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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

a writ of mandamus - how the first Greenwich works fell into the Creek

Greenwich was then a small town in Kent - less industrial than the riverside areas which surrounded it but nevertheless part of the port and its hinterland. People in the 1820s were worried about the same things as we are. Public safety on the streets was important and improved street lighting was seen as a necessity. Another issue was 'keeping down the rates' – that street lighting had to be cheap. Local authorities were based on the parish and the vestry – but even so, their debates have a very modern ring. They discussed the same issues we do today - about private and public contractors, and about the responsibility for how public money is spent.

In Greenwich there had been one shocking murder attributed to lack of street lighting and local people wanted action. In June 1822 Mr. Hedley ' of Kings Arms Yard Coleman Street, iron merchant and gas light contractor got an introduction to meet Mr. Bicknell, the Greenwich Town Clerk. This was because he had 'received an intimation' that it was the wish of Greenwich people to 'light the town with gas'.

Joseph Hedley was one of a number of contractors who were busily building gas works all round the country. He came from Norwich, was short and thin and in 1823 boasted of having already built gas works at Ramsgate, Gravesend and Margate. He attended a meeting with Mr. Bicknell and Mr. Hargrave, Chairman of the Greenwich churchwardens. With him went Mr. Tilson - a 'Solicitor of great respectability' and very well known to several Greenwich vestry members.

Mr. Hedley said that he intended to build a private gas works and wanted to contract with the parish for lighting. He then wrote a formal letter to the vestry asking permission to dig up the streets for pipes and offered a £500 bond as a guarantee of him making them good again plus 'twenty or thirty lights gratis for the general service'. When the churchwardens discussed this they hesitated and sought a legal opinion from Mr. Bicknell who was 'unavoidably absent'. They decided that there must be a proper legal framework for what was proposed and so Hedley offered to secure the necessary Act of Parliament, 'at their own expense' - and a petition was lodged in Parliament for lighting and watching the parish of Greenwich. A Parliamentary Bill was presented to allow the vestry to levy a rate for lighting and it received the Royal Assent at the end of May 1823.

In the meantime one of the churchwardens, Richard Smith, began to complain that the parish was allowing 'strangers' to form a gas company in the town. The result, he said, would be that they 'reaped the profits'. Might it not be better if such a gas company was set up by local people themselves? He recommended that it was necessary to 'seize the present opportunity of doing a great public benefit at a comparatively moderate expense’. His committee said that it would cost the parish absolutely nothing to do this because a company would be formed of local people who would bear the expense.

After a year – Mr. Hedley had heard nothing about the gas light scheme and in July 1823, he wrote to the vestry asking what was happening. He was told by Mr. Bicknell that he would have to attend a vestry meeting with the proper tender documents. Hedley took the opportunity to ask how many lamps would be needed, for how long they would be kept alight at night, the size required and so on.

He was not given a particularly explicit answer but was told to 'say what he thinks best'. What Hedley did not know was that the vestry was also in discussion with a Mr. Gostling.

John Gostling was another gentleman in the business of supplying ready-made gas works to whoever wanted one. He may have been the same Gostling with a Birmingham iron foundry who had supplied some of the earliest gas making equipment in London – and to the earliest Birmingham gas works in 1818. Was he also perhaps a relation of the Mr. Gostling who had been the Imperial Gas Co night-watchman in 1823 who was sacked for being drunk on night time duty? Gostling had supplied gas-making equipment in Bristol as early as 1816 giving his address as Long Acre in London. In 1822 he had works under construction at Canterbury and Maidstone.

In the event, Hedley and Gostling both turned up to the vestry meeting at which the tenders were to be discussed. Hedley sat for two hours in a room outside the meeting and was not allowed to submit his tender to them. He was then told that it was 'inadmissible' and that Gostling had the job. When he asked how this was he was told that there was no record of his earlier discussions in the vestry minute book.

The Greenwich vestry set up a committee to work with Mr. Gostling which reported that Mr. Gostling's contract should be 'on his own terms' and 'for fourteen years'. He was given permission to erect lampposts, dig up the pavements. Inevitably, as the pavements were dug up complaints from the public began to roll in.

Hedley went away, plotting his revenge. An approach was made to the Court of the King Bench and an anonymous leaflet appeared 'Non I Ricordo – or the metallic influence of the gas upon the dark of the lampposts'. This outlined goings on in the vestry with references to the gas lighting scheme and recorded all of Mr. Hedley's grievances.

Hedley made public a comparison of what he would have charged the parish and what Gostling was charging. This included the solicitor's bill for the parliamentary bill, which Hedley said he would do for nothing but for which Gostling charged £363.6s.4d. Hedley said he would have provided lamps for free while Gostling would have charged £350 for 100 lamps for nine months, Gostling charged £502.10s. There was also a whole issue around the amount of gas needed on moonlit nights. It all came to a very great deal extra money all of which was chargeable to the rates. The parishioners were very dissatisfied.

Meanwhile Gostling went back to Parliament to set up the new Greenwich Gas Company to be called the Ravensbourne Gas Light and Coke Co. and a large number of petitions were handed in against it from 'wealthy and respectable inhabitants'. Gostling was challenged as to who his shareholders in the Ravensbourne Company were. He refused to say - were they all vestry members?

The Greenwich Phoenix Gas Works shown in 1871. The Creek, Thames Street, and the site of the works, are little changed – but redevelopment will soon be underway.Gostling proceeded to build his Greenwich gas works. A recently discovered plan shows an old gas-making site on the eastern side of Norway Street - and it is assumed this shows Gostling’s works. As he built it, he was also trying to sell it. As early as May 1823 the South London Gas Light and Coke Company had reported that Phoenix Gas Company, based in the Bankside Gas Works were about to buy the Greenwich Gas Works and negotiations were continuing.

It was also discovered that the Greenwich parish had broken its own standing orders in the course of dealing with Gostling's contract. On The 24th April, Mr. Bicknell resigned as Vestry Clerk – receiving the customary thanks for his hard work from all concerned. These expressions of thanks did not stop an immediate investigation into his conduct of parish business. A resolution was passed that he had his work had been 'illegally and shamefully expended and misapplied' – this was then rescinded and is crossed out in the parish minutes.

Greenwich had not yet levied a rate under its new Act of Parliament to raise money for street lighting and a large majority of the vestry voted for them not to do so. This was backed up by the Royal Hospital – a big force in the town at the time – who demanded three places on the Parish Poor Committee in return for their rate payments. In August, a Writ of Mandamus was issued by the Court of Kings Bench - an injunction forcing a local authority to fulfil its financial obligations under the law regardless of what it thought about the matter. Greenwich vestry resolved 'to make a sufficient rate to satisfy the persons to whom the parish is indebted under an Act of Parliament for lighting and watching'.

A sheet of paper was submitted on vestry expenses and the members present passed a vote of censure on the parish officers for signing an 'improvident and harmful contract' with Gostling. Whereby 'the parishioners are called to pay an enormous sum amounting to about £5,000' and which 'they would not had they taken the contract of Joseph Hedley and Co.'' and for the 'gross neglect of duty' in not entering all this into the minute books. A number of other financial matters were also raised – 'Confirmation expenses £10 for dinner at the ship tavern and £25 for a dinner for which no voucher has been produced'… ' Visitation £60 – it actually cost £131 but 80 tickets only were sold'.

By the end of 1824 Gostling was publicly in negotiation with the Phoenix Company, hoping to sell his Greenwich works to them. He said he would sell at cost and take a percentage of future gas sales. By the end of December some sort of agreement had been reached and Phoenix recorded Gostling's demand to be paid extra money to cover his son's salary and for the expenses of the Parliamentary bill for the Ravensbourne Gas Company – which had now been dropped. The indignant members of the Greenwich public who were having to pay for all this noted that the same solicitor acted for both Gostling and the Phoenix in this sale – and it must be assumed that this was the respectable Mr.Tilson. The sale was finally placed in his hands, the solicitor for the other parties being Greenwich's ex-vestry clerk, Bicknell.

Things dragged on and a year later had still not been completely resolved. Gostling asked Phoenix for the loan of 16 lampposts and requested that his foreman be sent to Canterbury where the same process of selling the vestry a gasworks was, no doubt, underway. In the meantime, Greenwich Vestry negotiated separately with the Phoenix Company for a supply of gas lights and Phoenix was able to tell them that they had finally completed purchase of Gostling's works by November 1825. It cost them £13,302. 7.4d.

Phoenix meanwhile bought land in Greenwich from a Mr. Horrocks in order to build a new gas works adjacent to Gostlings on the area which is now the eastern entrance to Deptford Creek. They first needed to stabilise the land at the creek entrance and to build wharves there. This work was undertaken by Mackintosh and was to take some time. Meanwhile Phoenix intended to honour their contracts to provide street lights in Greenwich by using Gostlings new gas works in Norway Street.

The trouble with Mr. Gostling's works was that it was falling down. The Phoenix engineer reported that. 'the Retort House at Greenwich is settling again … the Tank has given way for the third time …. We have had to employ 150 men to renew the timber and water has seeped through to Mr. Hartley's premises …. The foundations were dangerous …. The sand had not been puddled in the contract'. They were finally able to close it in 1828 when the new works was finally finished. Gas had been made at the Gostling works for about four years, it had caused a major rift in the Greenwich vestry and given Phoenix many problems.

Phoenix hung on to the site for many years and the gasholder there probably remained in use. In 1828 the site, minus the gas holder area, was advertised as a 'valuable property near the river, with brick buildings and a lofty chimney, suitable for an iron foundry or any trade needing large premises'.

The Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company flourished and continued to supply Greenwich with gas for lighting from their new works built on the east bank of Deptford Creek. Things were far from easy and there were many projects for new works over the coming years.

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