Works and the South London Gas Company. Following his advice they secured an Act of Parliament as the Ratcliffe Gas Company. They were soon, however, under great pressure of competition from other local gas works, as we will see. There was also a problem that the site of the works was landlocked and it became necessary to acquire land for a wharf. A site near the riverside was duly leased - more about this later.

In the 1830s a railway line was planned to run between the Minories (to the west and nearer the City) and Brunswick Dock at Blackwall (a few miles east on the river). This was to be cable hauled along a viaduct through East London. Cable haulage meant that the line had to be straight and could not deviate from its line which was to run parallel and slightly north of Cable Street - the viaduct is today used by the Docklands Light Railway. It went straight through the Sun Tavern Fields Gas Works site and the railway company purchased the central section of the gas works. The gas company was thus forced to move the majority of their manufacturing to another site and to use the remaining portion of the Sun Tavern Fields works solely for storage of gas in holders.

In 1875, the Ratcliffe Gas Company was taken over by one of its erstwhile rivals, the Commercial Gas Co. Sun Tavern Fields seems to have been closed as gas holder station at some time towards the end of the nineteenth century although it is still shown as a ‘gas works’ on the 1888 Geographia Atlas of London. It then lay with Johnson Street to the West, the Blackwall Railway to the north, Hardinge Street to the south and St.Mary’s Church, fronting Cable Street to the south. By the 1914 Ordnance Survey map a hall, convent, and some housing are shown on the site and these remain today.

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