SCANDALS IN THE VESTRY – THE FIRST GREENWICH GAS WORKS
Before 1800 street lighting consisted of oil burning lamps. Night watchmen – 'old Charlies' were employed to walk the streets and call the hours out at night. This changed with the discovery that an inflammable gas could be distilled from coal or oil and that this 'gas' could be made in a central factory – a 'gas works' - and distributed through pipes to streetlights. It changed the urban landscape.
People in the 1820s were worried about the same things that we are. Public safety on the streets and better street lighting were seen as a necessity but another issue was 'keeping down the rates' – to provide public services which cost the public purse as little as possible. Local authorities in the 1820s were based on the parish vestry – but their debates and decisions have a very modern ring. The same issues were on the agenda - private versus public contractors, about the responsibility for how public money was spent were all very live issues. .
The first gas works in the world was built in Westminster in 1811. It was soon followed by others and within ten years gas was being widely used for street lighting. Local authorities knew very little about gas works and what they were. A new breed of entrepreneurs appeared who offered to build gas works and make gas on a contractual basis. Before a parish could pay for a new lighting scheme it needed Parliament's permission to raise the money. In addition a fledgling gas company needed to get a Private Act of Parliament in order to proceed with its business.
This process took place, as elsewhere, in Greenwich. It was not entirely painless process. Between the great gasholder of the 1880s which today stands in front of the Millennium Dome and the first gas supply to Greenwich people there is a long and twisted saga. .
In 1821 the Greenwich local authority, St. Alfege's Vestry, noted that a bill was going through Parliament for a Lambeth Gas Light and Coke Co. They objected to some of the clauses in this bill (perhaps it referred to lighting an area rather beyond Lambeth) but the bill gave them ideas and they resolved to see how Greenwich people could benefit in a similar way. There had recently been a number of attacks and one murder near Greenwich; local people were asking for better security at night.
In June 1822 Mr. Hedley 'of the house of Joseph Hedley, Kings Arms Yard Coleman Street, iron merchants and gas light contractors' managed to get himself an introduction to meet Mr. Bicknell, the Greenwich Town Clerk. He had 'received an intimation' that it was the wish of Greenwich people to 'light the town with gas'. The truth was that Mr. Hedley was getting himself introduced to local authorities wherever he could. Joseph Hedley is said to have come from Norwich. He was short and thin and a friend of a number of chemists working in the early gas industry. His sons, Tom and George, were to follow in his footsteps. He was to build many gas works, although how many he had actually completed by 1822 – if any – is not known. He told the Greenwich vestry that he had built works at Ramsgate, Gravesend and Margate. Henley was worked in partnership with Samuel Hardy, a coal merchant, who was also involved with the construction of a works in Woolwich.
In Greenwich Hedley attended a meeting with Mr. Bicknell and Mr. Hargrave, Chairman of the Greenwich churchwardens. He took his solicitor, Mr. Tilson, to the meeting with him. Tilson was described as a 'Solicitor of great respectability' and he knew Greenwich and was connected by marriage with the Pearson family who ran the copperas works on Deptford Creek. In fact on one occasion, twenty years earlier young Tom Tilson, when visiting the Pearsons in Greenwich had had to be taken home by his nursemaid because he 'roared and roared'. Pearson was involved with the vestry and with another local Gas Company, as we will see. Tilson was to make a career out of legal advice to the early gas industry and frequently appeared on behalf of gas companies at public enquiries and so on.
Mr. Hedley seems to have intended to build a private gas works and to contract with the parish for lighting. He told Bicknell and Hargrave that the lights would be in place by Michaelmas. He followed up the meeting with a formal letter to the vestry asking for permission to dig up the streets for his pipes – offering a £500 bond as a guarantee of him making them good again. He also offered 'twenty or thirty lights gratis for the general service' as part of this deal. However the churchwardens seem to have hesitated over the project and at their next meeting sought a legal opinion from Mr. Bicknell who was unfortunately 'unavoidably absent'. They decided that there must be a proper legal framework for what was proposed and Hedley and Hardy offered to secure the necessary Act of Parliament 'at their own expense'. Tilson explained that the same procedures were going ahead in both Woolwich and Deptford – Greenwich could not afford to be behind the times!
A petition was lodged in Parliament for lighting and watching the parish of Greenwich. It said that there was a need to light the town to prevent 'horrible murders'; and that a night watch was needed and for this the parish needed to raise funds since private money appeared not to be available. It was also reported that the setting up of a police force was currently under discussion. Parliament granted the parish the necessary permission to submit a bill, which would include the right to levy a rate in the parish for lighting purposes. The bill was presented and steered through Parliament by Mr. Wells, MP for Maidstone and from the family which had once had local shipbuilding interests. The Act received the Royal Assent at the end of May 1823.
In the meantime the Greenwich Vestry began to have second, and third, thoughts. One of the churchwardens, Richard Smith, began to complain that the parish – in the form of Bicknell – 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? The vestry agreed that a committee should look into the issue to see if a company could be made up with local people only as shareholders. In March 1823 Richard Smith's committee recommended that they should 'seize the present opportunity of doing a great public benefit at a comparatively moderate expense". They said that a 'good and proper light' could be provided which would cost the parish absolutely nothing because it would be done by a private company made up of local people.
In all this time – over a year – Mr. Hedley had heard nothing about the gas light scheme and in July 1823 he wrote to the Greenwich vestry asking what was happening. He was told by Mr. Bicknell that he would have to attend a vestry meeting with his tender documents. Hedley was surprised to be asked to tender in this because he thought he had already done so but he only asked Bicknell about the detailed arrangements – how many lamps were needed and so on. He was not given a particularly explicit answer but told to 'say what he thinks best'.
What Hedley did not know was that the vestry was also in discussion with a Mr. Gosling (sometime the records spell this Gostling). John Gosling was another gentleman in the business of supplying ready-made gas works. He may have been the same Mr. Gosling whose Birmingham iron foundry had supplied some of the earliest gas making equipment used in London. Gosling 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. Was he perhaps related to the Mr. Gosling who had been the Imperial Gas Co night watchman in 1823 sacked for being drunk on night time duty?
In the event Hedley and Gosling both turned up to the Greenwich vestry meeting at which the tenders were to be discussed. Hedley sat for two hours in a room outside the meeting and was then told that his tender was 'inadmissible' and that Gosling had got the job. He was also told that there was no record of his previous discussions in the vestry minute book.
Having decided on their course of action for gas lighting the Greenwich vestry set up a committee to work with Mr. Gosling. This consisted of churchwardens, Richard Smith, George Graham, Thomas Martyr, James Roberts and Thomas Orr. They reported in July 1823 and said that they thought that Mr. Gosling's contract should be 'on his own terms' and 'for fourteen years'. He was therefore given permission to erect lampposts and dig up the pavements. He agreed to light the lamps with oil as an interim measure while the gas works itself was being built. Inevitably as the pavements were dug up complaints from the public began to roll in.
Hedley was obviously somewhat annoyed and went away, plotting his revenge. As he told his story he began to get support. At some point an approach was made to the Court of the King Bench. An anonymous leaflet appeared in Greenwich '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 the costs, which he said that would have charged the parish compared to what Gosling was charging. This included the solicitor's bill for the parliamentary bill, which Hedley said he would do for nothing but for which Gosling charged £363. 6s.4d. Hedley would have provided lamps for free while Gosling charged £650. Hedley would have charged £350 for 100 lamps for nine months, Gosling charged £502.10s. There was also an 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.
Meanwhile Gosling went back to Parliament to set up the new gas company for Greenwich to be called the Ravensbourne Gas Light and Coke Co. A large number of petitions were handed in against it from 'wealthy and respectable inhabitants' – it must be assumed that these people were those who were beginning to listen to some of Mr. Hedley's complaints of malpractice in the vestry.
Gosling was challenged as to who his shareholders in the Ravensbourne Company were. He refused to say but the pamphleteers hinted, darkly, that 'everyone' knew who they were – from which it is assumed they meant it was made up of vestry members, probably the steering committee.
It was then made public that the Greenwich vestry had broken its own standing orders in the course of dealing with Gosling's contract. On the 24th April Mr. Bicknell resigned as Vestry Clerk and received 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 the work had been 'illegally and shamefully expended and misapplied' – this minute was however eventually rescinded and is crossed out in the records.
Greenwich had not as yet levied a rate under its new Act of Parliament and a large majority of the vestry voted not to do so. This was backed by the Royal Hospital – a big force in the town at the time – who demanded three officers on the Parish Poor Committee in return for their rate payments. As a result in August a Writ of Mandamus was issued by the Court of Kings Bench. The process was just the same in the 1820s as it is today – it was in effect an injunction forcing a local authority to fulfil its obligations under the law regardless of what it thought about the rights and wrongs of it.
Under duress therefore the 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'.
Mr. Orr distributed a sheet of paper to the vestry, which gave what he considered to be the expenses owed – although he also complained that the figures were not available to tell exactly what was what. A vote of censure was then passed on the parish officers for signing an 'improvident and harmful contract' with Gosling. '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 also 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'. They then moved on to Mr. Teulon. This Mr. Teulon was probably Samuel, the father of the architect S.S. Teulon, who lived in Greenwich and had contracted with the vestry to collect rents and rates. The complaint was that he had collected them 'very partially'. He had halved the rents of some people 'holding leases under the Hatcliffe's charity' and had charged a commission of 5% on what he had collected. It might be said that ten years later Samuel Teulon had contracted with the South Met. Gas Co. to collect money owed in Greenwich – but that, is another story.
The business in Greenwich was wound up with another resolution passed against the parish officers and it was agreed to publish this resolution in all the main London and country daily papers. They also thanked Mr.Ritchie, of the Greenwich Steam Mills, who had been responsible for bringing this information to the public's attention.This was an inauspicious start to gas fired street lighting in Greenwich. Within the next few years a functioning gas works was to be built – and then another one. The episode just described involving the Greenwich Vestry was never repeated but events remains lively for some time to come