Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The London Portable Gas Company

The early 1820s were a time of great innovation in the provision of gas for lighting. One such new idea was that of ‘portable gas’. We are familiar today with gas canisters, used for many reasons - for instance, domestically to provide cooking fuel and light for campers. The idea of gas provided in containers like this dates to the earliest days of the gas industry - to the London Portable Gas Company, and its twin, the Provincial Portable Gas Company.

Portable Gas was the idea of a Scottish engineer called David Gordon - he was the father of a more famous engineer, Alexander Gordon. Between 1819 and 1825 David Gordon took out eight patents. Two of these were concerned with a ‘portable gas lamp’.

David Gordon's 1821 locomotive.Samuel Clegg is also said to have used gas which had been compressed into copper cylinders as early as 1811 while still in his pioneering gas making plant at Stoneyhurst College. The main antecedents of ‘portable gas’ seem to come through the application of compressed air. The invention is interesting in that most of those involved in its early application were also involved in the development of road and rail locomotion - several such will emerge in the next few pages. First, for instance, there was William Murdoch, who has often been cited as the ‘inventor’ of gas lighting but was more involved in the application of steam power. Early in his career he had designed a steam road vehicle, which although it never got beyond the stage of a working model, was the precursor of both road and rail steam locomotives. He also designed applications for compressed air as a motive force for machinery. It has been said that David Gordon worked with Murdoch at Boulton and Watts’ Soho Foundry in 1819 on this use of compressed air to propel road vehicles. Perhaps also he had heard stories of Cornish miners who walked around with ‘portable’ lights made from bladders filled with gas by William Murdoch - stories which Philip Taylor, the real ‘inventor’ of oil gas claimed to have heard from the miners themselves.

By 1821 David Gordon had attempted to set up a company to promote road locomotives propelled by a high pressure engine, or a gas vacuum engine, or a pneumatic engine supplied by his portable gas. When this failed he turn his attention to steam locomotion and produced a number of designs, which would seem to us to be eccentric, and which explored paths which were ultimately unsuccessful.

Other engineers with involvement in the gas industry were also to explore the relationship of gases to locomotion - the best example is, of course, Samuel Clegg who was involved in work on the atmospheric railway, as was Henry Pinkus, who was also closely involved with gas in east London, as we will see. David Gordon’s success was in the application of his compressed gas to lighting.

The London Portable Gas Company had been set up in 1819 and exploited a patent taken out by David Gordon jointly with Edward Heard. Heard has already been discussed in relation to the gas lighting display in Larder’s Piccadilly shop. He had been an early assistant to Frederick Albert Winsor and had since pursued his own career in gas lighting. One of the key points about the Portable Gas Company is that the gas itself was not made from coal but from oil and in this connection the involvement of John Taylor, better known as a mining engineer is crucial. John and Philip Taylor’s contribution is described under ‘Oil Gas’, and they were heavily involved in the promotion of gas made from oil.

The London Portable Gas Works works was probably opened in 1819 and an attempt to set up a statutory company made in 1824 with the following subscribers:

David Gordon. Scottish Engineer and inventor. Father of Alexander Gordon. Details about him have been given above.

John Taylor - the mining engineer, involved with the promotion of oil gas. Information about him has already been given under 'Oil Gas'.

Joseph Watson: perhaps a City Corporation Officer or Director of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in the Old Kent Road.

Matthew Wood: a City Politician who has already been described in connection with both the Golden Lane Brewery installation and the Phoenix Company.

Unidentified: John Garrick, Henry Alex Dyson, George Methen, David Maclean, Henry South, N.P.Woodbine.

Almost everything that is known about the Company and its operation comes from an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1819 - and this is quoted in detail by Stewart, but without a reference. This says that the gas was compressed into copper cylinders and sold at about £3.2s.6d. for 1,000 cubic foot of gas. This included collection, delivery and the loan of lamps. Delivery was by cart within a radius of seven miles of the works.

The actual works and its location does present a problem however. The address given is 38 Great Sutton Street - just off the Goswell Road and a short distance from the Chartered Company’s Brick Lane Works. Great Sutton Street is small and narrow. The Horwood Plan shows number 38 as a single dwelling with a garden. Remaining houses in Great Sutton Street (no.38 is under a modern office block) show that they were single fronted, two storey dwellings with a front door off the street. How did they fit a gas making plant into it? It might be thought that the works was a small one and would have taken up very little space - but we do have some idea of the size of the London Portable Gas Company's sister works, that of the Provincial Portable Gas Company.

The London Portable Company was accompanied by others outside London set up by the Provincial Portable Gas Co. - for instance in Edinburgh and Bristol. Another was built to provide Portable Gas in Manchester and a gas works was built in 1825 by the Portable Gas Company at Gaythorn. In the early 1830s this was sold to a Mr. Fernley who turned it into a conventional gas works. It was then bought by Manchester Police Commissioners in 1837 and went on to become a major gas works supplying the Manchester area. A picture exists of this works in 1857,after considerable improvements had been made. Nevertheless, this picture shows a large and conventional gas works, which would not have fitted into the site at Great Sutton Street.

Did the London Portable Gas Company have another, larger works somewhere else? The company remained in production in London until 1834. Where was the gas made if not at Great Sutton Street? There is nowhere which can be considered suitable but in looking for a suitable nearby industrial premises some intriguing relationships emerge.

Firstly, and very obviously, there is the role of John Taylor. His brother, Philip Taylor’s involvement, included, among many other things, in an oil gas works at Bow, described above. However Taylor and Martineau’s engineering works where machinery for making oil gas was made was also in Clerkenwell - at Whitecross Street in a works they had acquired from the print machinery manufacturer, Koenig. It has been claimed that at this works, under John Martineau, Perkins developed a pump for use with portable gas. Taylor and Martineau were later to move their engineering production to the Winsor Iron Works in the City Road. It was at these two sites that their steam engines were made. Clearly the Taylors were nearby and involved with the production of oil gas - although there is no evidence that any was actually made at their site.

The other relationship is more complicated and even more intriguing. After the Portable Company had moved out of the Gaythorn works in Manchester it was used by the Mackintosh Company to supply them with 'naphtha' for the manufacture of rubberised materials.

‘Mackintosh’ was the colloquial name for the company, which had originated with Charles Mackintosh, the Scottish chemist, who had patented a method of making such materials. However, Mackintosh had not been the only researcher in this field and the earliest patent for the use of coal tar naphtha to emulsify rubber in these circumstances had been developed in London by Thomas Hancock. Although Mackintosh’s name was used for the company name, by agreement Hancock, in effect, ran the business - in Manchester and elsewhere - and his Manchester plant had thus been sited alongside the gas works.

Originally the Portable Company made oil gas which would not have provided the 'coal tar naphtha' which Mackintosh needed; however there was a close relationships between H.H.Birley,[578] the owners of Chorlton Mill, and both Hancock and Mackintosh. The mill records show that Birley had bought a gas holder himself in 1825 while the Portable Gas Company still owned the works.[579]

Mackintosh himself was well known to John and Philip Taylor, and is known to have visited Philip, at Bromley-by-Bow during the period on which he was working on oil gas.[580]

The relevance to this in relation to the London Portable Gas Works concerns the location of Hancock's works. H.H.Birley, as Hancock’s partner, was also involved with him there. Intriguingly the London rubber works, at which Hancock had developed his process, was only a hundred yards or so further up Goswell Road from Great Sutton Street. The site was later used by Gordon’s Gin Distillery, in the 1830s adjacent to the Brick Lane gas works - but speculation about the relationship between Alexander Gordon who began this gin distillery and the Portable Gas Company's Alexander Gordon is probably not very useful.

Some years later Thomas Hancock’s brother, Charles, was to open a Gutta Percha works a few hundred yards away in Wharf Road. There was an even more famous Hancock brother, Walter, who, unlike David Gordon, produced the most successful of the steam road vehicles in this period. In the small and competitive circles of the inventors of steam road vehicles it is inconceivable that David Gordon and Walter Hancock did not know each other - indeed David Gordon’s son, Alexander, wrote in Elemental Locomotion what was very largely a commentary on such vehicles and their inventors.

To return to gas lighting. There is some indication that the Portable Gas Company contacted several of the existing London Gas Companies with a request, although details of what was asked are not given in gas company minute books. For instance in 1827 a Mr. Palmer contacted the Imperial Company and was told that they ‘declined the arrangement. As late as 1834 the Company was in touch with the newly set up South Metropolitan Gas Compamy. What did the Portable Company want? Was it perhaps a means of making gas at sites closer to their customers?

The Portable Gas Company continued into the 1830s - it has several successors in the continuing existence of firms like, for instance, Calor Gas. David Gordon died in 1836 but his son, Alexander, wrote a great deal about his aspirations to make an effective steam vehicle. Alexander was also to spend time in America and Canada, and built several lighthouses around the world.

The gas produced by the Portable Gas Company was the subject of scrutiny by some of the scientific community. In 1821 William Henry noted that the gas ‘forcibly compressed in Gordon's portable gas lamp’ deposits ‘a volatile essential oil ‘ and noted that this part of the subject is well worthy of further investigation. The challenge was to be taken up by no less than Michael Faraday himself. Faraday’s elder brother, Robert Faraday, actually worked for the Portable Gas Company and Michael, was asked by David Gordon to analyse the liquid - it is of course inconceivable that Faraday had not read Henry’s article on the subject. Faraday succeeded however in isolating a new compound which he called bicarburet of hydrogen - later known as benzene.

1 comment:

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