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Wednesday, 12 August 2009


A few miles outside London was an institution of learning which may well have had an interest in coal gas for lighting (or perhaps for use in explosives). This was the military research complex at Woolwich.

Woolwich has had very little attention as an academic centre, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was home to one of the few institutions in the Britain where research staff were employed on technical subjects. An examination of the Woolwich rate books reveals an astonishing number of Fellows of the Royal Society living in the neighbourhood.

Some of these Woolwich based scientists had a special interest in gases. For example, William Cruickshank, a chemist who lectured at the Royal Military Academy, published relevant papers before 1810. Later, another lecturer, J.MacCulloch, wrote on wood distillates10 ‑of particular relevance to a study of coal gas residuals.

There is, however, no evidence of direct research into coal gas at Woolwich. The only known gas making plant on site probably dates from the late 1850s. Nevertheless the establishment had several close links with the early gas industry. One prominent person involved in both these was the younger William Congreve who was Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory; based in Woolwich. He investigated the early London gas industry for the Government in 1823. Congreve also played a part in the industry as an inventor, a company backer and a promoter.

Another 'Chemist to the Ordnance' with an interest in gas was James Sadler, the balloonist. He had worked with James Watt on gas making equipment at the Bristol Hot Wells Institute which specialised in therapy based on a variety of gases. There is also a persistent story that he installed a gas making plant at Beaufoy's Vinegar Works in Lambeth.

It is not known why the interest in coal gas manufacture by some of the Woolwich establishment was not translated into an early gas making plant there. It has been suggested that there was a deliberate decision not to site a gas works in what became the Arsenal complex because of the perceived danger of explosion. However, the lack of an on-site gas works does not preclude experiments on coal gas supply nor does it detract from the importance of Woolwich-based researchers to the development of the process itself.

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