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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Thomas Livesey

Thomas Livesey was probably about forty when he moved into the London gas industry. Livesey is a common name in the north west of England but there is no reason to believe that this Thomas was other than a Londoner. He had done well in a wholesale hosiery business based in Wood Street in the City of London. Wood Street is near the Guildhall and surrounded by the halls of City Livery Companies including the Haberdashers – so perhaps, after all, he had connections with some dyeing and spinning Liveseys from Lancashire. He lived in Mare Street, Hackney- a much more prosperous area then than now. He was probably unmarried and was almost certainly childless.

The story of the setting up of the first gas company has been told a number of times. By the autumn of 1812 the company had a Royal Charter, an office, a Court of Governors and a muddle. In September of that year five men applied for a block of forty shares between them. One of these men was Thomas Livesey. His first action was to ask what the qualifications were for filling vacancies in the Court of Governors, his next was to visit the new gas works which was being set up at Peter Street, Westminster Thomas Livesey and his friends went to look at the new gas works which were still under construction in May 1813 - in July they went to Curtain Road 'station' in the northern boundary of the City of London. They arrived there unannounced and did not like what they found. Thomas wrote a strong letter to the Governors .. 'there appears a defect or imbecility somewhere...'.

The plane tree at the corner of Wood Street – nearby to Thomas Livesey's office. Wordsworth described the tree in a poem – and it still flourishes today.The group of angry shareholders which included Thomas Livesey began to grow and in October 1813 a meeting of 54 of them demanded that an Extraordinary General Meeting be held. Directors resigned, were reinstated, and a Committee of Investigation was set up. In November Thomas Livesey was elected to the Court of Governors. He immediately began to take a leading role and within two years was elected Deputy Governor, remaining in that position until 1840. Thomas Livesey had joined the management of the first ever gas company at a time when it was still, dimly, beginning to work out how to build gas works, make gas, distribute the gas and sell it. The hosiery business seems to have allowed him enough spare time to take on what must have been an almost full time task – which is not to say that he didn't find ways of making money out of gas, as time went by. Once in the gas works, first he took charge of the internal organisation, setting up a series of sub committees to deal with the tasks to be undertaken - works, finance, lighting and experiment. He went on to look at the necessary activities and to regularise them.

Contracts with suppliers were generally tightened. The main purchase of any gas company was coal – and before 1813 the Chartered Company had bought it as it was needed - sometimes on a daily basis. The company had already been warned that direct buying of large stocks of coal from London sources would lead to price fixing by the tightly organised group of coal factors operate in the port. Livesey took a decision on coal purchases himself, against the wishes of the rest of the Court, and began to deal directly with a Newcastle coal factor - which meant increased transport costs but ensured a future supply and some control of its price. Later, together with another director, he went to Newcastle on a fact finding mission. As a result coal buying was reorganised.

Another vital area for the new gas company to sort out was to whom and how the gas was to be sold. The early gas companies sold mainly to institutions rather than individuals and every contract needed negotiation. Initally most gas was sold for street lighting and therefore it was important to develop contacts within the local authorities who had to decide what lighting method was to be used. Even before Livesey became a Director of the Chartered Company it was noted that 'Mr. Livesey has influence with one of the trustees' of the Liberty of Norton Folgate - a small local authority on the outskirts of the City of London. A few months later Livesey, although still not a board member, was negotiating with Norton Folgate and they became one of the first local authority areas to sign up for gas lighting.. Livesey was also in discussion with the adjacent parish of St.Leonard's, Shoreditch and in 1816 he met Soane, the architect, to discuss gas lighting at the Bank of England.

Equipment was needed for the works. For example casks and barrels were needed for the storage and dispatch of waste products. Livesey unearthed supplies of second hand oil and treacle barrels as well as 'porter puncheons'. He saw to the ordering of bricks from Messrs Rhodes - the Islington based property owning family of whom Cecil Rhodes was a member.

Gas needed to be cleaned - 'purified' - and at this period lime was used almost exclusively. Livesey arranged for lime to be bought from Rosher and Co '3 cwt lime at 15/- a barge load' - Roshers were the Northfleet lime burners after whom Rosherville is named. He also arranged for a 'a circular lime machine' to be bought 'from the Horsley Co.' that is a special new piece of equipment designed by a member of the company staff and commissioned from Horsley Ironworks in Shropshire. Horsley, under Aaron Manby, were already beginning to specialise in gas industry equipment. Manby was to describe him as 'friend Livesey'.

Piping for mains and indoor supplies, as we would recognise them, hardly existed and was certainly not manufactured on anything like the scale needed. The Gas Light and Coke Company set up a Committee which recommended a standard specifications for different applications. Gas companies would place orders with a manufacturer to make tubing as required.

Something had to be done with the 'residuals' - the by-products of gas manufacture. Tar and ammoniacal liquor were building up in vast quantities in the works. It had been hoped they could be used to manufacture new and profitable products but nothing had been done. Livesey began to make arrangements - for instance, in 1814, he had several gallons of ammoniacal liquor sent to 'Messrs. Barchard, Hilton and Platt, dyers, Montague Close, Borough' to see if they could use it in their work as a mordant.

New offices for the company were needed and Livesey found these away from the works in the City of London - by what must have been a co-incidence they were almost adjacent to the second ever gas company's works at Blackfriars. Once there he set about employing an accountant who was asked to do a detailed analysis of company finance and to set up proper systems.

Pelton Main Colliery in the 1840s – this is the colliery which Livesey tried to purchase for the exclusive use of the Gas Light and Coke Company.As time went on Livesey continued to work on an effective coal buying policy for the company. The three works had all been built without water access and wharves had to be identified and cartage organised. In 1827 Livesey went north again and obtained advice on freight costs. The company began to buy directly from the pits. They chartered collier ships and from 1830 began to own ships themselves. In 1839 he negotiated to purchase Pelton Main Pit. The company did not buy the colliery but secured an exclusive agreement with the new owners.

Livesey was also the person in the company who interacted with the rest of the gas industry. The other companies all knew Mr.Livesey, it was him with whom they liaised. In 1822 the City of London Gas Company had put a main through Cornhill in the City of London and it was Livesey from the Chartered Company with whom they negotiated. In almost every reference to the Chartered by other companies before 1840 Mr. Livesey is found and not just in London - he appears in company minute books throughout the country. A tribute to his energy.

What was he like? Sterling Everard who wrote the History of the Gas Light and Coke Company described him as 'a Victorian, direct, forceful, pugnacious and impatient. The sort of man who could be found building up the fortunes of his business in almost every industry in the England of the time'

This was Georgian England. The history of the gas industry of the period is a saga of fraud. Livesey was not above taking his chance like the rest. The deal with the Newcastle Coal factor which he had negotiated behind the back of the rest of the Court quickly came to grief. A Committee of Enquiry into the matter found him innocent of complicity with the dishonest factor. Livesey left the company in 1840, apparently under a cloud about coal cartage contracts.

He seems to have made a lot of money. Livesey had originally lived at an address in The Triangle, Mare Street, Hackney. At this time this was still a pleasant area on the southern borders of Hackney on the main road as it came north from Bethnal Green. Some old houses still remained in the area, although industry was creeping up from the City and down from Hackney itself. He later moved, just up the road, to 2 Clapton Place. This must, by any standards, have been a moderately small house for a rich man. It was part of a terrace which later became shops in the central area of Hackney and directly opposite St. John's Church.

At his death in 1847 he left some property, houses, in Bethnal Green. He also left a remarkably good reputation for philanthropy 'by his death we have lost a kind benefactor and the uneducated a zealous advocate'.

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