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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Wellclose Square

This was a small gas works set up to light a large east London theatre - but it seems that at the same time it was involved in the public supply of gas.

Both Stewart and Everard noted that an early gas works existed in Wellclose Square, E1. Everard showed that it had been taken over by the Chartered Gas Light and Coke Co. in 1820 and then closed down. Like many things in the early London gas industry this story turns out to be very much more interesting than that - involving a gas works which was not in Wellclose Square and not closed down in 1820.

Today the street layout is essentially the same but 'Norton Street' is part of The Highway – a four lane main road. Wellclose Square is to the north of The Highway and its original buildings have now been replaced. To the west of it runs Ensign Street, formerly Well Street, where in 1785 the Royalty, or East London, Theatre was built. Today a disused home for sailors stands on the site. It was opened by a John Palmer 'of the most versatile and eminent talents, but destitute of prudence'. Palmer died in 1798 but he may have been involved with some of the dramatic illusionists who demonstrated gas in theatres before 1800. In ‘The Lyceum and Henry Irving’ Austin Brereton described how Palmer’s brother, Robert, took part in a display of an ‘Aeropyric Branch’ at the Lyceum in 1789 which it was claimed was actually a demonstration of gas lighting.

To cut a long story very short a disturbance on the first night led to a relation of his, a Mr. W Palmer, being imprisoned as a 'rogue, vagabond and sturdy beggar'. Mr. Palmer went out of business and the Theatre was used by a number of different theatre companies over the next forty years of its existence.

At some point, gas making plant was installed to provide lighting for the theatre. Nothing is known of who built or commissioned it; it does not appear in the list of works built by Boulton and Watt although a letter was written to them by a Mr. Van Voorst who lived in Wellclose Square and wanted to know about gas making equipment. This is the same Van Voorst who was then a prominent shareholder of the infant Chartered Company.

In 1820, the theatre and its gas works were sold to the Chartered Company. It was then known as the East London Gas Works, and was making and selling gas to 'a prosperous manufacturing district' for a profit of £1,000 a year. There was a 'gasometer' as well as 'main and service pipes'. The ‘works’ was to the north of the theatre building and adjacent to the stage.

Something strange was going on because a Mr. Vickers seems to have owned the theatre both before, and after, it was sold by auction in 1820. His son was appointed by the Imperial Gas Company to a post ‘Wellclose Square’ in 1824 . None of this makes an awful lot of sense but one assumes that there is a rational explanation somewhere!

What is known is the final fate of this little gas making plant. One night in April 1826, a Mr. Evans was making gas for 'the use of the house on Tuesday night'. Evans is a name well known in the early history of the Chartered Company and it may be that he was moonlighting from their works at Brick Lane. Evans looked out from his stoke hole and noticed that some of the scenery above the adjacent stage was on fire. He raised the alarm.

So fierce was the fire been that the firemen could only stand 'at either end of the theatre and throw the water on the flames as well as they could' and there was much worry that it would spread to two adjacent sugar refineries. They were saved but the theatre was burnt to the ground with the loss of everything except the grand pianoforte 'snatched from the Green Room' by 'an unknown sailor'. The losses included a costume for Richard III 'worth at least £50'.

How had the fire started? It appears that the performance that night, of 'Kendrick the Accursed', had required the eruption of Mount Etna on stage. For this, 'about half a pound of powder' was used. It also seemed that the gas lights on the side of the stage had not been properly turned off.

The burnt out theatre was eventually replaced by the 'Destitute Sailors' Home. Well Street is now known as Ensign Street and the Sailors' Home still stands, but in other use.By 1834 the works and the theatre had closed. In 1835 it was opened as the Destitute Sailor’s Asylum - a philanthropic project which still stands today. However the East London Gas Company was to have a renaissance in due course.

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