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Sunday, 26 January 2020

Districting and the consumer movement

Districting and the consumer movement

The 1840s were a time when the gas companies – hitherto a operating in a free for all plus marginal fraud – began to be regularized, began to work towards their eventual image of staid and boring.
South London was no different.  As we have seen South Met. had been set in an area previously served solely by the Phoenix Company, based on Bankside and with another works in Greenwich.  

They had been joined by a Deptford Company which had originated as the Greenwich Railway Gas Works. It lay alongside the railway on the Surrey Bank of Deptford Creek.  All three were competing for customers and there was a fortune to be made by those who got it right.

Supplying gas to customers meant the gas companies had to build long lengths of expensive mains. Competition was expensive and often ruinous and this was recognized from the earliest days of the industry.  In the early 1820s William Congreve for the Government to implement recommendations on were called ‘districting arrangements’ between companies north of the river, although as it happens he was an interested party with financial involvement in some of the companies. However ‘districting’ meant an arrangement for each gas company to only supply in its own exclusive area into which the others would not venture.

In South London Phoenix had had a more or less their own way until the arrival of South Met.  The two companies then covered much the same area.   The Deptford Company made the situation even worse and in the west of the area the new London Gas Company was putting pressure on Phoenix. In 1844 Thomas Livesey was involved in setting up an arrangement was made about areas of supply in Deptford and Greenwich exchanging mains and customers between South Met.,  Deptford and Phoenix.

At the same time customers - many of them the parishes who bought gas for street lighting – began to complain about gas prices. While the districting arrangements might save money for the gas companies it also allowed them to set up price fixing deals.  In 1843 meetings were held between the gas companies in South London and lower prices were agreed.[1]

This system was to work for only a few years before the agreed arrangements were disrupted.
In 1848 when he was 14 George Livesey went to a public meeting.[2]   It was one of a series of meetings held locally ‘by consumers’ which challenged the local gas companies, their policies and their profits.  Events there influenced him with a set of ideas which led to his work in changing the way the industry was conducted. Here George heard John Thwaites, future Chair of the Metropolitan Board of Works, [3] expound on the unfairness of the gas pricing structures and the competitive, but price fixing companies.  George believed that the agitation continued because the gas companies would not sacrifice their profits and give into calls for lower prices. He also saw the waste caused through competition.

Gas consumers were in effect the local authorities who were the major purchasers of gas for street lighting. Thus what became the ‘consumer movement’ was largely made up of aspirant politicians. in London this meant that not only were the local vestries – the local authorities of the day - involved but also those whose interests were much wider, in particular the City of London Corporation. The Individuals involved were often involved in all aspects of London political life - the vestries, the City, and Parliament. They were also influenced by the policies of their own political party’s ideas on competition and pricing.  Many of these politicians were also represented on gas company boards or as major shareholders.  They were also represented in the City Livery companies which control the Corporation and much beyond its boundaries

One result was the setting up of a ‘consumer’s’ gas company in Rotherhithe. 

The Surrey Consumers Gas Light Association set up their works in 1849.  It was initially designed by Stephen Hutchinson one of the more flamboyant of the early gas engineers.[4]  When the project collapsed in disaster the company transferred control to Angus Alexander Croll one of more flamboyant of a younger generation of gas engineers.[5]  Hutchinson’s on-site engineer Tom Hedley barricaded himself in the Rotherhithe works[6].  Young George Livesey must have known all about the resulting battle and ensuing court case.  The early gas industry was rarely dull.

Croll however colourful, was the leading exponent of ‘consumer’ gas works.  He was also involved in setting up another ‘consumer’ works on Bow Common, built with support from people in the City of London who wanted by a gas supply which was not totally dependent on a privately owned company.  Foremost in this was the City solicitor, Charles Pearson, who was also involved in railway, sewers, power supplies integrated in the Victoria Embankment and allied with politicians like John Thwaites.[7]  Thus gas supply as a service industry was caught up in a political movement which involved both the City of London and the movement to set up of the Metropolitan Board of Works and, forty years later, the London County Council.  George Livesey was a boy learning about how the industry he had been brought up in was caught up in a wider political movement. One day he would see what he could add.

In the 1840s South Met was largely outside of this political situation but, like Phoenix, it was soon to be under pressure for its pricing policies. However this small works on the Old Kent Road needed to build its works and customer base, and pull away from the troubles of its early years,

The opening of the Surrey Consumers Rotherhithe works meant that the initial arrangements between the gas companies broke down in 1851 and the mad scramble of the early 1840s was renewed.  The older companies - South Met., Phoenix and the London Company – tried to buy up the Consumers Company but could not do so.  Negotiations continued however and by 1853 all companies had agreed on areas of supply.  One result of this was a setting of a standard illuminating power for the gas together with a maximum price. This was to be monitored with a meter tester and a referee to test gas quality.

The gas companies wanted to legalise their arrangements on districts with an Act of Parliament but this was opposed by their customers, the local authorities, and did not go ahead. 

South Met was to emerge from this process with some advantages due to the negotiating skills of Thomas Livesey and Board member. By 1874 the Chairman was Thomas Simpson, who explained then how in 1834 it had been impossible to get ‘an entry’ for South Met into Southwark for the supply of gas.  Using his political influence he managed to change this. He went on to boast “I got you the district that was the making of you.. There were very few who could have got it but myself”. [8]  This meant that South Mt had got an area of supply which was particularly profitable.  Much of the negotiation was carried out by Thomas Livesey who ‘contending the houses down one street … in the hope of getting a lot of district as possible in the suburbs”.  In this period vast amounts of new housing were being built in South London on developing estates – where gas mains could be laid as new roads were built, and a permanent customer base gradually built up. 

In 1875 by George Livesey describes this process to a Select Committee.  Once the district was secured prices had to be the kept down because ‘the lower the price the more secure and the property and the dividend’.  There was also a need to maintain profits to shareholders and to manage available capital rationally.  If the customers were happy then prudent financial management would secure profits because it was competition which led to expenditure.  The suburban area was the key because it was growing and the customer base would expand while the mains could be laid cheaply as areas were opened up. [9]

It was said of Thomas Livesey in later years that his intention was to ‘take the lead’ and thus they needed a good district.  He stressed that this could be done with prudent finances and the freedom to develop away from the pressures of competition.  It was an aim which his son was to inherit in due course.  It was part of George’s apprenticeship that his indirection to work was as his father’s assistant during the critical period f these negotiations - and why ultimately George was always more of a politician than a Gas Works manager

[1] Garton
[2] Liberty. History of Gas Lighting
[3] See Wikipedia entry
[4] There are articles in most issues Mechanics Magazine 1837-39 on the career of Stephen Hutchinson – many of them; it turned out, written by his father.
[5]  Croll’s career is covered in most issues of the gas press of the day. Scottish, he had come to London, set up chemical works and worked for the gas industry. He was involved in endless litigation with other industrial chemists, as well as also gas industry episodes like ‘The Battle of Bow Bridge’, and much else.
[6] The Hedleys. See Gas Engineering 1st October 1881. Info on the siege from Brian Sturt.
[7] Much of this is covered in the gas industry press of the day. For e.g. Gas And Water Times 27th September 1884
[8] Garton
[9] Report of the Select Committee on Metropolitan Gas Companies Bill, 1875,

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