Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Woolwich gas works - and they are diggin them up

Great to see on Facebook that there is a dig in Woolwich which has found bits of one of the old Woolwich gas works. Details on Chris Mansfield's page.

There were a number of gas works in Woolwich.  Below is a quick scan of articles written about them in the 1930s and published in Co-partnership Journal (South Met. Gas Co house journal)

South Metropolitan Gas Company

Fifty years ago, on 1 January 1885, there came into operation the amalgamation of the South Metropolitan Gas Company with the two Woolwich Companies,  known respectively as the Woolwich Equitable Gas Company and the Woolwich  Plumstead and Charlton Consumers' Gas Company. The immediate result of  this was that the South Metropolitan Company's district of supply was extended  throughout Woolwich, Plumstead and Charlton, and into Kent. In addition its  sales of gas increased by about 200 million cubic feet a year, and the quality of  gas to the new area was improved from fourteen and twelve to sixteen candle-  power.

The Woolwich Equitable Gas Company was established in 1832,  and incorporated ten years later, to supply a cheaper and purer  gas than that which was being received from the company that  had existed in Woolwich since 1820. It was formed with a capital  of £12,000, and the works and apparatus of the older concern were  bought. The site of these works was a small piece of ground at  the bottom of Surgeon Street, immediately east of what is now the  approach to the Woolwich Free Ferry. It is at present used by the  Borough Council as a storing-ground and distributing centre for paving and curb stones
The Company had been in existence for about two years when  charges of extravagance in the erection of works were made  against the Directors, and in 1836 a public meeting of gas consumers  was held to protest against the high price of gas. The principal  ground for complaint was that the Company was supplying the  Dockyard with gas at nine shillings per thousand cubic feet,  whereas the ordinary consumers were called upon to pay eleven  shillings. The Directors refused, however, to reduce the charge  below ten shillings, whereupon the following decision of a committee of consumers was communicated to them:-   

"We very much regret the determination that the  Directors have thought proper to come to on this occasion,  and beg to assure them we do not any longer consider them  entitled to the name of ' Equitable,' and further that we have  always supported the Company when former discontent has  taken place, solely on the ground of their charging the same  price to all classes. We therefore now consider that we are  quite at liberty to use any means in our power to procure gas  at a lower price, and if found practicable, or too expensive to  make on a small scale for our own consumption, then we shall  endeavour with other gentlemen to establish another  Company."   

To this the Company replied that, rather than allow the  conflicting interests of rival companies to inconvenience the town,  they would agree to reduce the price to nine shillings. The consumers, however, were now not content to negotiate further with  the Equitable Company, and they decided to proceed at once with  the formation of a new body and to treat for ground on which to  erect the necessary works. On 18 August 1843 the prospectus of  the Woolwich Consumers' Protective Gas Company was issued.  

The works of the Equitable Company, which consisted of four gasholders, a retort house and other buildings (including a pipe  factory), were built on the western side of the Royal Arsenal, and  were reached by way of Rodney Street, Meeting-House Lane, and  Harding’s Lane. The two latter thoroughfares have now dis appeared.  For many years after 1887, when the works were  sold, the site was occupied by Messrs. Kirk &; Randall, building  contractors, but during the war the buildings of the Royal Arsenal  were extended to include it. At a recent visit to the site a 2-ft.  length of 6-inch flanged pipe lying in lonely solitude on a piece of  vacant ground belonging to the Borough Council appeared to be  the only indication of the existence at one time of a gasworks in  the vicinity.   
At the time of the amalgamation the authorised capital of the  Equitable Company was £48,000 and the paid-up capital £22,000.  The selling price of gas was three shillings per thousand cubic feet. The Company was not controlled by the sliding scale, for which it  was seeking authority, but had fixed minimum dividends of  10 per cent., 7 1/2 per cent. and 7 per cent.   

The Woolwich, Plumstead and Charlton Consumers' Company,  as has already been stated, originated in 1843 as The Protective   Gas Company, and were incorporated in 1855, when it entered into   serious competition with the Woolwich Equitable Company. The  initial charge for gas was eight shillings per thousand cubic feet,  which compared favourably with the eleven shillings required by  its rival. The original capital was £6,000, in 1,200 shares of £5  each. The object of the undertaking, which was constituted by  a Trust Deed limiting the liability of each shareholder to the  amount of his share, was not to offer large dividends, and the  Company did not desire to induce capitalists to invest their money  therein. It was intended, on the contrary, to make it, if possible, solely a consumers' Company, and the shares in the first instance  were offered to consumers with no prospect of a dividend greater, than 5 per cent. It took as its motto that of the Order of the  . Thistle, " Nemo me impune lacessit " (No one provokes me with  impunity), which seemed to indicate that the consumers were  “going to stand no nonsense" from anyone who should seek to  thwart them.   
The works of the Company were at the end of Hardens Lane,  Woolwich, behind the Carpenter's Arms, and adjoined the  eastern side of the Woolwich Dockyard, with a river frontage and  a jetty. The site is now occupied by Messrs. Tuff & Hoar, cartage contractors. It was formerly approached from the High Street by G lass Yard, or Short's Alley. The works wall can still be seen  on the town side, and apparently it was built largely of old pieces of firebrick and hard clinker. This wall is a relic of Old Woolwich for it runs alongside of what was known as " Forty Corners, a series of alleys and corners which run parallel to the river side of the High Street. The old convict prison next to

(sorry end of the article is missing)



In the July issue there appeared a short account of the amalgamation, in  1885, of the South Metropolitan Gas Company with the two Woolwich companies,  known respectively as the Woolwich Equitable Gas Company and the Woolwich,  Plumstead and Charlton Consumers' Gas Company. This month we are pleased  to publish a letter received from Mr. J. D. C. Hunter ill which he sets forth  further interesting details relating to the Consumers' Gas Company's Works.  It is an additional pleasure to include in our pages a contribution from one who  was for many years a highly esteemed officer of the Company, and also closely  associated with the COPARTNERSHIP JOURNAL.-EDlTOR.  

The article" A Page from the Company's History," in the  COPARTNERSHIP JOURNAL for July, was read by me with intense  pleasure. It called up so many memories of old times and places  that I feel compelled to write a few lines to show my appreciation.  
I am the only survivor of the staff of either of the Woolwich Companies (the others, my old friends, Arthur Moore, Frederick  Mavity and George Randall having passed away), and what I am  writing may interest some of the few other employees who yet  remain. One, H. Chesney, was mentioned recently in the JOURNAL  when he received your congratulations on the occasion of his golden  wedding. He was employed at the Equitable Works.  

It is stated in the article that the amalgamation caused the  consumers to get gas of higher illuminating power, but perhaps you  are not aware that it also gave them gas-of greater purity. There  was not a testing station in the town (public spirit was not up to  the level of demanding one), and whatever found its way into the  mains the consumers had to accept as gas. The sulphur certainly  was not down to the Referees' limit, and what the ammonia was  I dare not venture to suggest.  
My father, after being at Thames Street, Greenwich, where my  grandfather was engineer, became engineer of the Woolwich  Consumers' Company in 1867. I was a very small boy then, and  the works were somewhat different from the plan of them given  in the JOURNAL. The plans I enclose are not drawn to scale, but  are the products of my memory. They show the extensions made  by my father's predecessor, Mr. A. Stark, between 1853 and 1867 and later in about 1874.  

The Royal Dockyard was not closed until after we had been  a year or two in Woolwich, and one of my oldest memories is that  of being taken on the Jetty to see the Ironclad Repulse launched.  I think only one more vessel, the Thalia, was built before the  yard was closed. The mast pond of the Dockyard adjoined our wharf. It was not really a pond but part of the river enclosed by  floating timbers chained to piles, or "dolphins," in such a manner  that they rose and fell with the tides. On the closing of the  Dockyard this enclosure and the foreshore past Taylor's coal wharf  were purchased by the Company and embanked to form what is now Tuff & Hoar's Wharf. This increase in the area of the works  gave space for a gasholder eighty feet in diameter (the existing  holders were thirty to forty feet), new scrubbers, and purifiers.  

What appears on the plan of 1853 as Sales' Coal Wharf was  Taylors Coal Wharf in 1867. It was owned by the Company, and  Mr John Taylor had been the tenant of it for some years. Mr Sales then had a wharf which ceased to exist when the approach  to the Free Ferry was made .  

The old millwright who worked for us could always go to Sales'  Wharf and come back with a piece of lignum-vitae, sabicu or some other uncommon wood. This generosity of Mr. Sales used to  astonish me, but in the course of time I found that it was more  apparent than real, for an arrangement existed by which, in return  for letting us have wood, he could have what tar he needed for  the maintenance of his small fleet of barges. An end came to this  state of affairs through wood becoming scarce (I think periodical  sales of old and rejected material, which ceased when the Dockyard  closed, were the cause), but a few relics of it remain in the form  of the handles of some of the old tools that I possess.  

The Waterman's Steam Packet Company amalgamated with  another company and moved their plant to larger premises where  the electric power station is now. The place they vacated in the  Glass Yard became Rose and Mellish's Flour Mill.  
Harden's Lane, referred to, I know nothing about.  It did not exist in my time, and I think there must be some  confusion with the approach to the Equitable Works.  

Short's Alley was always a source of annoyance. It was a  very dirty place, and undesirable folk were nearly always in it.  It was diverted slightly when my father found he had not quite  enough ground for the second gasholder (No. 6). A small holder  (No. I) was scrapped, and the building constructed of old firebricks  and clinkers was shortened, but a circle of the diameter  required could not be struck entirely within the boundary of the  works. The difficulty was got over by pulling down a house which  belonged to the Company and, by giving as much ground as was  taken, altering the course of the alley a few feet. By what  authority it was done I do not know, and it was a matter of  surprise that; the owners of shops in High Street did not complain.  

The engine house (I think it still stands) contained two  reciprocating exhausters driven by vertical engines of somewhat  antiquated type. This was rather poor equipment, but it was  considerably better than what the Equitable Works once had.  When the late Mr. Robert Mort on went there as engineer it had  the oscillating engines of an old paddle steamboat adapted to the  purpose
The experience of  ??ding the old tar tank must have been  unpleasant if not dangerous. It was a formidable black pit in my  early days, and one of the spots I had strict orders to avoid. I am  surprised that it was not taken out when the place was dismantled.  The plan of the Equitable Works seems to show the state of  affairs up to the time Mr. Morton left (he went to Vauxhall about   1865). The last engineer, Mr. William White, made some alterations, but the plan was not changed to any great extent.  

Other memories could be written, but, I will not bother you  with them. Old men who can look back on nearly seventy years  often make the mistake of assuming that others are as greatly rested in the past as they are themselves, and perhaps I have  made that mistake with you. The future cannot hold many years  for the old ones, but, few as those years may be, they cause serious  thought-what is beyond them causes thought more serious.  
( Footnote There were no Gas Works in Woolwich for nearly twenty years before  the prejudice against the' new-fangled light' was overcome. The first gas factory was a very small concern at the bottom of Surgeon Street on the  site of Edgar's coal wharf, and belonged to one of the Livesey family, the  first manager being .MIr. Sanderson, who had previously exhibited the light  in his shop window in Richard Street (the upper part of Hare Street)."  Vincent , Records of the Woolwich District)

SO  - in addition  to the two articles above I have added something I wrote many years ago which was published in Bygone Kent and (a shorter version) in the GLIAS Newsletter


This, I am afraid, is going to be another tale of a gas works which didn't work very well.  This is not a story of one of the really scandalous London gas works. Just a little local matter down in Woolwich.


In the early days of the gas industry, between 1810 and 1820, a number of entrepreneurs began to look round for towns in need of a gas works.  In 1815, or thereabouts, a prime candidate must have been Woolwich – a flourishing centre with a number of big industrial sites, which surely must have needed a good source of lighting.  It is no surprise therefore to find a speculative gas works built there.

Previous articles in this series, about Greenwich, have introduced a number of men who built and sold ready made gas works to local authorities and private individuals.  In Greenwich the first approaches had been made to the local authority in the early 1820s by a Mr. Hedley, followed by a Mr. Gostling. In the 1830s a works had been built in Deptford by a Mr. Barlow.  Some of these, and others we will meet again.

In 1817, or thereabouts, a Mr. Livesey and a Mr. Hardy built a gas works in Woolwich.  If the name Livesey is familiar, it is because he was George Livesey's great-uncle, Thomas.  After 1870 George Livesey became the leading figure in the gas industry in London and has recently been notorious following a press story about 'the ghost in the Dome'.   To some extent however George had inherited the mantle of great uncle Thomas.  Thomas Livesey was a hosier based in the City of London. In 1812 he had been one of forty men who had bought a block of shares in the first ever gas company, in London, with a view to changing the way it was being run.  In 1813 he had been elected to the Court of Governors as the candidate of this group and, quite literally, set about finding out how a gas company should be set up and managed. A great deal has been written about the invention of the technology of gas manufacture but it is rarely mentioned that Thomas Livesey designed gas company management – in many ways just as important.  Busy as he was with this role he clearly had time for other things, and like many others, an eye for a profit on the side.

The other partner in the Woolwich gas works was a Mr. Hardy, a coal merchant and a friend of Thomas Livesey.  He was also at that time a partner of Mr.Hedley who was later to tender, unsuccessfully, to build the first Greenwich gas works.  Hardy and Hedley operated a gas equipment and ironmongers business out of an office in Kings Arms Yard off Cheapside in the City of London.  Thomas Livesey also used this address sometimes although his hosiery business was round the corner in Wood Street.

Livesey and Hardy built their gas works in Woolwich on a site known as 'Roff's Compound' or 'Edgar's Coal Wharf'. This was on the river in the area of today's Bell Watergate and next to the Waterfront Leisure Centre – then in the midst of small streets and wharves. Roff was a well-known wharfinger in Woolwich for many years and his wharf was still marked on a map nearly forty years later in 1853 – by which time there was also a 'steamboat' pier on site.  I am not aware of any contemporary map or plan of the works or even exactly where the site was but it is very likely that it had good riverside access.

It is likely that it had some local support since it has been said that the first Manager was a Mr.Sanderson who had a business in Richard Street Woolwich where he exhibited gas lights before the works was opened.  Perhaps he was the same Mr. Sanderson who later had a paint and glazing business in Powis Street.

Whatever the plans for the works were it seems that it was not successful and after only six or seven years Livesey and his friends set about trying to dispose of it.  In 1824 they tried to sell the works to the South London Gas Company. When this approach failed they tried to sell it to the Bankside and Greenwich based Phoenix Company. They asked Phoenix in February 1825, and then in November 1827 and in December 1828 when they offered it to them for £6,500. Phoenix turned it down.

One of the reasons Livesey and Hardy were so keen to get rid of the Woolwich Gas Works was that as Thomas Livesey was Deputy Governor of the Westminster based Chartered Gas Light and Coke Co. he was not supposed to have an interest in another gas company. In fact the Chartered took a very dim view of his extra-curricular activities and in May 1827 he had to make a sworn statement to the effect that he had disposed of his interest in the Woolwich Gas Company.  This, as it turns out, was not really true.  In what follows Livesey is always described and treated as the owner of this works.

It seems that he had transferred the legal ownership and the Woolwich gas works was actually owned by a corporate body of which a Mr. Ainger was a trustee.  Ainger was yet another coal and iron merchant  - this time based on Bankside.  Livesey must have known him well since he had been selling coal to the Chartered Company from its inception. 
The years went by. It was offered around to other gas companies, like the Phoenix at Bankside. They could have had for £6,500, but neither they, nor apparently anyone else wanted it. 

Previous articles about the gas industry in Greenwich have described the dissatisfaction of local businessmen with the existing private gas companies and their efforts to set up one which would be more responsive to their wish for cheaper gas. In 1832 in Woolwich another gas company was set up, the Woolwich Equitable.  Ten years later another company was set up to rival it – The Woolwich Consumers Protective Gas Company. There was to be talk of  'serious defalcations' at the Woolwich Equitable and the rows between the two rivals fill many pages of the Kentish Mercury.  Neither of these situations will be dealt with in this article.

The Woolwich Equitable advertised that it would sell 'cheaper and purer' gas and set about trying to buy up the old works in order to supplant them.  They began to negotiate with Mr. Livesey and Mr. Ainger. This should have been no problem since they had been trying to get rid of it for at least the previous ten years.  A valuation was commissioned from Mr. John Barlow.

Barlow, who was the builder of the Greenwich Railway Gas Works at Deptford, and many others, was in many ways an interested party and, in the interests of honesty and fair play, another valuer was brought in. This was a Mr. Robert Brown of Royal Hill. I assume that this is the Robert Brown, Architect of Royal Place in 1839 not Mr. Robert Brown, Plumber, of Blackheath Hill also extant in 1839 (or perhaps they were the same person).

The valuation report was very long and very damning – the works was 'very dilapidated' to say the least.  In negotiations Ainger and Livesey began frantically to talk the equipment up – they explained that the wooden tanks were after all, only fifteen years old and the pipework would last at least a hundred years. The report apparently didn't agree with them.  Ainger then accused the Woolwich Equitable Board of trying to cheat him.  

The new gas company decided that it was desperate to 'buy up the competition' and continued negotiations regardless.  Livesey began to talk about problems with an Act of Parliament and the Board of the Equitable brought their solicitor along to see him.  A settlement was reached in July 1832 at a meeting between both sides and their lawyers. In the following January a list was produced of Messrs. Livesey and Ainger's various misdeeds and Woolwich Equitable Directors were perhaps most annoyed that £245 of the purchase money was to find its way into Mr. Livesey's pocket.
The old Woolwich works was taken over, run for a while, and closed down. While negotiations had been going on with Livesey and Ainger other arrangements were taking place for a new works to be built specially for the new gas company. It's nice to know that the contract to build the new works went to Mr. Barlow – who lost the contract to survey the old works.

This story in some ways echoes that in Greenwich in the same period – and probably many other places as well. An early works built by speculators which was inefficient and soon became ruinous. After all you would expect things to improve as people had more experience of the technology.  It is perhaps ironic that Thomas Livesey, so successful in his management of the first and largest company then in existence – should get in such a mess at Woolwich.  It also throws considerable light on the standards of honesty not only of Livesey but also of others of the time and to the lack of statutory regulation.

The Woolwich works went on to be racked with scandals until taken over by South Met. in the 1880s.

This article has been compiled from archive sources at London Metropolitan Archives and supplementary material including an article in Co-partnership Journal

Mary Mills


PS - there was of course yet another Woolwich gas works inside the Arsenal

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