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Sunday, 26 January 2020

George - Assistant Manager

George - Assistant Manager

In 1857 George was made Assistant Manager “but not so as to relieve the manager from his responsibility to conduct the company’s affairs for the benefit of the proprietors’ – as was recorded m the Board minutes.[1]  Is there perhaps a hint that the Board thought that twenty three year old George Livesey might have other than the Board’s interests at heart or that he might take on other, unsanctioned, activities?

They need not have worried. For the next fourteen years George worked assiduously under his father’s direction and kept, by his future standards, very quiet. He took more and more responsibility however as time went on and Thomas began to develop angina.

Around this time Thomas and Ellen moved from the company house in Canal Grove to the more refined air of Elizabeth Lodge in Consort Road - then Albert Road – in Peckham. It is still there as a pleasant suburban house which must have been even more pleasant before the building of the Camberwell workhouse - the notorious ‘spike’ – nearby. Within the next few years the workhouse was joined by two railway lines - in 1865 one to Nunhead and in 1866 one to Queen’s Road Peckham. They may be the reason that the family later moved a much greater distance away to Thurlow Park Road in Dulwich.  This is now the South Circular Road but still surprisingly rural and in the late 1860s the house at the janitor with Dulwich Common must have been very pleasant indeed.

One reason for the move may have been that Frank, George’s younger brother, born in 1845 was in 1861 enjoying the benefits of a public school education at Dulwich College as a day boy and the new Livesey was almost next door to the school.  Thad other reason may be much sadder I the George’s younger a sister Ellen died in 1864 at the age of 27. George rarely, if ever, mentioned her. What was she like?? Why did she die so young? There no clues.

On the 1861 census Thomas described himself as ‘Gas Company Secretary’ but two years earlier he had been a gentleman when he signed George’s wedding certificate. George was married in 1859 at St.Mary’s Peckham, and his new wife was Harriet Howard from Rochester where her father was a tallow chandler.

Perhaps as a romantic reference point we can look at another young couple whose relationship was flowering around the same time in the church halls of South London.  Susie told the story, how, with a large party of friends, they went to Crystal Palace in Norwood.  Before long Charles whispered in her ear and ‘we wandered together for a long time and not only in the wonderful building itself but within the garden and even down to the lake beside which the colossal forms of extinct monsters were being cunningly modelled… we would meet at the Crystal Fountain.. and I think we learned many things besides the tenderness of our two hearts’.[2]  This couple had to be careful because the young man then had a pop star status. Harriett would eventually also learn what it was to be the partner of a charismatic public figure although she may not have expected it, but she undoubtedly made the same contributions of energy and critical intelligence to her marriage as did Susie Spurgeon.

George always acknowledged Harriet’s influence on his ideas. We know of no other mentor and the likelihood is that was Harriet with whom his ideas were worked out and Harriett who supported him and gave him confidence.

They were married in St. Mary’s Church in Peckham very close to his father’s home in Albert Road. The church was bombed in the Second World War and there is now a replacement church on site. 

Why were they married in Peckham and not in Rochester, as would be more usual and it also seems her parents were not at the wedding because her sister, Caroline, who acted as witness

The young couple went to live at 3 Rye Hill Park, Peckham. The house has now gone but the area remains pleasant enough and sandwiched between the open space of Nunhead’s reservoir and cemetery to the north and Peckham Rye to the south. On the 1861 census George describes himself as a gas engineer and they have one servant, Emily, hardly younger than themselves. They did not stay here long and by 1871 were at 147 Lower Tulse Hill, in Brixton – this house again has gone.
George, meanwhile, worked with his father at Old Kent Road gas works, so that it could eventually ‘take the lead’.  The works was to change and grow enormously in these years.

Expansion at Old Kent Road

The area of the Old Kent Road gas works was extended in this period. A large piece of land was purchased from a Mr. Brett for £1,500. This was meadow called ‘six acres’ hitherto pasture with sheep and their pens. In 1864 another large piece of land was added to the works, having been bought for £7,000. [3] Thus, gradually, the gas works crept down the main road and along the canal, engulfing the side streets until they were surrounded. All that remained for many years was small patch used for allotments by the workforce.

Coal was delivered via the Surrey Canal. A small basin is said to have been built in 1856 ‘for the repair of barges’[4] and Crown Wharf was purchased.[5]  The barge fleet was gradually built up as the company ceased hiring barges and used their own craft.  Their first wooden barge, Thomas, had been purchased second-hand in 1843, an event which George Livesey remembered from his childhood. [6] 

Their second barge was bought in 1845 and built for them by Linnell, of Rotherhithe.[7]   In 1865 an iron barge was constructed for them by Lewis and Stock well[8] and another in 1870 came from Thames Ironworks.[9]

But the owned by the company was gradually extended and against outlet for commercial companies in 18651 was ordered from Thames ironworks based on Polk read in the north bank of the Thames and the premiership building works in England properly in the world warrior had been built the five years earlier and Frank kills was already on board and

 An office block was built in 1861 alongside the road and adjacent to the Canal Bridge.  It is this building which became the Livesey Institute in the 1900s and which was demolished in the early 1980s and many local people will remember.

There were also new retort houses built on the site of the local church.  Christ Church had been built at same time as the gas works when Peckham New Town was all fields. It was on a path running from the old manor house. Both the congregation of the church and the Bishop were in favour of the move because the church was suffering badly from smell from the gasworks but it needed a special act of Parliament. As compensation the gas company paid £1,000 for a new site on the other side of the Old Kent Road and £5,000 towards a new church – which stands opposite the gasworks site today.  A new retort house was built on the site of Christ Church. In 1867 it was described by Samuel Clegg Jnr who said there were 315 retorts each 19 feet by 6 inched long built with firebricks and set seven in a bench. This reflected a huge increase in the rise amount of gas sold.

Steam Engines

The Old Kent Road Gas Works acquired new improved steam engines and seem to have bought them from local firms.  In April 1864 they bought an Easton & Co.  two cylinder engine.[10] Easton had begun making hydraulic rams in the Strand in the 1820s and had then moved to The Grove, Southwark where, together with Charles Amos they made all sorts of engines and mills.  By the time South Met bought their steam engine the company was in process of moving to Erith where they were to flourish. A similar engine was bought at the same time from another local firm, Middleton. They were initially based in Tooley Street and later Loman Street where they made mills and engines.[11]

Earlier another engine had been bought from Beale & Co. Joshua Taylor Beale had designed a steam engine in Whitechapel in the 1830s. He later moved to Greenwich where he adapted the original engine to turn it into an ‘exhauster’.  His son John Taylor Beale, sold the exhauster patent to Brian Donkin of Bermondsey who moved to a green field site in Chesterfield in 1860 where they continued to make the exhauster. South Met. bought both an exhauster and an 8 hp steam engine from Beale.[12]

In 1862 the young George Livesey designed a chimney from the retort furnaces. This was constructed by Moreland.[13] This chimney was described by Samuel C1egg Jnr.[14]  as a ‘peculiarly constructed chimney …. It is square and parallel from the bottom to the top; and it is strengthened by four flange-like buttresses.

Four holders were apparently in place at Old Kent Road before the arrival of Thomas Livesey. The works had begun with two gasholders. These were very different from the holders we see now and had a central column around which the rest of the holder was constructed. A third holder was added in 1835 to plans by George Palmer and a wall was built around it to protect it from storms. [15] Two years later in 1837 another holder was built by Barlow and Co.[16]  which ‘had a timber frame of really highly scientific geometrical construction, with single timber uprights’. [17] Over the next forty years holders at the Old Kent Road evolved as ideas changed, towards the holders we see today listed and remaining in place.

One of Thomas Livesey first decisions was the construction of No. 5 gasholder. The contract was given in June 1840 to J. and J. Horton.[18]That had a cast-iron frame with tripod standards held together at … making .. a frame that was the strongest, I suppose, that was ever seen for a small gasholder …. It was such that it would almost have held a ship of war from tumbling over’.[19] Another holder followed in 1845, No.6., the tank – that’s the area in the centre, usually below ground level – built by direct labour under Thomas Livesey’s supervision – for a two lift holder.  It was another ten years before the next holder was built. This was for a telescopic holder with two lifts and was built by Piggott. The tank was constructed by Mackenzie[20] but once again the canal side dam broke and the works were flooded.  This was a twelve column holder with guide framing ‘elegant and artistic’. The cast-iron columns were by Westwood & Wright.[21] No. 8 was built in 1861 again constructed by Piggott but with John Aird building the tank.[22] This holder stood for fifty years as a landmark and after demolition the tank became an ornamental lake.  No.9.the next holder built in 1857 was also built by Piggott.  There were some problems with groundwater in building this and pumping was needed after water caused major subsidence and this would be a lesson for the future
Maps of the 1870s show the holders – on the Ordnance Maps they are not numbered to tell us which is which. Four stand along the canal, the largest nearest the Old Kent Road, another is slightly behind them. Another large holder stands alone some distance down the canal.


In this period George Livesey patented a number of processes and devices – one of these was the ‘man lid’ to be used on gas holders “by which inlet and outlet pipes can be examined and cleansed without loss of gas .. or ingress of atmospheric air”.[23]  He also designed equipment for cleaning the newly made gas – washers and scrubbers – devices said to have remained an industry standard until the 1920s.[24] However, his main work throughout his period as Assistant Manager and then Engineer was a ‘purification’ system – a means of cleaning the newly made gas and, hopefully, recovering valuable chemical by products. In this he was attempting to rival Frank Hills, ‘the Deptford Chemist’. 

It is difficult to know how to describe the problem which Frank Hills, and some other chemical inventors, were causing the gas industry in this period. The basic problem was the smell of the gas and attempts throughout the history of the industry to deal with it. A number of schemes had been tried and had failed and patents had been taken out.  It had not been overlooked by a number industrial chemists that what could e removed here from the gas might be a valuable resource

Frank Hills was one of a family of industrial chemists with works in various parts of London and elsewhere.  For a long time they had been in business of buying up gas works waste – tar and ammoniacal liquor. Frank was aggressively energetic and must have been well known to gas management throughout the country. He was one of a number of other industrial chemists in a race to find the purification process which worked for the gas industry and provided lucrative waste products.   His main works near Old Kent Road in Copperas Street. Deptford and he actually lived in Camberwell. In the 1840s he bought a large tide mill site in East Greenwich marshes - the Chemical Works he built there was to become important in South Met’s future.

As early as 1846 the South Met Board had taken on an ammonia purification process which Frank Hills had formulated on condition he was ‘given all the ammonia extracted. [25] In 1852 they took on a process which he had patented ‘of purification from sulphur with sesquioxide of iron’. For this he wanted three farthings per thousand feet of gas’ but he accepted £350 a year as a licence fee’.[26]   A year later they were offered a different system by Richard Laming, a London doctor with a chemical works on the Isle of Dogs and which they accepted.[27] Hills then threatened to sue them for infringement of patent. The same story could be retold in all the London gas works in this period.  

There is a long back story to this where the process had been developed by a chain of inventors of which Laming was one. Frank Hills had however managed to patent the process including elements not covered by others and could thus claim infringement if a licence fee was not paid to him. The deal he offered also usually included payment for supply of a ‘mixture’ and removal of the waste products.   Hills, Laming, and one, Angus Croll, were involved in apparently endless litigation on these issues –which also reflects the amount of money to be made from it.[28]

In 1863 Frank Hills patent became time expired and he applied to the Privy Council for n extension of his money making idea. Thomas Livesey was prominent in a group of gas managers who persuaded their companies to petition the Privy Council that this should not happen. The board was happy to do when they heard the amount of money which Frank and his three brothers had made out of gas companies in the past 15 years.[29]  The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council considered the issue and did not allow the extension which, they said ‘had a strong tendency to contravene the interests of the the public.[30] 

Clearly this presented a challenge which George Livesey was bound to take up.

As early as 1862 some work had been done on purification at the Old Kent Road and by 1866 large scale tests were underway under George’s supervision for a process which he had patented.[31]  Tests were also done at the Great Central Gas Works in Bow which may imply that Angus Croll was in some way involved. [32] These new arrangement would mean reduced use of Frank Hills’ oxide process.[33]

Unlike the others who had developed purification systems George was prepared to make his public - although of course this may have been part of the strategy.  It seems that neither Croll, Laming nor Hills had  ever given a paper or written anything to described what were their processes actually were. George Livesey gave a paper to the 1866 meeting of the British Association of Gas Managers about his system and this was published not only in the Journal of Gas Lighting but also in the more widely read Engineering.[34]  He was back at the BAGM two years later to explain why the experiment had failed.[35]

Why did it fail? It was said that he went ahead “with his characteristic disregard of old ideas and formerly accepted theories” [36]  - but in 1866 it was of course not known that this was ‘characteristic’.  He was a young man and this was the first paper he was to give to BAGM. It was to e followed by many more. Accepted theories were never George’s strong point but it was also ‘characteristic’ that his first serious attempt to effect technological change was to dive into such technical field and one which had challenged a great many clever people. Hills and Laming had years’ of experience and a lot to lose, and, in Hills case at least, they were ruthless operators. 

The Professional gas man

These early papers of George Livesey’s were given to early meetings of the British Association of Gas Managers which was to evolve into today’s Institution of Gas Engineers.  An inaugural meeting had been held in 1863 in Manchester to set up the Association although, unsurprisingly, all those present were from Northern England.  the first general meeting was held a few months later again in Manchester George’s purification paper was given the first London AGM in 1866 and he was from then on to become a stalwart of the organization.   Thomas Livesey was to be President of the Association in 1871. Inevitably George Livesey was to have a major impact on the Association in later years – but that is something for a later chapter. As a young man he gave papers most years -many of them controversial but organization itself stayed intact.


While management at Old Kent Road was effecting changes, and giving papers about it, in the works men in the retort house put in long hard hours making gas.  There were many others and as gas works grew in size so the number of others increased –tradesmen like carpenters and blacksmiths, stablemen for the company horses, office clerks, specialists working on ancillary equipment of increasing sophistication, and of course general labourers working on the wharf and around the works. Many gas works employees were rarely at the works – main layers, outside repairmen, collectors, and meter readers.  There were also sailors employed by the company on the collier ships.  George Livesey was to have an impact on all their lives.

Despite all these other staff it is the retort house men that most historians have written about.  They needed to be big, strong, tough men and to be relatively young.   Gas was made in retorts arranging in stacks in ‘retort houses’. The retorts were filled with coal, heated, and the gas which came off was run into pipes and off to be processed.  When the process was ended the coal – by now coke - would be removed and the process started again. Men worked on the job in twelve hour shifts seven days a week. These cruel shifts were made easier if they included periods when the work pace slackened. Men lived near the works focusing their lives around it. The regime was a hard one and increasingly so as the city and its ways crept out and encompassed what had been a semi rural areas around of the Old Kent Road.

Problems with the hours worked were made worse because the process was itself continuous.  Gas had to be made all the time and even if some is stored to cope with peak demands there was still a problem in retorts needed to be kept hot and in use.   As gasworks became larger and hopefully more efficient the pace of work increased.  moves to change this  came from two directions – one from the men themselves through the trade union movement which had already jade its presence known in some London works.  The other pressure came from philanthropists and most particularly from those who wanted to stop work on Sundays for religious reasons.  None of this was going to be easy to implement


Livesey was also involved in welfare schemes for workers outside of the actual gas works and ones in which he hoped to be ‘the agent of improvement’.  He helped to set up a working men’s club in Meeting House Lane in 1865. [37]

Meeting House Late is another of the roads running between the Old Kent Road and central Peckham. It is a road down which George must have walked to get his parents’ house from the works.  he helped logically to set it up in Mucklow’s Yard off Peckham High Street and it moved to Meeting House Lane in 1865

He is said to have started the club along with three others although what the input of any of them is a matter of speculation.  The others were Thomas Cash,  Mr. Spurling and a Mr. E.  Clark. Of these Cash was a friend of Livesey’s a Quaker temperance reformer who was to become chairman of the London Temperance Hospital. He lived at Adelaide Place in the City of London. Spurling was a wealthy stockbroker –presumably he put the money up - who lived in North Terrace, Camberwell. Edward Clark was to have a career as a successful barrister who became a Kings Counsel. In 1865 he lived in Peckham Park Road and had become in the early 1860s interested in the formation of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union. In fact he took the minutes of the first meeting.[38] The Peckham club is listed as having been in existence before the Union which meant it dated from before 1865.


By the early 1870s it became clear that Thomas Livesey had a heart problem. Nevertheless he became president of BAGM in 1871.  Thomas, or someone in charge of the works, decided to have the place photographed that year. This included a group picture of the officers of the company. Thomas is a little old man covered in whiskers.
Things were about to change.

[1] SMDM 9th December 1857
[2] Schindler .Pastor C.H.Spurgeon
[3] Layton
[4] Layton.  An inlet is shown on an 1851 map alongside the Old Kent Road and marked as ‘Globe Wharf’ .  However by 1872 there is a gasholder shown on the site. Garton says that No.7 holder was built on the site of a small dock the walls of which gave way during the construction of the holder.
[5] There was a Crown Wharf on the other side of Old Kent Road and another further down the canal and on the north bank.  However Garton says that the office block was built on the Crown Wharf site.
[6][6]  Co-partnership Journal 1905
[7] Layton.
[8] Lewis and Stockwell were engineers and shipbuilders with a large dry dock at Blackwall Point – which was eventually purchased by S.Met in the 1880s for part of the site of Ordnance Wharf.
[9][9][9] Thames Ironworks – shipbuilding company based on Bow Creek. A premier shipbuilding company in world terms. In 1870 they would have just finished building Warrior – which now lies as a heritage attraction in Portsmouth Harbour.  Their Chair from 1871 was Frank Hills – the ‘Deptford chemist’ who Livesey rivalled in purification technology.
[10] SMDM 14TH September 1866
[11] Perrett. London and the Steam Engine LIA No.2 1980
[12] Layton. 
[13] This general engineering firm began in Clerkenwell, moving later to Silvertown. Owned by a succession of Richard Morelands it had begun by a John Moreland in the late 18th century as specialist chimney constructors.
[14] Treatise on Coal Gas
[15] Thomas Piggott of Spring Hill, Birmingham, had begun as general engineers but became specialists in gasholder construction. Cf Grace’s Guide.
[16] Barlow was a gas works construction firm – a family company. See Gas Engineering February 1882.
[17] Livesey. Development of the Gas Holder.
[18] Joshua Horton of the Aetna Engineering Works, Smethwick. They were becoming specialist gas holder engineers.
[19] Livesey. Development.
[20] I assume this is the major contractor William Mackenzie who worked with Thomas Brassey on canal and rail contractor. Cf. Grace's Guide. However he had died in 1851 so this may be a continuation of his firm. Or a different contractor.
[21] Westwood and Wright were at Hope Works, Dudley. This was another firm specialising in gas holder construction along with other related iron work.
[22] John Aird – this major contracting firm dates from 1834 and is still with us.
[23] Gas Journal 1873
[24] Matthews. Thesis
[25] SMDM 22nd June 1846
[26] SMDM 22nd January 1851
[27] SMDM 25TH May 1842
[28] I covered much of this saga in some detail in my PhD Thesis (The Early London Gas Industry and its Waste Products. OU 1991).  Frank is said to have taken out his patent following a demonstration of Laming’s process at Westminster Gas works, from which he was excluded, but saw enough to get to the patent office before anyone else.
[29] SMDM 16TH June 1863
[30] The Jurist Vol.9 Part 1.
[31] Patent 1818 9th January 1866
[32] Croll was the de facto manager at Great Central
[33] Engineering  14th September 1866
[34] As above
[35] JGL 6th July 1869
[36] JGL 17th January 1882
[37] CPJ 1910
[38] Tremlett. Clubmen

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