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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The following article - a retrospect of gas works practice at Old Kent Road Work, appeared in the South Met's House Magazine 'Co-partnership Journal' in November 1908.


Like some quiet backwater which is undisturbed by the constantly flowing river, the old retorts shown in our illustration have stood till now untouched by the rapid current of progress which has been for years passing so near to them. But their fires have long been out and the mouthpieces and ascension-pipes are passing into what Ruskin calls 'living iron' -•-the iron rust which enters so intimately into the life of animals and plants.

No. 6 Retort House was built nearly forty years ago, and a portion of it stands on the site of old Christchurch, a consecrated building which was erected in 1838 (five years after our Company began to supply gas), and, after a brief existence of thirty years, was demolished and replaced by the present church in Old Kent Road to allow of the expansion of our rapidly growing works. The special Act of Parliament authorising this was passed on May 26th 1865. The removal was as necessary for the comfort of the worshippers as it was for the purposes of the Company; the works being so near the sacred building as to be a nuisance. The new church was consecrated July 1, 1868. It was in 1868 (probably just before No. No 6 Retort House was built) that the fifth edition of Clegg's 'Treatise on Coal Gas' was published, and it may interest some readers to know what is said therein of the Old Kent Road Works.

No.8 retort house
These works, of which Mr. Livesey (the late Thomas Livesey] is the manager seem to deserve especial attention from the circumstance that gas for some years past has been supplied by the South Metropolitan Company at a lower price than by any other Metropolitan company, while the shareholders have received the full amount of their prescribed dividends. The works are, indeed, very well situated, having a frontage of 800 yards on the Surrey Canal; but there is nothing remarkable in the process of manufacture to account for the enviable position of this Company’s affairs, which must be attributed to the smallness of their capital, combined with general good management. There has been recently a considerable addition to the retort house, and there are now fixed 315 retorts, each 19 feet 6 inches long. They are built up on the premises with various fire-bricks, and are set seven in a bench. In the order of purification, until last year, the gas passed directly from the hydraulic -main to the exhauster; but it now first undergoes condensation in a series of horizontal pipes immersed in a slow current of water. From the exhauster the gas passes through two large scrubbers, 18 feet high and 16 feet in diameter, the first one being charged with ammoniacal liquor, and the second with water. There are five purifiers, three of which are 26 feet 8 inches by.13 feet 4 inches, and 4 feet 6 inches in depth; the two others being 18 feet 6 inches square by 4 feet 6 inches deep. 'The material used is native oxide of iron previously ground, and without any lime. The total capacity of the gas holders, of which there are five, is 1,680,000 cubic feet; and the largest one, 110 feet in diameter and 6O feet high, in two lifts, holds 550,000 cubic feet. At these works there is no station meter and no governor, the pressure in the mains being regulated by valves. A peculiarly constructed chimney, designed by Mr. Livesey, jun., has been recently built for the new retort furnaces. It is square and parallel from the bottom to the top; and it is strengthened by four flange like buttresses, which diminish in thickness to the top. The interior is equally parallel, a regular draught throughout being thereby obtained. Among the appliances at these works is a large lathe and a forge for repairing the mechanism of the steam engine, and for doing other engineering work on the premises.

It is significant that or something like half a century the South Metropolitan Gas Company - originally founded to supply cannel gas - has held the distinguished position of supplying the cheapest gas in the metropolitan area, and one feels proud of the fact that forty years ago, as now, this was known to be the result of  'general good management.'

The use of brick retorts at Old Kent Road lasted until very recently. All treatises on gas manufacture, from Clegg to Hunt, allude to the brick retorts at Old Kent Road; and the valuable 'Gas Lighting' of Mr. Hunt was published as recently as 1900. The retorts are D shaped, and constructed of rebated and grooved fire-bricks of very similar shape to those which Mr. J. E. Clift used at Birmingham. I think Mr. Grafton was the first to construct D-retorts, after experimenting with square ones, about 1820. The section of an Old Kent Road brick retort in Mr. Hunt's work is similar to that given in King's treatise in 1878, and differs somewhat from that shown by Mr. Carpenter to the Society of Engineers in 1891, which may be taken as representing the final development under the late Mr. Frank Livesey, whose keen interest in retorts and their settings is well known.

The use of oxide of iron in the purifiers (to the exclusion of lime) was, it would appear, a somewhat unusual practice then, although oxide had been used--more or less - for some twenty years. Now the sulphur clauses are less stringent than they were, it is recognised that oxide is the most suitable purifying agent for use in town gasworks. The fact of there being 'no station-meter and no governor' - deficiencies which were supplied not long afterwards - is important as proving that good management can exist with incomplete plant.

George Livesey's chimney, newly finished
The only direct allusion to our late Chairman in the passage quoted is in connection with his' peculiarly constructed chimney,' which was built in 1862.  The author of the book cannot then have known what an important place Mr. Livesey, jun.,' was destined to fill in the gas industry. The chimney, however, indicates originality of design and a mind not limited to the narrow groove of precedent. Sir George Livesey in the last few weeks of his life was gratified to see his forty-six-year-old chimney not only standing, but apparently likely to stand until it is pulled down.


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