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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Who bought tar from early gas works in east London and where were they from

Some purchasers of east London gas company tar came from a considerable distance. Two - Featherstonehaugh and Stephenson & Ritson - are described as coming from Sunderland. Featherstonehaugh seems to have been a coal merchant. However there is a record of a lime burner in the Swanscombe area of Thamesside with that name. Stephenson and Ritson have not been identified.

Links between North East England and London were well established through the coastal coal trade but some London gas company customers came from districts with less obvious connections. Mr. Bayley, who bought tar from Chartered in 1818, came from the Stonehouse area of Plymouth where he made tar, pitch and rosin. Mr. Wills came from rather nearer to London ‑ Tandridge, slightly to the east of Godstone and in the centre of an area of chalk and stone mines along the Kent/Surrey hills.

Most of the earliest tar buyers came from the immediate locality of the gas works. The first two customers recorded by Chartered, Pritchard and Crease,33 had premises in the Clerkenwell area. Pritchard had an oil warehouse in Smithfield but soon moved to Battlebridge where he made asphaltum. Crease was based in West Smithfield and then moved a short distance to Cowcross Street. All of these addresses, are a short walk from Goswell Road and the Chartered's 'Great Gas Manufactory' in Brick Lane.

Before 1830 most tar buyers came from the industrial suburbs on the City fringes ‑the south London riverbank or to the north in Clerkenwell or Shoreditch. Mr. Davey was, as we have seen, at Old Barge House by Bankside and Mr. Kempson was nearby. Mr. Clarke was in Lower Chadwell Street on the Finsbury/Islington borders and Wilkinson was 'of Battlebridge', slightly further north. None of these addresses are very far from early gas works in Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Blackfriars and Bankside.

Initially, tar buyers almost always came from these areas although as time went on they became concentrated to the east of the City.

By the late 1830s most sales were to buyers from further east. Several came, for instance, from the ship building area of Rotherhithe. Henry Hughes bought tar from Chartered in 1851. He had a tar distillery in Plough Lane, Rotherhithe ‑ like Mr. Flockton. A Hughes Terrace remained in the area into the 1940s. Henry Burt also opened a tar works in Rotherhithe Wharf - and thus began the company, which became Burt Boulton and Hayward.

Another concentration of tar distillers appears on Bow Common ‑ Bush who bought tar in the 1830s and later, Bethel and Battley. The only divergence from this eastward trend is a small cluster of tar works to the southwest in Nine Elms and Battersea.

There is nothing very unusual or surprising in this. Firms in many trades that had once clustered around the City boundaries began to move out in this period. There was a general and gradual drift east ‑ both northeast and southeast and down river. The same pattern will be observed with those who bought ammonia products from the gas companies and, no doubt, exist in other industries. As companies expanded they needed more space, and that meant that they usually needed to be near water for transport purposes.

There was also pressure on these smelly industries to move away from the inner city. Hunt's Bone Boilers were to claim that they were pressurised by by-laws in Lambeth to move across the Lea to Stratford. Several paint and varnish makers were to claim in company histories that they felt pressure from 'regulations' to move, although it is often difficult to pin down exactly what they mean. It is usually clear that they wanted a larger site ‑and one well away from complainants. A good example ‑ but a much later one ‑ is William Davy who had a tar works at Hackney Wick. His move from there to Rainham was partly forced by petitions against smell from residents in newly built Cadogan Terrace alongside Victoria Park. At the same time extra space and a riverside location suited Davy very well.

Tar distillers and those who used gas industry tar did not only move east. Many went north of the City to Battlebridge and Belle Isle and out to Haggerston and Old Ford. By the 1880s they had moved again ‑ to, for example, East Greenwich and Hackney Wick or, later, further down river to Rainham or Erith. Others went south to Merton and sites along the Wandle.

Those who bought raw coal tar directly from the gas company intended to distil it for resale. Initially they are described in directories as 'oil merchants' or, sometimes, 'varnish makers' or 'seed crushers'. By the 1830s they are nearly all described as 'tar distillers', with the odd exception of those like 'Mr. Lance for wharfaging at Greenwich'.

While many of the early purchasers are obscure, later contracts were made with those who became famous for their tar products - in particular Burt Boulton and Hayward. Many, like them, used the tar, which they bought to manufacture a range of products. It ought to be possible to find out what those products were, and, by discovering other manufacturers, to find out more about the effects of coal tar and its use in the wider London economy. Tar had moved slowly to start with but the fact that there were those willing to buy shows that it had found a market.

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