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Sunday, 26 January 2020

Greenwich gas - a history


Greenwich gas - a history


For a relatively small town Greenwich has had several gasworks – and this is an attempt to describe them. It’s a story which begins in the 1820s and seems likely to end with the demolition of a local icon – the largest gas holder in Europe.

The gas industry – in the sense of providing inflammable gas for street lighting first took off in the Westminster area with what we would understand as a ‘gas works’ supplying public light from around September 1813[1]. This was quickly followed by others and by 1820 there were a number of works built or planned – with varying degrees of expertise and/or honesty.

In Greenwich, as elsewhere, the vestry was the local authority and responsible for street lighting. It didn’t take long for them, and many others, to realise that there was a new technology available although maybe the vestrymen didn’t quite understand it. . In 1821 St. Alfege's Vestry, noted a Parliamentary bill for a Lambeth Gas Light and Coke Co.[2] - and they were also aware of local disquiet on night time crime.  Before a parish could build a gas works it would need Parliamentary permission to raise money and get am enabling private Act of Parliament. Happily there were those who were keen to guide them on their way

.In June 1822 Mr. Hedley of Coleman Street, iron merchant and gas light contractor got an introduction to meet Mr. Bicknell, the Greenwich Town Clerk[3]  In fact he was getting himself introduced to local authorities wherever he could. He was to build many gas works, although it is not clear if any were actually completed by 1822.  In Greenwich he took his solicitor, Mr Tilson, to meet Bicknell and Mr. Hargrave, Chairman of the churchwardens.  He told them that new lights could be in place by Michaelmas –late September   He wrote formally for permission to dig up the streets– offering a £500 bond as a guarantee and  'twenty or thirty lights gratis’ were part of the deal.  Hedley also offered to get the necessary Act of Parliament– and added the same procedures were going ahead in Woolwich and Deptford – Greenwich must not be behind the times!

Thus a petition went to Parliament for lighting and watching the parish of Greenwich because, it said, of the need to prevent 'horrible murders'. Subsequently a bill was steered through Parliament by Mr. Wells, MP for Maidstone and received Royal Assent in May 1823. Then one of the Greenwich churchwardens, Richard Smith, began to complain that the parish was allowing 'strangers' to form a gas company and that they would 'reap the profits'.  It should be set up by local people themselves and a committee reported that a 'good and proper light' could be provided which would cost the parish absolutely nothing if it was done by a private company made up of local people.

In July 1823 Mr Hedley was asked to attend a vestry meeting with his tender documents. When he got there he discovered that a Mr.Gosling was also in attendance and that he went in first to meet the vestry. Hedley sat for two hours outside the meeting and was then told that his tender was 'inadmissible' and that there was no record of his previous discussions.  Mr Gosling had got the job.

A committee was set up to work with Mr. Gosling and said his contract should be 'on his own terms 'for fourteen years'. Inevitably as the pavements were dug up complaints from the public began to roll in. Meanwhile Hedley was plotting revenge. An anonymous leaflet outlined the story related above.[4] Hedley made public the costs comparing his charges with Gosling’s. All of which was chargeable to the rates.

Meanwhile Gosling went to Parliament to set up a Ravensbourne Gas Light and Coke Co. and many Greenwich residents petitioned against it. He refused to say who his shareholders were although it was hinted that 'everyone' knew who they were. It then appeared that the Greenwich vestry had broken its standing orders with Gosling's contract and Mr. Bicknell resigned as Vestry Clerk.  A resolution was passed that this work was 'illegally and shamefully expended and misapplied' – although this is crossed out in the records. [5]

It then emerged Greenwich had not levied a rate and a large majority of the vestry had voted not to do so, backed by the Royal Hospital. As a result in a Writ of Mandamus was issued by the Court of Kings Bench - in effect an injunction forcing a local authority to fulfil its lawful obligations regardless of what it thought about it. Thus under duress therefore the vestry resolved 'to make a sufficient rate .... for lighting’. A vote of censure was passed on the parish officers for signing an 'improvident and harmful contract' with Gosling. And ‘to pay about £5,000' and for the 'gross neglect ' in not entering all this into the minute books. Also raised were ‘expenses £10 for dinner at the Ship Tavern and £25 for a (another) dinner ‘. [6]

This was an unedifying start to gas street lighting in Greenwich. Mr. Goslings works was however going ahead. An old plan shows an 'old gas works' site on the eastern side of Norway Street [7]– on the current site of council flats and the conclusion is that this was Gosling’s works. As he built the works so he was also trying to sell it and in May 1824 before all the trouble at the vestry it had been reported that Phoenix Gas Co. was about to buy the Greenwich Gas Works. [8]

Phoenix, based in the borough, was the biggest and most successful Gas Company in South and Kentish London in the early 1820s. They were very looking to expand and as speculative gas works were built by the Hedleys and Goslings of this world, so Phoenix considered purchasing them.  In addition Mr.Pearson, of the Greenwich and Deptford copperas works was very close to Phoenix management and to Mr.Tilson, by then also the Phoenix Company's solicitor.[9]  

Gosling said he would sell to Phoenix ‘at cost’ plus a percentage of future gas sales. An assessment of the works was to be carried out by David Mackintosh's contracting firm, and by William Anderson of the Grand Junction Waterworks. [10] By the end of December an agreement had been reached although numerous extras were added - Gosling's son’s salary, Parliamentary expenses, and investigations on his title to the land. All of this was handled by the respectable Mr.Tilson and Greenwich's ex-vestry clerk, Bicknell and added to the bill for ratepayers. Things dragged on and a year later Gosling was asking Phoenix for the loan of 16 lampposts.[11]In the meantime Greenwich Vestry negotiated separately with the Phoenix Company for a supply of gas light.[12]

As negotiations with Mr. Gosling proceeded Phoenix were building a Greenwich Gas Works of their own.  This was at the end of Thames Street and occupied the site where Deptford Creek enters the Thames.  They had had bought it from a Mr. Horrocks but first they needed to stabilise the land at the creek entrance. This project was undertaken by David Mackintosh – who had assessed the Gosling works for them and large amounts of material were brought to the site. Meanwhile Phoenix intended to provide street lights in Greenwich by using Goslings works in Norway Street. The new Phoenix works was at the end of Thames Street on the site now occupied by the Millennium Quays flats and Waitrose.

The trouble is that something was falling down although sadly [13]the Phoenix minute books are not entirely clear which of the works it was. The Phoenix engineer reported that.. 'The Retort House at Greenwich is settling again'.  It had originally been estimated to cost £4,400 and to carry the brickwork down 22 ft because of the nature of the sub soil.  'The (gasholder) tank has given way for the third time'  - and '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 first in the contract' .

The Gosling works was finally closed by Phoenix in 1828 when their new works was finally ready.  They hung on to part of the site for many years and a gasholder built there by Gosling probably remained in use.  It 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'.[14] By 1841 it was let to William Joyce the steam engine and ship builder.[15]

Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company flourished and continued to supply Greenwich with gas for lighting from their works built on the east bank of Deptford Creek.   In the 1870s Phoenix was taken over by the South Metropolitan Company, and in the 1880s their giant East Greenwich works demoted the old Phoenix Works to be renamed ‘West Greenwich’. [16]

In the meantime other gas works were being built in Greenwich. The 1869 OS maps show two works on Deptford Creek – one in Roan Street and the other alongside the railway, on the site of the current Ecology Centre and now in Lewisham.  There was almost certainly another one on the Deptford Dockyard site- such private works were common on big industrial sites and not relevant here. 

There were various ideas about building more gas works. In October 1834 Kentish Mercury announced a meeting 'for the purpose of considering the expediency of immediately forming a Gas Light Establishment'. It was agreed that Deptford 'presents peculiar local facilities for the advantageous formation' of such a body and it was proposed to call it the 'Deptford and Greenwich Gas Light Company'.  A number of undated documents give the names of Board members for a Greenwich and Deptford Gas Co. and include Sir William Beatty of the Royal Hospital, and George Smith, future surveyor for Morden College, as well as Thomas Brocklebank and Adam Gordon both local shipbuilders.[17]  Nothing else seems to be heard about this body. 

An Act of Parliament for a Deptford Gas Works was acquired and is reported in another undated piece about a celebratory dinner held in a pub on Deptford Broadway. It was a 'sumptuous entertainment' for a 'numerous and highly respectable' company.  They toasted everyone and everything from The Old Oak Tree' to 'The Army and Navy' and much else – but there is no evidence they ever built a gas works.

The holders in Roan Street were apparently built by the Phoenix Company as a holder station[18]. They were on a large site which later was used for gas industry related manufactures. The site had previously been a market garden  ‘the engineer at Greenwich reports a need for more holders; he is looking at suitable sites'. In 1864 Phoenix bought a site from a Mr. Smith and ordered a gasholder to be built on it but the actual location is not recorded. There are some clues. they tried to persuade 'Mr.Rennie' to take over the unwanted river frontage and the Roan Street site lost its river frontage after Norman Road was built in the 1860s, and also Phoenix's new gasholder was accompanied by a gas main ' down Roan Street' .[19] So it seems likely the Greenwich Roan Street site was a holder station built by the Phoenix Company in 1864. and not an actual gas works at all 

It is the site which now holds the Ecology Centre which is the most interesting of old gas making sites and it has a varied and episodic history. As the 1830s progressed, the first steam railway in London – the first suburban railway in the world - came to Greenwich.  Along with a line side boulevard and an inclined plane at Deptford were plans for an integrated scheme of gas lighting.[20]

The engineer to the London and Greenwich Railway Company was George Landmann.  He had had a distinguished career in the Royal Engineers but had sold his commission in 1824.[21] In the intervening ten years he had worked as Engineer to the Imperial Continental Gas Association – travelling round Europe to construct gas works in Continental towns.[22].  The Greenwich Railway Gas Co. was set up in 1836 with the same board membership as the railway itself. It was proposed to light the line with gas lamps –"lights at a distance of 21 yards on each side of the railway and also a number of lights for the stopping places each end of the road making in all about 700 lights" and to supply gas lighting to stations and cottages built in the arches under the railway.  The gas works itself was to occupy the site upriver of the railway on the Deptford side of Deptford Creek.

It seems very likely that part of the plan was to make coke on site for use by the locomotives and when the railway opened in 1836 Phoenix supplied their coke.[23] What Phoenix did not know was that Colonel Landmann had been discussion with the rival South Metropolitan company, based in the old Kent Road, on the question of a supply of gas for railway.[24]  When Phoenix found this out in 1836 they were not amused and pointed out that they had not been allowed to tender for these lights.[25] Thus the lights on the railway which people saw and reported in 1837 and 1838[26] were supplied by South Met. Gas Works. It is therefore a question as to whether the railway gas works was ever in production

In 1838 the railway gas works was abandoned and the site was sold and the works reconstituted as the Deptford Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Gas Light and Coke Co.[27]  this had a board consisting of local coke, tar and railway interests. A fifth member of the board was a John Barlow.I have mentioned above early specialists in gas works construction –Gosling and Hedley – but the Barlow family , from Sheffield,  probably built more than both of them out together.  It was John Barlow who actually built the gas works alongside the railway on Deptford Creek – as his son reported 18 years later.   Hence forth the Deptford Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Gas Company supplied gas to the area in competition with Phoenix and South Met. The reaction of both the older gas companies was immediately to lower their prices and in 1841 a limited agreement between them was reached on competition. [28]  By the 1850s the Deptford Gas Works had a neighbour. I Frank Clarke Hills – and it eventually transpired he had loaned them £10,000 in order to extend the works. He had then used the works as a testing ground for his various gas purification schemes. This article is not the place to discuss Frank Hills and his interactions with the gas industry which gave him a vast fortune. [29]

By the 1870s governments began to have concerns about the number of private and competing gas works. In addition to Phoenix in Greenwich and on Bankside, there was the South Suburban at Sydenham, the Surrey Consumers at Rotherhithe, as well as two Woolwich companies and one at Eltham.  There was also the relatively small but extremely ambitious South Metropolitan in the Old Kent Road, under its clever and unconventional engineer/secretary George Livesey, who, over the next thirty years was to dominate the gas industry nationally. How much of what transpired in South London is down to him may be a matter of debate.[30]   Governments felt that companies should be forced into ‘amalgamation’ to produce larger companies which could then be asked to build big out of town gas works – with efficiencies of scale.  In South London Phoenix was the largest company and it was assumed that they would take over the others but somehow or other, South Met. swallowed up all, except Sydenham, and began to make plans to take over the north London gas industry as well, but were stopped by the Board of Trade. 

So, when South Met. began to look for a site to build their new large scale gas works they came to Greenwich Marsh, now Greenwich Peninsula. The works they built here was intended to embody the highest possible standards; it was relentlessly modern and seen as a showplace. 

It is instructive to discover that, in 1881 before the gas works was built that the marsh was seen as 'a sodden wilderness of decrepit wharves, forsaken factories, and melancholy marsh'.  [31] South Met began proceedings for an enabling Act of Parliament necessary for them to build a new works and discussions began with the local authority on the new plant and its layout. It had been agreed that the purifying plant, thought to be the smelliest part of the works, should be placed on the northern most tip of Blackwall Point. This would ensure that smells were kept from Greenwich, while wafting over the Isle of Dogs.

A House of Lords enquiry was held into objections to the new works[32]. The owners of the very large dry dock at the tip of Blackwall Point claimed that the smell would damage the high class paint work on the boats they were repairing. The QC for the company pointed out that the gas works would smell a lot better than the dock's existing neighbours, the Bisulphated Guano Company.  However, the House of Lords made it a condition that the gas company must buy the dry dock. They were also to build the river wall on the eastern bank, and on the west bank provide Ordinance Draw Dock in return for an older public draw dock which would be demolished. The public footpath that had previously gone right round the river bank was closed. 

These changes did not please ‘waterside people' who continued to cause 'difficulty' by insisting on their old rights of way. Docwra, the gas company's contractors, dealt with this by placing 'a gang of men' to 'divert this traffic'. Contractors found access to the site difficult, describing it as 'a cul de sac - and approaches thereto were not inviting'.  The centre of the peninsula was 'market gardens of poor quality' and t there was 'sprouting of rhubarb' throughout the site and a few cows lived in a shed which 'age had rendered rotten and insecure'.

Others who thought they might have rights on the there were those for whom it was a 'happy dumping ground' and with them the contractors were in a 'constant state of warfare'. During one such running battle, Joseph Tysoe, the future works manager, only escaped serious injury when his assistant grabbed a heavy iron bar aimed at his head.[33]

As work progressed, Docwra brought on site 'extraordinarily powerful pumping apparatus' and took borings to discover the state of the ground.  Barge after barge came loaded with clinker and heavy rubbish to use as infill, but it took 'a vast amount of effort to make a sensible impression on this wilderness'.

Slowly the works took shape. 'Looming vast against the sky is the skeleton of the great holder'. This is the holder still to be seen today alongside the Blackwall tunnel approach road. It was thought it would 'darken the sky like a mountain of iron'. The jetty too was taking shape, sinking as it was built. It was reported that it was 'allowed to go as far as they would' until it became 'as firm as a rock'. 

East Greenwich gas works would soon become the premier works in London – and maybe the world.  It was so big and so successful it is almost impossible to know where to start on its history.  It was eventually three factories – the Gas Works, itself, Ordnance Wharf Tar Works and the Phoenix Chemical works (taken over from Frank Hills in the 1890s). There was also later, and independent of the gas works, a Coalite Plant and the national Fuel Research organisation.  It later became part of Livesey’s co-partnership scheme. And the subsequent gas workers strike of 1889. It was big and successful and gas workers there considered themselves elite.[34]   Nationalised in 1947 it kept its identity – and its Livesey social club

There are, or were, some remains. Livesey built two enormous gas holders – the biggest concentration of gas storage in one place, ever.  No.2 had its flying lift removed following the Silvertown Explosion, but No.1. is still with us – despite an attack by the IRA in the 1980s  the biggest holder when built, and maybe still, it is under immediate threat of demolition.  The company war memorial stands in Memorial Park just south of John Harrison Way – and saved through the efforts of Kay Murch[35]. On the Phoenix Chemical site near the Pilot pub the amazing parabolic sulphate house remained into the 1990s and can be seen in endless old TV thrillers. [36] and even an episode of Dr. Who[37]

 – and of course, George Livesey’s ghost is said to haunt the Dome.







[1] Everard. History of the Gas Light and Coke Co. 1949.
[2] St Alfege Vestry minutes 21st March 1821
[3] Non di Ricordo. The Metallic Influence of the Gas upon the Dark of the Lampposts. Being the substance of a Report to the Committee upon the Gas Co. Greenwich, 1824
[4] Ibid
[5] St Alfege Vestry minutes 18th April  1824
[6] St.Alfege Vestry minutes 20th August 1824
[7] National Gas Collection. Provenance otherwise unknown.
[8] South London Gas Co. Minutes 27th May 1824
[9] Elizabeth Pearson’s diary. Seen at Whitstable Museum but current location not known.
[10] Phoenix Gas Co. Minutes 20th  and 27th  October 1824
[11] Phoenix Gas Co. Minutes 26th October 1825
[12] Phoenix Gas Co. Minutes 25th November  1825
[13] Phoenix Gas Co Minutes 3rd January 1827
[14] Phoenix Gas Co Minutes. 13th August 1828
[15] Garton, W.F.D., "History of the South Metropolitan Gas Co.", Gas World, February 1952 et seq.
[16] Garton.op cit
[17] Cuttings from the national and local press some of which are in the Greenwich Heritage Centre, and others copied to me by contacts.
[18]  Garton. Op cit
[19] Phoenix Gas Co. Minutes 8th March 1865
[20] There are many books about the London & Greenwich – best is Thomas, London’s First Railway. Also see Sturt, Greenwich Railway Gas Works. GLIAS Newsletter June 1986
[21] DNB – sadly this does not continue with details of his career after he resigned his commission.
[22] Imperial Continental Gas Association 1824-1974.  Published privately, 1974.
[23] Phoenix Gas Co Minutes 15th March 1836
[24] South Metropolitan Gas Co. Minutes 10th April 1834
[25] Phoenix Gas Company Minutes 13th January 1836
[26] Thomas. Op cit
[27] Company Prospectus
[28] Garton. Op cit
[29] Mary Mills. PhD Thesis. The Early Gas Industry in East London. Open University 1995
[30] Select Committee into the Gas Industry 1899.  In the transcripts of this committee, and its  predecessors Livesey’s arrestingly clear evidence made and makes a persuasive case for what happened.
[31] Journal of Gas Lighting. 26th  August 1884
[32] Enquiry into South Met. Gas Bill 1881. Minutes
[33] JGL op cit
[34] As far as I am aware there has never been a comprehensive history of this enormous works. There are a number of departmental articles – but nothing which touches the scale of the place!
[35] Kay was the last employee of  the gas works, having begun work as a teenager, she was left when everyone else had gone.  Sadly she died before the memorial was moved.
[36] Dempsey and  Makepiece were favourites – but there was also an episode of Dr. Who
[37] Dr.Who Silver Nemesis 1988 BBC

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