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. https://www.facebook.com/historic.woolwich/posts/419236568246487
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
A PAGE FROM THE COMPANY'S HISTORY
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
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
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
(sorry end of the article is missing)
FOOTNOTES TO A PAGE FROM THE COMPANY’S HISTORY
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
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
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
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
( 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
YET ANOTHER OLD GAS WORKS
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.
THE FIRST WOOLWICH GAS WORKS
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
PS - there was of course yet another Woolwich gas works inside the Arsenal