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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Thomas Kempson

One, seemingly straightforward, early customer for raw tar was a Mr. Kempson. He appears in contemporary street directories as an iron merchant with a Bankside address. He was actually based in Hatfield Street1 ‑which today runs parallel to Blackfriars Road in SE1

Now, as then, Hatfield Street ends in Upper Ground, near Old Bargehouse. In 1812 this was the yard of Davey Sawyer, a coal merchant much involved with early gas industry. It was also the site of Hawes Soap Works ‑ soon to be the site of an oil gas works. The owner, Benjamin Hawes Snr., would eventually become Governor of the Chartered. A short distance up river Munro and Evans had opened a small gas works which would grow to become the Bankside Works of the South London Gas Company. They were to build another works ‑ known as the Wellington Street Works ‑ in Pocock Street, beyond the southern end of Hatfield Street.6 It might be possible to speculate on the social interactions of these industrialists.

From before 1814 Kempson had also had a tar works in Limehouse, in partnership with a Mr. Parke. Is this the same Mr. Parke who later made vitriol on Bow Common? In Limehouse were many shipbuilding yards and it was perhaps thought that this was a better place to process tar than Bankside which might have been seen as too far upriver for any serious shipbuilding. A large 'tar yard' is shown on the 1813 Horwood Plan just north of Narrow Street and there were many smaller ones.

They would, before 1811, have made 'Stockholm tar' from wood and Kempson, perhaps, thought coal tar would sell to the many potential customers in this area. Kempson was an early customer of both Chartered and City Gas companies for coal tar. He probably had long term plans to distil tar - clear from the seven-year contract he made with the Chartered.

Unfortunately Kempson's aspirations were not matched by reality. In 1820, after only a few years of his first purchase, he offered his Limehouse tar works for sale to the Chartered.10 He was, at the same time, being pursued for debt by the City Gas Company - another way in which he was a forerunner of many others to come. The Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the City Gas Company visited him in the East India Dock Road where he was said to be living. They did this to 'ascertain his sentiments10 ‑whether this means that they wanted his advice on tar use or (more likely) wanted the missing cash, is not clear. The City Company's solicitor advised them that their contract with him was not viable and no more was heard.

Although the implication in this story is that Mr. Kempson failed in his tar making enterprise and disappeared when debts were called in ‑that is not necessarily what happened. Although he is no longer noted in the gas company records it is possible that he carried on buying tar from them, or from a different gas company ‑and that no records have survived.

On the other hand, to speculate wildly, perhaps he was the Mr. Kempson, who was a partner in a contemporary wholesale druggists, Kempson, Yates, Evans and Parkinson. They failed in 1823 and were reconstituted without Kempson.

Kempson is a good example of an industrialist who bought tar from the early London gas companies ‑he was in the coal/ iron trade on the Southwark riverside and moved eastwards to diversify. He also got into debt. This is a pattern which, with variations, was to be repeated. His failures matched those of the Chartered Company itself.

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