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)
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.
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.
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
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