Wednesday 6 November 2019

Thames Street Gas Works

(This article is reproduced from the March 2001 edition of GasLight with their permission, and appeared in the May 2001 GIHS Newsletter)

East Greenwich Gas Works is well known, not just as the site of the Dome but also as the major gasworks, initially of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and later of the South Eastern Gas Board.  Opened in 1887 it was to rival the Gas Light and Coke Company's Beckton works across the River Thames but hidden in its shadow is the original Greenwich gasworks sometimes known as West Greenwich but more correctly styled Thames Street.
Two Journal articles from 1944 reveal details not only of the works but, again, of those family connections which was such a feature of the old gas industry.
THAMES STREET - Another Link with the Past Broken

In 1938 the Company disposed of Bankside the original works of the old Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company, and the first gas works to be constructed in London south of the Thames, We have now to record that another of the Phoenix works, that at Thames Street has been sold.

These works have served their purpose and the demands of a modern gas industry have outgrown them, and can be better served by the extensive works at East Greenwich where there is ample room for development.
The conveyance of the property to the Phoenix Company is dated the 12th October, 1824, in which it is described as market garden, osier bed and wet dock, situated on the mouth of the River Ravensbourne (Deptford Creek).  One hundred and twenty years ago George IV was on the throne; Charles Dickens was at a private school in Hampstead, after having spent two years working in a blacking warehouse while his father was in Marshalsea Prison for debt; and Napoleon had been dead three years.

On the 1st January 1880, the Phoenix Company was absorbed by the South Metropolitan Gas Company and with it came the works at Bankside, Vauxhall and Thames Street

Gas making at Thames Street was ended on 8th January, 1926, and following that, the works were used for the storage of gas-purifying material, and as a district sub-stores. The Company is retaining the sub-stores for a time.
CoPartnership Journal August/October 1944


It is not without regret that I read in the last issue of the CO-PARTNERSHIP Journal that another link with the past had been broken.  Thinking that what I can recollect of Thames Street Works may interest a few I am putting on paper some matters brought to mind by the breaking of the link.  In January, 1864, I was born at Thames Street, my grandfather, David Hunter, then having the management of the works and my father being foreman.

My grandfather's house was near to the Meter House, and my father lived in the house occupied until recently by Mr. King.  My grandfather had a nice garden (also a grazing ground for goats) between his house and No.4 gasholder. An early recol­lection, perhaps the earliest, is that of seeing work being done in the meter house, and wondering what it meant.  It was the installing of governor - Until then the pressure in the district mains had been regulated by a man watching a gauge and adjusting a valve to counteract the changes shown by the gauge.

The Coal Lift was a rather primitive piece of wooden plant.  Its form was that of sheer legs.  The skip could be lowered into the hold of the ship when the legs were hori­zontal, and its contents could be tipped into a truck when they were vertical.  The pecu­liarity of this lift was that it had no engine.  It was driven, by means Of rather complicated gearing, by an engine connected with the exhausters.  The Stage Retort House was built but not brought into use.  Ground at Norman Road had been acquired (about half the present area) and what was then considered a large gasholder (No.8) had been erected. Such was Thames Street when I was a small boy.

In October, 1887, my father went to Wool­wich as Engineer to the Consumers Com­pany, but I did not lose touch with the old works until (I Think) 1872, when my grandfather retired.

I was in the service of the Woolwich Com­pany when it was absorbed by the South Metropolitan Company in 1885.  Late in that year I was moved to Thames Street, and the changes I found there were very marked. The old Coal Lift was gone, and in its place hydraulic cranes formed what was considered one of the best lifts on the Thames.  Steamers of 800 tons, or more, could be unloaded in less time than vessels of 200 tons with the old lift.

Purifiers stood where my grandfather's house had been, and what was once a nice garden had become a place for revivifying purifying material.  Two small gasholders had disappeared from the works, but the loss of them was more than met by a second holder (larger than No.8) at Norman Road The daily make of gas had increased from under a million cubic feet to three times that quantity.

The late Mr Braidwood was the Engineer, and while I was there he made a number of changes.  Perhaps the most noticeable of them was a revolution of the carbonising plant through his keen interest in the devel­opment of inclined retort. He invented and patented a catch for Mor­ton's retort doors.  It was an excellent little gadget, for, as all adjustment could be made by it, the unsatisfactory, eccentric bolt in the centre of the crossbar was done away with.

For about thirty years Thames Street was the home of the Lighterage Department.  That department had its beginning in 1887, when the Company's first tug, the "George Livesey" was launched. The Company owned only a few barges then, but their number increased so rapidly that a second tug was soon needed.  This was the "T.B.Hawthorn," and it was not very long before it was followed by the "Partnership."

Much could be written about the strike of 1889 - I will only say that it was a time of intense anxiety and very hard work.

The old works was the place where several engineers who made their mark in the in­dustry received their training. Among them were two nephews of my grandfather, John Somerville (Maidstone, Dublin and Bank side) and Robert Hunter (Stalybridge and Chester), while under the late Mr Wates, who preceded Mr. Braidwood, our late President, Dr. Carpenter, was a pupil.

J.D.C.Hunter, CoPartnership Journal November/December 1944
(J.D.C.Hunter was to be the Chief Clerk at West Greenwich and went on to become An Employees director under the SMGC Co-partnership scheme.)

Gaslight was published by the North West Gas Historical Society, 

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