Up until 1851 the main source of lighting and other domestic fuel in the area was Daniel Bennett and Sons Oil Works, which had provided whale oil for the Rotherhithe area. According to Stuart Rankin their presence may account for the late arrival of gas in the area. Daniel Bennett and Son were located on the western side of Rotherhithe, adjacent to the Surrey Basin (now Surrey Water, by the Old Salt Quay pub and the red bascule bridge) and as well as investing in the whaling trade were involved in the South Seas trade, transporting convicts. Daniel Bennett died in 1826 and son William in 1844. The subsequent gasworks were built over their premises.
|Drawing the retorts at the Great Gas Establishment Brick Lane, |
from The Monthly Magazine (1821). Sourced from Wikipedia
|The last remaining Rotherhithe gasometer as it is today, |
built in 1935
As I have mentioned above, the gas used before the discovery of Natural Gas in the North Sea was manufactured. Manufactured gas was produced by setting fire to combustible materials to produce carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. As Winsor's company name indicates,coal was the preferred material, and this was "gasified" by heating coal in enclosed ovens which had low levels of oxygen. The gas was then burned to produce light and heat. This required the supply of large quantities of coal, transported in from the country's coal mines, and was a manual process involving men stoking the coal in the ovens at dedicated gasworks.
|Making gas from coal. From the National Gas Museum website.|
|Lighting in the Thames |
Tunnel, Rotherhithe, 1843
In its company history ‘A Century of Gas Lighting' the South Metropolitan Gas Company described the original Phoenix Company as having ‘a philanthropic, if not a Whiggish, tinge’ - and this is certainly true. The original Phoenix subscribers list, given below, includes many of the great and good of the era - Whigs, Quakers, Anti-Slavers - together with a strong element of local Southwark business men, and many of them would fit into several of these categories. It is a deeply impressive list - it is also, in contrast to some others, a list, which contains some highly principled politicians. There are also a number who can be identified as family and connections of the prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry. Even Derek Matthews in ‘Rogues, Speculators and Competing Monopolies’ was unable to find evidence of corruption - except in the dishonesty of a company secretary in the early 1830s.
In 1879 the South Metropolitan Gas Company took over the site, with its three gasometers. The South Metropolitan Gas Company was founded in 1829 and incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1842 and their gasworks were established on the Grand Surrey Canal on the eastern side of Old Kent Road, enabling them to receive coal delivered from ships to Rotherhithe wharves, via barges on the canal. By 1856 they had seven gasholders on the site. In 1879, the South Metropolitan Gas Company merged with the Surrey Consumers Gas Works and later in the same year Phoenix Gas Company and the South Metropolitan Gas Company were also amalgamated. These mergers gave the South Metropolitan Gas Company the gasworks at Rotherhithe, Vauxhall, Bankside and Greenwich.
|Women Working in a Gas Retort House during the|
First World War: South Metropolitan
Gas Company, London. 1918,
by Anna Airy. Imperial War Museum
During the First World War many men went to war, and much of their work was taken over by women, in a situation that presaged the factory work carried out by women in the Second World War.
In his book The Story of Rotherhithe, Stephen Humphrey describes how the South Metropolitan Gas Company "was one of the most enlightened industrial employers in south London." Housing built for their employees included seven houses in Brunel Road in 1926, which were destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. Another housing development was erected in 1931 in Moodkee Street, which consisted of 30 flats in three buildings - Murdock House, Clegg House and Neptune House. Murdock and Clegg houses were named for the British innovators of gas mentioned above.
|South Metropolitan Gas Works, 1937, with a collier|
moored against the wharf
After the war the jetty was again expanded, this time extended to 200ft so that it could handle colliers that could each transport coal cargoes of up to 2500 tons. Four cranes were installed at the same time and these could shift up to 75 tons an hour each.
Gas supply was nationalized in 1948. The Rotherhithe gas works closed in 1959.
Today, apart from the one remaining gas tower, used to support a cell transmitter, the entire site of the gasworks has been replaced by residential housing built by Bellway Homes in the late 1990s. The bridge between the jetty and the wharf was still in place, when it was in use for a different purpose, in the 1990s (I've not yet found out what the site was used for after the closure of the gasworks). The wharf, in the form of the grey jetty, is still in place, preserved as a condition of the housing development behind it thanks to local protests at its intended demolition. It is substantially smaller than it was. It was supposed to be made available for public use, as part of the Thames Path, but for reasons that no-one seems to know it remains closed, but is a favourite sunbathing spot for cormorants (or shags - I've never been able to tell the difference).
|The gas jetty today|
|A different view of the 1935 gasometer tower today. |
Photograph by Stephen Craven.
|Neptune House, built by the South Metropolitan Gas |
Company in 1931 for its employees.
Photograph by Chris Lordan.
I got a major insight when writing this post about a dig I was on when I was an archaeologist working in Chester in the 80s. I was working on a Roman site where the Crown Courts are now located, near the former gasworks, which were long defunct. We had excavated a badly subsided Roman road and were now digging through an earlier Roman drain beneath it, which took us very deep. As we dug down below 6ft, our regulation hard-hats firmly on our heads, we found ourselves paddling in tar. The state we were in! I've never seen so much gunge spread so far and wide. We couldn't dig any lower because as fast was we dug the tar oozed in from the vertical sections in which we were standing. Looking at the diagram above, it is quite clear where it was coming from!