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Friday, 7 August 2009

Who was Hatchard - and is it all true?

Mr. Hatchard was soon forgotten. Why was he so quickly shut up when he made claims, apparently for the first time, about an invention some forty years after it has been demonstrated? Why did he wait so long before he wrote to The Mirror about it? Who was he? His identity has not been particularly easy to unravel.

A family called Hatchard lived in the Westminster area in the late eighteenth century. One of them, John, born of 'respectable and devout' Thomas and Sarah in 1768, was about the same age as our Mr. Hatchard. Apprenticed to a bookseller he founded the famous bookshop in Piccadilly.His father, Thomas, was probably a carpenter and in 1821, a generation later, a Henry Hatchard was a carpenter and undertaker on Millbank - then an industrialised riverside area within easy walking distance of Westminster and Pimlico. He could have been the Henry Hatchard thrown out of St.Margaret's church in 1821 'for brawling'. Thus the Hatchard family were established, and probably, well known in the area, if only for fighting in church, and it may be that ‘our’ Mr. Hatchard and the bookseller were related.

By the 1840s several Hatchards in the Westminster area were described as 'sculptors' - which, I think, must be a euphemism for ‘monumental mason’. Henry Hatchard was a carpenter, and carpenters make coffins and so perhaps the family was in the undertaking business. In 1820 a Mr. James Hatchard who lived in Brewer Street was a member of the Royal Society of Arts. 'T. Hatchard' could have been one of this family. - or perhaps ‘T’ is a misprint for ‘J’ in the signature of the letter.

There is however another twist. In 1794 Henry Hatchard, the Millbank undertaker, adopted a baby who was distantly related to his wife, Sarah. The child, also Henry, was the son of Thomas Sugg, an ironmonger of Hoxton. Relationships with his natural parents continued and his son married a Sugg cousin. In the later nineteenth century the Sugg family became well known manufacturers of gas lighting appliances. The firm's antecedents go back to the earliest days of gas lighting and it has been claimed that Thomas Sugg laid the first ever gas main in Pall Mall in 1807. In 1989 Sugg Lighting Ltd. installed lights in Trafalgar Square, which replicated those of the original Sugg patent.

In the nineteenth century Sugg’s engineering works was handily adjacent to the Westminster Gas Works, in Marsham Street but such gas appliances were not their only trade. In the 1840s Hatchard and Sugg were undertakers of York Street, Westminster. Perhaps it is not too much too suggest that William Sugg had a line in coffin handles while his Hatchard cousins supplied coffins and monumental masonry. Whether this relationship with a well known supplier of gas lighting appliances makes T. Hatchard's 1828 letter more or less suspect is not easy to say. Certainly, there appear to be relationships here that are not apparent at first sight. Later Suggs were often deeply embroiled in the internal politics of the gas industry.

Did this demonstration of gas lighting ever really take place? I am convinced that the claims made in the letter in respect of Mr. Champion are true, since two contemporary archive sources, Trinity House, and the Matthew Boulton collection verify them. Mr. Hatchard would have known neither of these sources and neither could have been tampered with. However, neither source mentions Hatchard, so it is possible that he was repeating a story about events that although they had actually taken place involved someone else.

Whatever Hatchard’s reasons for writing to the Mirror in 1828 it would probably have been seen as an attempt to claim priority of invention - since gas lighting was a profitable business using a basic technology for which there was no patent. Clearly, an inconvenient claim for the invention of gas lighting would, by 1828, have upset many highly profitable businesses - and there would have been several parties with an interest in suppressing any such claim! Perhaps we will never know!

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