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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Woolwich

In the early days of the gas industry entrepreneurs began to look round for towns in need of a gas works. Woolwich was a flourishing centre with some big industrial sites, clearly in need of a good source of lighting. It is no surprise, therefore, to find a speculative gas works built there.

In 1817, or thereabouts, a Mr. Livesey and a Mr. Hardy built a gas works in Woolwich. If the name Livesey is familiar, it is because he was George Livesey's great-uncle, Thomas. Thomas Livesey was a hosier based in the City of London. A great deal has been written about the invention of the technology of gas manufacture but it is rarely mentioned that it was Thomas Livesey who took over the management of the Gas Light and Coke Company and made it work effectively - and at the same time set the pattern for how a gas works was to be run. Busy as he was with this role he clearly had time for other things, and like many others, an eye for a profit.

The other partner in the Woolwich gas works was a Mr. Hardy, a coal merchant. Hardy and another gas works entrepreneur, Joseph Hedley, operated a gas equipment and ironmongers business out of an office in Kings Arms Yard off Cheapside in the City of London. Thomas Livesey also used this address sometimes although his hosiery business was round the corner in Wood Street

Livesey and Hardy built their gas works in Woolwich on a site known as 'Roff's Compound' or 'Edgar's Coal Wharf'. This was on the river in the area of today's Bell Watergate and next to the Waterfront Leisure Centre. Roff was a well-known wharfinger in Woolwich for many years and his wharf was still marked on a map in 1853 .

Whatever the plans for the works were it seems that it was not successful and after only six or seven years Livesey and his friends tried to dispose of it. In 1824 they attempted to sell the works to the South London Gas Company. When this approach failed they waited a couple of years and then tried to sell it to South London’s successor, the Bankside based Phoenix Company - which by then also had a works in Greenwich. They approached Phoenix in February 1825, and then in November 1827 and again in December 1828 when they offered it to them for £6,500. Phoenix turned it down.

One of the reasons why Livesey and Hardy were so keen to dispose of the Woolwich Gas Works was that as Thomas Livesey was Deputy Governor of the Westminster based Chartered Gas Light and Coke Co. he was not supposed to have an interest in another gas company. In fact the Chartered took a very dim view of his extra-curricular activities and in May 1827 he had to make a sworn statement to the effect that he had disposed of his interest in the Woolwich Gas Company. This, as it turns out, was not true. In what follows Livesey is always described and treated as the owner of this works.

It seems that he had transferred the legal ownership and the Woolwich gas works was actually owned by a corporate body of which a Mr. Ainger was a trustee. Ainger was yet another coal and iron merchant - this time based on Bankside. Livesey must have known him well since he had been selling coal to the Chartered Company from its inception.

The years went by. It was offered around to other gas companies, but apparently no-one else wanted it. However in 1823 a group of men had tried to set up another gas company in Woolwich and went so far as to obtain an Act of Parliament for this. This once again involved Samuel Hardy, this time working with Joseph Hedley. Others involved were Frederick Hardy, a Francis WilliamVant and a Joseph Wickendon.

In 1832 in Woolwich, another gas company was set up, the Woolwich Equitable. Ten years later another company was set up to rival it – The Woolwich Consumers Protective Gas Company. There was to be talk of 'serious defalcations' at the Woolwich Equitable and the rows between the two rivals fill many pages of the Kentish Mercury. The Woolwich Equitable tried to buy up the old works in order to replace it and they began to negotiate with Mr. Livesey and Mr. Ainger. This should have been no problem since they had been trying to get rid of it for at least the previous ten years. A valuation was commissioned from Mr. John Barlow (builder of the Greenwich Railway Gas Works at Deptford), and, in the interests of honesty and fair play, a second valuer was brought in. This was a Mr. Robert Brown of Royal Hill. I assume that this is the Robert Brown, Architect of Royal Place in 1839 not the Mr. Robert Brown, Plumber, of Blackheath Hill who also extant in 1839 (or perhaps they were the same person).

Brown’s valuation report was very long and very damning – the works was 'very dilapidated' to say the least. In negotiations Ainger and Livesey began frantically to talk the equipment up – they explained that the wooden tanks were after all, only fifteen years old and the pipework would last at least a hundred years. Brown apparently didn't agree with them. Ainger then accused the Woolwich Equitable Board of trying to cheat him.

The new gas company decided that it was desperate to 'buy up the competition' and continued negotiations regardless. Livesey began to talk about problems with an Act of Parliament and the Board of the Equitable brought their solicitor along to see him. A settlement was reached in July 1832 at a meeting between both sides and their lawyers. In the following January a list was produced of Messrs. Livesey and Ainger's various misdeeds and Woolwich Equitable Directors were perhaps most annoyed that £245 of the purchase money was to find its way into Mr. Livesey's pocket.

The old Woolwich works was taken over, run for a while, and closed down. While negotiations had been going on with Livesey and Ainger other arrangements were taking place for a new works to be built specially for the new gas company. It's nice to know that the contract to build the new works went to Mr. Barlow, who had lost the contract to survey the old works.

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