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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

A background to the London gas industry

In the 1990s 'gas' for domestic use comes to us through pipes from the North Sea and is used as a fuel, for heat or cooking - but most older people can still remember when 'town gas' was made from coal. It came from a local 'gas works' and was also used in the home, and by industry, mainly as a source of heat. Coal gas, made in much the same way, had first been used nearly two hundred years previously - but to provide lighting for streets and large buildings.

The first 'gas works' for public supply was set up in London by the first gas company at the height of the period usually defined as 'the industrial revolution'. There are numerous publications about this period and most, as noted earlier, give very scant attention ‑if a mention at all - to either London or the early gas industry.

This chapter, then, is a brief introduction, first of all to the early gas industry itself, and then to its location in London. It provides a background to the subject matter of the rest of the book.


Coal gas was first used commercially for lighting at the start of the nineteenth century. Before this there was a long process of development. First, there had to be the realisation that gases from coal were inflammable,1 and that this might provide a source of light which could be harnessed. Then the possibility of making a similar gas artificially had to be discovered, and a reproducible method of doing so had to be 'invented'. Then equipment and a distribution methodology had to be designed.

Histories of the gas industry usually begin with a description of this 'run-in' period and the contributors to it.

Experimenters and observers examined natural gas, looked at the nature of gases and in particular at the gas, which came from coal. None of these experimenters lived and worked in London ‑except perhaps Stephen Hales who was vicar of Twickenham, now in Greater London. Knowledge based institutions in London provided a centralised information exchange for such ideas. In particular, London was the base for the Royal Society.

Although there was little in the way of any formal academic structure for technical subjects, London supported a lively network of independent lecturers and discussion groups. There were similar bodies in other large cities, but London could provide some sort of focus for all of them because it was the capital city.


A few miles outside London was an institution of learning which may well have had an interest in coal gas for lighting (or perhaps for use in explosives). This was the military research complex at Woolwich.

Woolwich has had very little attention as an academic centre, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was home to one of the few institutions in the Britain where research staff were employed on technical subjects. An examination of the Woolwich rate books reveals an astonishing number of Fellows of the Royal Society living in the neighbourhood.

Some of these Woolwich based scientists had a special interest in gases. For example, William Cruickshank, a chemist who lectured at the Royal Military Academy, published relevant papers before 1810. Later, another lecturer, J.MacCulloch, wrote on wood distillates10 ‑of particular relevance to a study of coal gas residuals.

There is, however, no evidence of direct research into coal gas at Woolwich. The only known gas making plant on site probably dates from the late 1850s. Nevertheless the establishment had several close links with the early gas industry. One prominent person involved in both these was the younger William Congreve who was Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory; based in Woolwich. He investigated the early London gas industry for the Government in 1823. Congreve also played a part in the industry as an inventor, a company backer and a promoter.

Another 'Chemist to the Ordnance' with an interest in gas was James Sadler, the balloonist. He had worked with James Watt on gas making equipment at the Bristol Hot Wells Institute which specialised in therapy based on a variety of gases. There is also a persistent story that he installed a gas making plant at Beaufoy's Vinegar Works in Lambeth.

It is not known why the interest in coal gas manufacture by some of the Woolwich establishment was not translated into an early gas making plant there. It has been suggested that there was a deliberate decision not to site a gas works in what became the Arsenal complex because of the perceived danger of explosion. However, the lack of an on-site gas works does not preclude experiments on coal gas supply nor does it detract from the importance of Woolwich-based researchers to the development of the process itself.

The first gas made in London and Europe


By the end of the eighteenth century there was enough knowledge about gas from coal for a lighting scheme to be set up by anyone who was able to design suitable equipment. It is probable that many such attempts took place before 1800 but that they remain unknown because we have no information about them.

The following paragraphs describe an episode which happened in London in 1789. It is an example of the sort of experiments which were probably being undertaken in several places at the time.

A Pimlico resident, Mr. Hatchard, had been working on the production of 'fair copies' of the Earl of Dundonald's Parliamentary petition for his tar making patent. This patent specification contained enough information to give him the idea of trying to make a light out of coal gas. Hatchard had a neighbour, John Champion, one of the Bristol based brass manufacturing family. His son had experimented with tar manufacture but, unlike Dundonald, had failed.19 Champion and Hatchard set up a fireplace and chimney in the garden at Brewer Street, put an 'iron pot full of coals onto it', attached a 'tin cylinder and funnel' and lit the 'smoke'. This produced 'a column of bright flame feet high'

The Corporation of Trinity House was known to be looking for a reliable on‑site method of producing light for lighthouses and so Champion contacted them. A deputation of Elder Brethren visited to 'try the different experiments of lights ...... by means of vapour issuing from coal ' but they did not think the system was suitable.

Champion offered a half share in the process to Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham manufacturer, but it seems he was not interested either and Champion died soon after, aged eighty‑six.

No more was heard about this episode until Hatchard wrote to the press about it, for whatever reason, forty years later.24 By that time gas lighting was very much a reality.


It is important to remember that the development of gas for lighting was part of international scientific research and that many contributions to it came from outside England. Experiments on the manufacture of gas for lighting took place in other European countries and in America. Most histories of the gas industry mention researchers who worked, in particular, in France and Belgium, although there were many others.

One researcher of great interest was Phillipe Lebon. He was a French scientist with a practical interest in tars as well as gas for lighting. Another important contribution came from Belgium where Professor Minkelers developed gas for use in ballooning in military applications.

The probable reason why gas for lighting was first developed to a usable standard in England may be to do with the political situation in Europe. Lebon's work, for instance, ended when he was murdered in revolutionary Paris and a changing French government made a financial commitment to his scheme more unlikely.

It should be noted that most of these European experimenters used wood as their raw material for gas. Potential gas makers in England looked to coal as their source of fuel because it was widely available. Thus, because gas for lighting was finally developed in England, its raw material became coal. When British capitalists set up gas industries in countries where wood was readily available they took a technology based on coal with them.

Boulton and Watt

If gas lighting was to become a reality, development work was needed to take the results of these experiments and make them work. That would mean money and resources. Histories of the industry usually describe the contribution of William Murdoch who is said to have experimented with gas lighting in Cornwall in 1792.

Murdoch was an employee of the Boulton and Watt partnership based in Birmingham. They made factory equipment - steam engines - and the provision of lighting equipment may have been seen as a logical extension of this work. Following a report on Lebon's lighting scheme in France they seem to have encouraged the development of suitable lighting equipment using a team of their engineers based at the Birmingham Soho works.

Boulton and Watt began to supply the new equipment to customers who wanted lighting in their factories. Thus the first functioning gas making plant was installed to light individual industrial buildings - not for public supply.

In London, one of the earliest gas lighting schemes may have been that which Boulton and Watt's team installed at Huddart's Limehouse Ropeworks in Whitehorse Lane, Stepney, before 1811. They had already supplied a steam engine to Huddart and the drawings for the gas making plant to be installed there show the retort houses integrated into the same buildings as the steam equipment.

Thus the practical development of working gas making equipment was undertaken by a major manufacturer who could afford to invest and who had potential customers in waiting.


Papers in the Boulton and Watt archive make it quite clear that a number of their employees worked on the development of gas lighting equipment.33 This team was advised on the scientific aspects of coal gas by a chemical consultant William Henry. Henry came from Manchester and was a friend of John Dalton, who developed the atomic theory. It has even been said that Henry's chemical skills were 'probably decisive' in 'the gestation of the atomic theory'.

The relationship between Henry and Boulton and Watt demonstrates the links between an emerging body of chemical theory and the development of one of the main ‘markers’ of the industrial revolution ‑that is, commercially viable gas lighting equipment. Henry's professional advice on setting up the first gas making plant was enormously important. Gas making is fundamentally a chemical process and its' development needed the type of input which only a major chemical researcher could provide.

The first London gas works

By 1810 a number of contractors were in the business of supplying gas-making equipment to industry. Members of Boulton and Watt's team began to exploit their skills independently and so the number of active gas making plants began to increase. There were probably many which went unrecorded. Josiah Pemberton, an ex-employee of Boulton and Watt installed one early gas making plant in London just north of the City. It was at the Golden Lane Brewery, which itself was attempting to use new methods to make a traditional product.

There was a great deal of public interest in these projects. In Golden Lane 'the flame issuing from the chimneys has afforded amusement to frequenters of the neighbouring ale houses'.38 Despite the derision there was a realisation that great public benefit could come from this new medium. Matthew Wood, a City Alderman, arranged to use gas from the Golden Lane plant for a street lighting demonstration. Wood had a keen interest in 'improvement'. As time went on supporters of improvements to the urban environment became a great aid in the spread of gas fuelled street lighting and it was often included in the local Acts of Parliament, which they promoted.


At the same time that Golden Lane gas works was being developed moves began to set up the first public supply gas company in London. For gas historians this makes the London industry of particular interest because the new Company opened what most people would understand as the first gas works ‑ that is, a factory to make and sell coal gas for lighting.

It was started by a bizarre figure who entertained London 'Society' while he worked on the promotion of the idea of a gas company. This was Frederick Albert Winsor who came from the German state of Brunswick - leading to a suspicion of liaison with the Royal family, since Caroline, George IV's discarded wife, came from there. Winsor was good at having bright ideas but not so efficient at implementing them.

Winsor claimed to have made gas from coal as early as 1784. From 1804 onwards he wrote pamphlets to promote his ideas and also demonstrated how coal gas was made while he lectured on its potential wonders.43 He thus put the possibility of using coal gas for lighting firmly into the minds of those who attended the popular lecture circuit.

No examples of actual working installations have been connected with Winsor - beyond unsubstantiated rumours of a plant at his Woolwich home - although in 1826 a magazine article claimed that he had erected 'private gas appliances ... in different parts of the metropolis' before 1807.


Several gas histories have told in detail the story of the setting up and the first years of the first public supply gas company, which became known as the 'Chartered Company'.

Those who put their names to the first subscription lists were wealthy and influential with, predictably, a number of bankers, merchants and lawyers. They included the Duke of Athol, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a relation of the Company's first Governor. Like some others his subscription might have arisen from interest rather than investment. John Williams, another subscriber, for example, was a propagandist for putting service pipes underground and not a rich man.

It was necessary to obtain Parliamentary approval to raise enough capital for the company. A Parliamentary Bill was promoted in 1809 but Boulton and Watt challenged it and a Parliamentary Enquiry ensued. At a later, second, attempt the challenge was dropped and the company’s Charter was granted in 1812. This first ever gas company's legal name was 'The Gas Light and Coke Company' but it was commonly known as 'The Chartered Company' or simply 'The Chartered'. In order to prevent confusion this name will be used here.

What exactly did the new gas company propose to do which was different to the activities of Boulton and Watt who were already selling gas-making plant to be operated by the purchaser to light their premises? Winsor and the Chartered Company wanted to open a gas factory, which would make and distribute gas to whoever wanted to buy it.

Making and selling gas

Once in existence the new company needed to set up a works to make and sell gas ‑something about which they were surprisingly ignorant.

The Court of Governors invited Winsor to a meeting and offered him the post of 'engineer' - chief officer to the company. Problems arose immediately and they recorded, 'it was at once apparent ... that no reliance whatever could be placed on Winsor's aid'.

Accordingly they next set up a 'Committee for Chemistry' which was to look into how to make gas. At its first meeting, in May 1812, the Committee questioned Frederick Christian Accum. He had been their chemical advisor and had given evidence on their behalf to the 1809 Committee of Enquiry - a bad omen because at that Enquiry he had refused to continue in the middle of cross-examination because he had not been paid. At the meeting of the Committee for Chemistry Accum's first answers were clear and co‑operative, but more questions led to long inconclusive answers and another request for payment. The new Company had thus, in its first year, lost the two people, Accum and Winsor, on whom it had most depended for technical expertise.

Some members of the Court of Governors of The Chartered had some gas making knowledge. Two directors, Hargreaves and Barlow proceeded independently of one another to develop their own plans for producing gas. Their combined knowledge was not very great. Accum, who had lectured and written on gas making had been seen as the expert, but, when asked to design a gas works in Shoreditch, he was not very successful. None of this added up to anything very much.

Some gas was certainly made. Winsor seems to have had a gas-making site on Millbank. Gas was also made in the company's Pall Mall Offices previously occupied by Winsor and his friend 'Professor' Hardie as the 'Theatre of Science'. The first actual works opened by the Chartered Company was on a small site in Cannon Street Row, off Whitehall, and soon closed.

The setting up gas manufacture by the Chartered Company thus seems to have been rather haphazard. The company was in desperate need of someone who actually knew about coal gas manufacture. In January 1813, they appointed a consultant, Samuel Clegg. He had been a student of the scientist, John Dalton, in Manchester and later part of the Boulton and Watt gas lighting development team. He had then come to London where he had recently installed a gas lighting plant at Ackerman's print works in the Strand. He brought thirteen experienced staff with him. Clegg's 'young men' - and they really were young - learnt their trade in these early days and then went out to build gas works around Britain and the world.

While the gas making process was being sorted out, other Chartered Company directors negotiated with local authorities and agreed the first contracts for street lighting. To fulfil these orders the Company opened a works in Great Peter Street, Westminster, and another, following a contract with the Liberty of Norton Folgate, at Curtain Road in Shoreditch. Gas was first supplied to streetlights in Westminster in August 1813.

Under Clegg's direction the Company built another new works. This was in Brick Lane (now Central Street), Clerkenwell and became popularly known as 'The Great Gas Manufactory'

The spread of gas works in early 19th century London

Almost before The Chartered Company began work other gas companies emerged. The City of London Gas Company probably had an operational works by 1815. It had a subscription list of local traders and, following a false start, built its’ works at the point at which the river Fleet flows into the Thames at Blackfriars.

Almost opposite the City Company's works, on the south bank of the Thames, the 'South London' Company took over a works on Bankside in 1814 and was itself taken over by the Phoenix' Company in 1824. Phoenix was said to have a 'philanthropic or Whiggish tinge' and was to last into the early 1880s.

Many more gas works followed in the early 1820s. Some, which never became statutory, were set up and built works which opened quickly and as quickly disappeared. Many more such works may be unknown because they left no records.

Larger, more permanent, companies obtained the proper enabling legislation and gas company Acts of Parliament followed thick and fast throughout the 1820s. For instance, the 'Ratcliffe Gas Company ', opened a works in Shadwell and obtained an Act of Parliament with the support of a local subscription list. Another early company was the 'Shoreditch Independent' which became the statutory 'Independent' Company. It had a works at Haggerston on the Regents Canal and, like many others, it was not without its share of scandals. The 'British' Company, intended to supply gas throughout the country, and built its first works in Limehouse. The "Imperial Gas Company" was 'a much grander affair’, which planned to cover most of London in districts, each with its own local works. It was also 'ambitious and highly speculative, promoted by a group of rogues'. Some members of the Board of the Imperial were to be involved in the Aringa scandal involving fraudulent mining shares. Another Imperial proprietor accused of misappropriation was Aubone Surtees, probably brother in law of Lord Eldon, later Lord Chancellor.


Some entrepreneurs set up gas companies with 'different' features. There was an attempt to make gas from oil ‑successful in some whaling ports. John Martineau and John Taylor, the mining engineer, built London's first oil gas works at Bow for the Whitechapel Road Gas Light Co.

A company based in Clerkenwell sold 'portable gas' made from oil put into pressurised cylinders.

Specialist contractors built gas works either as a speculation or on behalf of local interests. For example, in 1820 members of the Barlow family built a gas works in Poplar as a speculation to pass on to a local body for management.

A good example of the balance between speculation and local pressure took place in Greenwich in the early 1820s. Two contractors, Hedley and Gostling approached the Greenwich Vestry where members were concerned about public safety ‑'the horrible instances of robbery and murder ... good and proper light. will be the best preventative'. It could not have foretold that the new gas works would never be finished, and that, following a writ of Mandamus a new Vestry would be elected because of the loss of public money.


By 1830 a network of public supply gas works covered east and south London. There has been a recent debate, beyond the remit of this work, on the effects of government policies towards the gas industry. Throughout the century, until the 1880s, companies were set up and works continued to be opened. Sometimes they reflected the dissatisfaction of local authorities and businesses with existing suppliers. Some 'consumer' companies were given a pricing structure that reflected these concerns.

From the 1860's pressure of land use, need for expanded supplies and improving technology led some of the bigger companies to build large out‑of‑town works. Of these the well‑known works of the Chartered Company at Beckton is the supreme example.

This is the background of gas companies in east London. Some were very successful, others incompetent and frankly fraudulent. When they made gas all of them produced waste products and that will be the subject of the rest of this story.


Coke is the best known of gas industry waste products and in terms of early sales is the simplest to deal with. That is not to say that it is uninteresting - but that there is not much more to say than that the early company promoters said that it could be sold, and that it was sold - much as they predicted.

This chapter will look briefly at the background to coke manufacture and promotion in London and at the ideas which Winsor and the early Gas Light and Coke had for it. A following chapter will briefly look at some of the subsequent uses by industry.


By 1800 coke had already been purposely made from carbonised coal for at least a hundred years. Abraham Darby's use of coke to smelt iron in 17091 is, perhaps, the example which comes to mind most readily.

Development of manufacturing methods had begun considerably before 1709 and some of the earliest recorded experiments had taken place, in Greenwich and Deptford. In 1656 John Evelyn described experiments he had seen in 'charking sea coal near the Greenwich Ferry ' This was in works set up by Sir John Winter, at that time apparently restricted in the Tower of London. This may be connected with the 1659 patent of Thomas Peyton of Deptford for a method of making 'Coke'. These experiments with coke may be connected to the local copperas industry. At least two copperas works opened alongside Deptford Creek during the seventeenth century ‑ started by members of a loose grouping of Royalist entrepreneurs. This group included associates of both Peyton and Winter most of who would have been well known to Evelyn.

Coke, therefore, had been known, and used, for at least a hundred and fifty years before 18005 and was, probably, very familiar. The approach of the early gas industry to coke was different to that taken to the other by-products. Coke had a market, which was known, and sales proceeded.

Doubtless the promoters of the Chartered Company had done some homework on the subject first. In 1800 Bishop Watson, Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge, published a book in which, among other things, he described coke, and its industrial applications. Frederick Albert Winsor acknowledged Watson's influence on him by sending him a copy of his coke pamphlet inscribed 'with greatest respects from the author'. This is probably a very rare occasion on which it is possible to show some influence from academic world on the early gas industry.


In 1809 the gas company promoters took care to draw to the public's attention the use of coke in the workplace. One way of doing this had been to bring evidence to the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry. Some time at the beginning of the Enquiry was taken up with evidence given about the use of coke - 'Mr. Winsor's' and other - in a Lambeth blast furnace - more details about this are given below. Naturally 'Mr. Winsor's' was found to produce much better results.

There is however very little to be said about coke sales by the early gas companies beyond what can be deduced from ordinary common knowledge. Coke was sold, and continued to be sold from the start of the industry until coal was no longer used to make gas.

Analysis of early sales is difficult because the gas companies left very few records about them. Company minute books and ledgers refer to coke sales but not on a day to day basis. They recorded the unusual - large or difficult sales - but not the ordinary. Even total sales figures over more than a very short period are rarely available.

Two elements of coke sales will be explored here. One is a comment on the original intentions of the gas companies towards coke. The other is a brief look at some of the known customers for gas company coke.

original intentions

The intentions of the early gas industry towards coke can be seen from the names given to the early gas companies. The proper name of the first gas company was the "Gas Light and Coke Company'. The first directory listing of another of the original gas companies was 'Morrow, Evans and Co. Gas and Coke Merchants'. In both cases there is equal emphasis on the words 'gas' and 'coke'. Their intention was to be known to be sellers of it.

The legal name of most gas companies included 'and Coke' and this continued to be the case with companies formed as late as the 1850s.

In east London the 'Gas Light and Coke Companies' were:

The City of London Gas Light and Coke Co. (1816)
The Imperial Gas Light and Coke Co (1821)
The South London Gas Light and Coke Co. (1821)
The Ratcliffe Gas Light and Coke Co (1823)
The Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Co. (1824)
The Independent Gas Light and Coke (1829)
The South Metropolitan Gas Light and Coke Co (1842)
The Commercial Gas Light and Coke Co. (1847)
The Deptford Gas Light and Coke Co. (1852)
The Surrey Consumers Gas Light and Coke Co. (1854)

Those companies that described themselves merely as ‘Gas Light’ were:

The Poplar Gas Light Co. (1821)
The Woolwich Gas Light Co (1823)
The British Gas Light Co (1829)
The Equitable Gas Light Co. (1842)
The London Gas Light Co. (1844)

And, finally, some oddities:

The Great Central Consumers' Gas Company (1851)
Woolwich, Plumstead and Charlton Consumers Gas Company (1854)
Woolwich Equitable Gas Company (1854)
Victoria Docks Gas Company (1857)

Do these variations of company name show anything about the nature of the London gas industry? The 'Gas Light and Coke' companies are mostly the earlier and larger companies while the 'Gas Light’ companies are later, smaller and include some oddities, like the British which had a nation‑wide remit. They also include the Poplar Company, one of the earliest of the "Barlow" works.10 The plain 'gas' companies include two consumer companies, but not the Rotherhithe based Surrey Consumers Company. The 'gas' companies are later in the century.

Gas Companies may have chosen their names for a number of reasons ‑ some for reasons only known to them. Whatever they called themselves all the gas companies had coke to dispose of and they all did this in the same way.

For the earliest companies the name 'gas light and coke' seems to serve as an advertisement of their intention to sell coke on the same basis as they sold gas. Thus the two terms are expressed equally in the company title. The gradual change to plain ‘gas’ reflects a diminution of the need to advertise coke for sale through the company name.

the patent coke company

To the first promoters of the Chartered Company it seemed that the manufacture and sale of coke was as important as the production of gas for lighting. Frederick Albert Winsor wrote several pamphlets promoting the company. His first, in 1804, was called

'The Superiority Of The New Patent Coke Over The Use Of Coals, In All Family Concerns, Displayed Every Evening, At The Large Theatre, Lyceum, Strand ....' Addressed To All The Enlightened Inhabitants Of London And The British Empire'.

The second, which also appeared in 1804, was

'New Patriotic Company, Imperial & National Patent Company, For Establishing Sundry Manufactories To Make & Extract For Home Consumption & Exportation, Coke, Charcoal, Ammonia, Acids, Oil, Tar, Chemical Salts, &c. From All The Combustibles In Nature; & For Applying The Inflammable Air Obtained From The Raw Fuel To The Purposes Of Heating, Boiling, Smelting, Lighting, Illuminating'.

This second leaflet makes it seem that the most important activity of the proposed company would be to make coke, and chemicals. The manufacture of 'inflammable air' appears as the third activity by a very long way. It appears as if Winsor's first intention was to start a coke company - to which 'gas' was added as an afterthought.

There is more evidence for Winsor's original intentions. In 1818, seven years after the Chartered Company had begun manufacture, 'coke' was included as an entry in Abraham Rees' Encyclopedia. Rees highlights a patent held by 'Mr. Winsor ... for the manufacture of a superior kind of coke'. That Rees picked on Winsor as a major element in coke manufacture suggests that Winsor's publicity methods had been successful and that he was seen as the purveyor of something new and exciting and that was - coke.

Of course many of the claims about coke which were made before the launch of the Chartered Company were just 'puffs', aimed at attracting finance. The public might be more ready to invest in coke ‑ which was already in use and profitable - than in gas lighting which was still unknown. Accum's claims at the 1809 Enquiry need not be taken too seriously because he was a paid consultant employed to ratify the virtues of coke, and whatever else was wanted.

The Chartered Company's emphasis on 'coke' at the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry can be shown to partly be tactical. Their defence strategy was described in a brief drawn up by Boulton and Watt's lawyers and now in the Birmingham archive. In this it was said that Chartered were to mount 'the defence of a corporate coke company'. It has already been suggested above that Winsor's supporters saw the promotion of by-products of a way of avoiding a confrontation with Boulton and Watt on arguments about the priority of invention of gas for lighting. For one reason or another before the Enquiry James Watt Jnr. sent a note to 'Patent Coke Office Pall Mall - the pencilled address is in his handwriting.This is the same Pall Mall address as that at which Winsor was giving lectures and demonstrations of gas lighting.

Winsor was not the only person to produce something called 'patent coke'. He himself mentioned 'that celebrated haacter (sic) Doctor Clarke'13 who set up a patent coke company in 1804.' He also described a 'phantasmagory celebrity', a Mr. Philipstall 'who subscribed to a patent coke company'.14 Patent coke seems to have been a feature of the period. It was a way of identifying the product.

Sales were to be either to industry or for use in the home but Winsor wrote his leaflet about patent coke to interest the potential domestic and set his descriptions of use in the home. Coke used in a domestic setting would not necessarily be suitable for industrial use - although knowledge about types of coke was limited in 1804. Winsor avoided discussion on this point by saying that his coke could, with extra firing, be used by industry. Coke was known to industry and perhaps needed less advertisement but nevertheless it was clearly hoped to appeal to potential customers both in the home and the workplace.

The Chartered Company, and probably several of its successors, was set up with the manufacture of coke very much in mind. The 'Gas Light and Coke Company' could just as well have been called the 'Coke and Gas Light Company' and there would have been no difference in its activities.

When the new company began business, coke sales were relatively easy to set up, in contrast to some other proposed activities. There has been a great deal of emphasis on gas, its early manufacture and sale. It may have been the coke sales that got the first companies up and running.

Proposals for using coke

There were good reasons why the gas company promoters thought that coke sales would be profitable ‑ it already well known, particularly in industry. Both Winsor and the Chartered Company promoters gave publicity to it by listing a number of suggestions of how to use it - all of them based on current practice.

Frederick Accum described some of these practices at the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry. He opened the proposed gas company's evidence and began at once with a submission on the use of coke and its virtues as a fuel. This coke, however, was special because it had been produced by 'Mr. Winsor's method'. Accum said that this way of making coke was 'greatly and generally superior'. He was not, however, 'permitted to disclose the process ' although he told the Enquiry that he had used 'Winsor's coke' to smelt 'lead ore, copper and iron'.

Accum went on to give a report of a demonstration which had been specially set up for the Enquiry. This coke had been tested in a blast furnace at Mr. Joseph's foundry in Lambeth'. Mr. Joseph had previously made his own coke in a stove 'open at the mouth only'. Winsor's coke making process had brought the charge time down by ten minutes, and gave more heat. The resulting iron manufactured at Lambeth 'would run through the eye of a needle'. David Walker, 'Mr. Joseph's foundryman', gave evidence to the Enquiry. He found that 'Mr. Winsor's coke ... gave more heat than my master's coke' and said that he would definitely pay more for it 'if I had the business in my own hands'.

The Chartered Company's promoters had a number of other suggestions about the use of coke. It might, for instance, be ground up as an ingredient in gunpowder. It would then substitute for charcoal bought from France - an obvious advantage since Britain and France were then at war. No more is heard of this idea but since any experiments done on such a sensitive matter would, no doubt, have been secret, the silence is not surprising. The potential of use for gas by-products in explosives may explain some of William Congreve's interest in the early industry.

Actual coke sales

From the start, gas companies sold coke; or rather they sold what was left after they had taken about a third of the output for their own use as fuel.

Gas Companies employed special staff for coke sales. In the gasworks coke staff were autonomous and important. In a list of South Met's staff for 1836 the 'coke clerk' has a different heading to staff in the 'indoor office'. Presumably he had his own office, not out of doors, but easily available to the public. He was in effect a departmental head with two junior clerks under him. The Chartered Company had staff like this from the start, as did every subsequent gas company

The gas companies sold coke 'over the counter' for cash. There are still many who remember in the twentieth century the collection of coke by children for use at home. It is very likely that these sales of small amounts of coke began very early and that from the start anyone who wanted one bag or so only had to call at the coke office door. Sales at this level are very difficult to check on at any time - and at a distance of two hundred years, almost impossible.

Only one early ledger survives for the Chartered Company, and none for any of the other early London Companies. Unfortunately no records appear to have survived of day to day sales, if they were ever kept. Such sales provided a source of ready cash that could come in very useful in times of trouble. For example, in 1854, the Sydenham Gas Company used coke income to pay the wages after their Company Secretary disappeared together with the names and addresses of their customers.

In the early years of the Chartered, coke sold steadily. Occasionally income was reported to the directors and was recorded in the minute books. These intermittent notes allow a snapshot of their sales. In April 1817 they took £×187 12s.3d. for coke compared with £×469 16s 6d for gas. By January 1820 coke sales have risen to £×305 13s. 7d. but this time there is no corresponding gas sales figure.

Board Minutes usually recorded only the major sales and enquiries. For example when the Board of Ordnance ‑ a very important potential customer - asked for coke in 1815 it was reported to the Board.22 These occasional references in the minute books give the only information as to who used Winsor's patent coke.


Deliveries of coke to those customers, who did not collect it themselves, seem to have been undertaken by independent carters who dealt directly with customers. In 1817 the Chartered Company advertised for tenders 'per caldron for coke'. These carters trimmed the coke 'for threepence a caldron if required by the customer' as well as delivering it.

Carters were not necessarily specialist hauliers but combined this activity with another. Their main profession seems usually, and inevitably, to have been that of coal merchant. The Chartered's three works were all landlocked with no water access - it was not until later that the company acquired wharfage facilities`. Carters serving their works would have had to use horse and cart, but as other companies built riverside or canalside works so cartage would have been done by barge. Coke was only one of many cargoes undertaken by barge owners, who often combined river haulage with lime burning, brick making and other activities. Perhaps more unusual was F.J.Bouchet who combined carting with ownership of a brass foundry in the Old Kent Road.


When gas companies minuted coke sales they naturally concentrated on those that needed a special decision by the board. Most of these were large industrial users. After 1820 these decisions include a number of barter deals, often involving coke, and another commodity which a gas company would normally buy in from an outside supplier. The Chartered Company records show the most frequent use of this practice as, although less often, do those of the Phoenix Company.

For example, the Chartered Company sometimes swapped coke for oil of vitriol with Farmer, the Kennington chemical manufacturer.

Such barter deals were set up with suppliers who needed gas industry by‑products. Gas companies used lime in their purification process ‑ they got it from limeburners who used coke. The use of this type of transaction, throws even more doubt on the accuracy of any cash prices which are recorded.

It also illuminates the role played by the gas companies in the industry which surrounded them. The next chapter will look briefly at some of the aspects of the use of gas industry coke and how it might have facilitated industrial growth.

Coal tar before gas

Perhaps the substance, which most readily comes to mind when talking about gas industry by-products, is coal tar. The next few chapters will look at production of tar by the early industry and at what indications there are for the profitable use of it. It is not proposed to look at the more sophisticated chemical products made after the mid-century but at the simpler mixtures which preceded them.

Coal tar was known before the gas industry began to produce it. It had been well promoted and there is no reason to believe that it did not sell well within its market.


When newly made gas emerges from the retort it is full of impurities and needs to be cleaned. Normally the gas is channelled from the retort, through a condensation process and then into wash water. One result is the production of a 'tenacious bituminous fluid called tar'.

It is perhaps useful to look at a definition of tar from a dictionary of 1758:

TAR. A gross liquor issuing or extracted from various trees, exceeding useful upon many occasions, especially for the smearing of cordage and planks belonging to ships'2

What was known as 'tar' before 1800 was not a by‑product of coal. It was a wood based product traditionally from the Baltic - and sometimes called 'Stockholm' or 'Archangel' tar from its place of origin. Some industrialists knew that a similar substance could be made from coal in theory but they had not found it easy to manufacture. They did not want to make gas, but to produce tar for a market they knew existed. Supplies from the Baltic were under increasing pressure during the Napoleonic wars and it was important to find a supply of tar from a source that was not under threat. Coal, or 'mineral', tar seemed to be the answer.

One industrialist who had tried to make coal tar was John Champion from Bristol, whose father's experiments with gas manufacture in Pimlico have been described above. He had registered a patent for tar manufacture in 1799. James Watt's friend John Roebuck, the Birmingham vitriol manufacturer, had also tried. Other experiments had been sponsored by landed estate owners ‑ the Clerks of Penicuik and the Fitzwilliams at Elsecar.

Archibald Cochrane, Ninth Earl of Dundonald, was happy to point out that they had all failed.He had, to some extent, succeeded in coal tar manufacture.

An operational tar works

In 1791 the Society of Arts awarded a prize for an account of a tar making plant at the Dudley Wood Ironworks. It is not clear why they rewarded the author of a report about a tar works, rather than those who had actually set the tar works up. The author of the article was a William Pitt. He may have come from the local area - members of a Pitt family were then living in the district of Dudley Wood and Woodside.

Members of the Attwood family probably leased the ironworks at Dudley Wood - they certainly held it from 1800. The next generation of Attwoods became very wealthy through a wide range of manufactures, which included chemicals, and investment in the London gas industry, while others, most notably Thomas, went into politics. The Dudley Wood foundry itself was later managed by Philip Taylor, the inventor of oil gas and brother of John Taylor, the mining engineer.

The actual idea for the tar recovery plant at Dudley, which William Pitt described, came from the Earl of Dundonald

At Dudley Wood 'smoke from steam engines' was converted into tar. The process was itself a way of using waste products. Pitt described how 'the iron masters give the tar works raw coal gratis and in return get the coke', while the 'proprietors get the smoke for their labour and interest of capital'. Tar was recovered from the condensed 'smoke' through an elaborate process, described in detail in the published report.

The Earl of Dundonald

The Dudley Wood tar works was one of several opened as part of the pioneering work on the extraction and use of tar from coals which Dundonald had initiated.

The Earl's 'real' name was Archibald Cochrane - and it is worth noting that Cochrane was to become an important name in the Black Country where the Earl's brother was another emergent industrialist. Another famous Cochrane - Thomas the naval hero, revolutionary and future Admiral of Chile, Peru and Great Britain - was the ninth Earl's son and he too was to have an involvement in the early use of coal tar. In general it could be said, about the Cochranes, that originality - or eccentricity - was a family trait.

The Ninth Earl himself, had, in addition to eccentricity, ‘scientific capabilities'. He had inherited the earldom of Dundonald and the estate at Culross in 1778. Culross is an ancient industrial and mining town on the north side of the Forth between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Coal was mined there from the seventeenth century. In the 1990s Culross village is a showplace owned by the National Trust who show no signs of recognition of either Dundonald's pioneering tar works in the village or of his naval hero son.

The acquisition of an earldom might appear to be a way to get wealth and status. This was not so in the case of Dundonald and he set about trying to rebuild the family fortunes by means of new manufactures. As an ex-naval officer, he knew that there was a demand for tar in shipbuilding, and that it was important to find a supply. Tar and pitch were, he said, 'essential to a maritime power'. In 1781 he patented a tar making process and the next year opened a tar works in Culross itself.

Although it was later said that 'from a naval nation Lord Dundonald deserves a statue of gold' his tar sales to the navy were not successful, nor were ship's repairers grateful for his work which threatened to put them out of business. From the 1780s Dundonald promoted the use of coal tar to be put on ships' bottoms to prevent the ravages of Teredo worm and his publicity leaflets include glowing references from ships' owners.17 Discussions were undertaken with the Dutch navy but in Britain he had little success.

Another of his tar works was sited at Muirkirk where it was managed by his cousin, John Loudon Macadam. Macadam was the developer of a road building process but although 'macadamised' roads are known for their use of tar, this is in fact a later development and Macadam himself did not suggest it. Five Dundonald tar works were opened in the English Midlands - one at Dudley Wood, and another, better known one, at Calcutts in Shropshire. Despite his involvement in a wide range of other chemical projects with industrialists in Shropshire, Newcastle and elsewhere, Dundonald’s fortunes remained obstinately at a low ebb.

The British Tar Company

Because of Dundonald's financial problems, the tar making operations were taken into a manufacturing and sales organisation - the British Tar Company. This organisation appears to have sold considerable quantities of tar although (despite the punning name) it seems to have sold to industry rather than to the navy. As time went by 'Dundonald revealed himself more and more as a potentially disastrous partner' and management of the company passed to other family members who made 'considerable fortunes'. Dundonald 'led the life of a perpetual fugitive.... suffering from a profound, if largely justified, persecution complex'.

In the British Tar Company's works, coal was burnt in the bottom of "stoves". Smoke from the coal went up into "proper horizontal tunnels" and then into a "capacious and close tunnel 100 yards or more in length" which was "covered on the top with a shallow pond of water". The reason for this pond was to condense the gases ‑"the chill of the water condensed the smoke” and the tar then "falls on the floor of the tunnel".

Tar was marketed by the company in grades that were each defined by a crown and number. It varied from rough tar, straight from the kiln, sent out only "if ordered", to distillates for high quality work.

Dundonald could easily have added gas lighting to his repertoire of manufactures. He simply seems not to have been interested in developing it. He certainly knew about coal gas ‑ it was included in the index to his unwritten book on the uses of tar. There is also some eyewitness evidence that he sometimes used gas for lighting in his house at Culross. He had no known connection with the gas industry itself, although he lived well into the era of gas lighting. He would also have had a good case for a challenge to the Chartered Company on priority of invention. Weston, Boulton and Watt's lawyer certainly thought the British Tar Company would issue such a challenge unless certain unspecified, clauses in the Chartered's Bill were dropped.

Dundonald had an unerring eye for not making his fortune. He was left with very little to show for his years of work. In the 1820s, when the gas industry was already very prosperous, he was reduced to writing to the Admiralty to ask for financial help and support. His long letters, heavily underlined in alternate red and green ink, stress his contribution to the navy and the nation.


In Northfleet, Kent, one of the roads running down downhill to the river is Burch Road. On either side the land falls sharply away to the old chalk workings with which the area is surrounded.

Despite the slightly different spelling a Mr. Birch was a key figure in tar sales before 1810. Burch Road once led to Crete Hall, built by Benjamin Burch. That Mr. Burch of Northfleet and Mr. Birch of Limehouse are one and the same can be confirmed by other comments about the marriage of his daughter to Jeremiah Rosher. Rosher was a limeburner after whom the surrounding area, Rosherville, is named.

In 1810 they are listed 'Birch, Rhode and Cleveley of Wallbrook and Limehouse'. Cleveley also had a Northfleet connection having built warships there until he 'found a better source of profit in limeburning'. At the Walbrook address they were also known as the 'British Colour Company' and ‑ of course ‑ the British Tar Company.

Birch ran a ship chandlers business who were licensed to sell, and probably make, tar on behalf of Dundonald's company. Birch's tar works had been opened in 1787 on the Limehouse Cut ‑ slightly south east of the point at which it crosses North Street on Bow Common. In the 1790s, Dundonald set up a chemical works there in association with a group of Newcastle financiers - close to, if not on the same site as, the Birch tar works. At that date it was an ideal place for such a works, on a newly built canal with excellent road links into the heart of the London shipbuilding area. In the location of their sites and in their families and partners, members of the Birch firm were well placed to take advantage of Thamesside shipbuilding and its associated industries.

Wigram, one of the biggest shipbuilders on the river in 1809, bought tar from Birch and there is no reason to believe they were the only ones to do so. Birch claimed that his works was the only tar works in England that also made oil, colour and varnishes.

His tar sold in 'large quantities'. Much of it would have gone to London shipbuilders. Tar was well known in London before the gas industry came

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Tar - what is it?

Up until the 1820s - and often afterwards - 'tar' meant a distillate of wood. Coal tar was 'mineral' tar. Words and what they mean can change a lot.

Tar distillers - working with both wood and coal tars - used a wide variety of words to describe the tar fractions, which they were dealing with. There is a great deal of confusion because the words they used have changed in meaning over the last two centuries. Before discussing the gas companies, the tar distillers and their work it might be useful to look at the language which they were using.

What was tar? While that may appear obvious to us, in the early nineteenth century it was less clear what the word meant. 'Tar' then was the name of a black sticky substance derived from wood and which was widely used, particularly in shipping. When coal gas was first made a solid substance was recovered when the new gas was washed. This was like 'tar' and seemed suitable for use in the same way and so it began to have the same name.

This ‘coal’ or ‘mineral’ tar became available at the end of the nineteenth century when ideas about such substances were changing. Increased research into the use of coal tar was undertaken because of its sudden availability, This led on to new ideas about what exactly ‘tar’ was. Two strands of research - for practical use and for ideas - ran in parallel and fed off each other.

When scientists identify new substances they coin names for them. One generation's batch of names is superseded by the next's. Such names often change their meanings in the process. A good example of this is 'creosote' - a word used in the 1990's for a coal-tar derivative commonly used as a preservative paint, which is available in every DIY store. The Berlin chemist, Reichenbach, coined the word 'Kreosote' in 1830, to describe a product of wood tar and it was not used to describe a coal tar distillate until after 1836.

Frederick Christian Accum, whose role as an advisor to the Chartered Company has been mentioned above, described tar manufacture in two books published before 1820. As the Chartered’s consultant on chemistry what he says can be taken as a good guide for the thinking of the company at that time. Tar, he said, was made as part of the process of gas manufacture, during which it was 'deposited in a vessel to receive it'

He went on to describe some of things which could he made from the deposited tar. It should be condensed to get 'essential oil or oil of tar'. Through evaporation 'coal oil' could be obtained - he described this as a 'yellowish inferior kind of naphtha'. Otherwise, he said, it could be boiled for 'pitch' which by the 'evaporation by heat gives asphaltum'.4 What did it all mean?

Georg Lunge writing on tars a century after Accum discussed this problem of the names by which substances were known. As an illustration he provided a definition of 'pitch'.

'This denoted many substances which have nothing to do with coal tar.. such as natural bitumen'.

He went on to describe 'asphalt' as

'the residue in the retort once the light oil is distilled off.. but to tar distillers it is 'ordinary pitch' mixed with other things.. and in the past it meant 'bitumen'.

All of these words for tar distillates have meanings that were changing throughout the period of the early gas industry. Obviously, this leads to some difficulty in understanding the activities of those who used them. It is not practical to give a complete analysis of every term. Here are some comments on two of them.

'Pitch' is perhaps the simplest. It was understood to mean the residue left after distillation of the first 'coal oil'. It is the substance, which the British Tar Company sold, and which, as we shall see, the Chartered Company tried to sell to the navy.

Many complications arise in the definition of 'naphtha', a word in common use in the nineteenth century. In a modern dictionary it is defined as a 'vague name for the inflammable liquid distillates from coal-tar'.Earlier use was more precise ‑ a nineteenth century chemical dictionary defines it as 'the volatiles observed in substances'.The 'naphtha' from tar is said to have been identified in 1779 by a Giovanni Fabricini although 'until 1823 it was called coal-oil, volatile-oil and spirits of tar'.

Gas works engineers used the word 'naphtha' for some coal oils in the 1820s, while labourers in the works referred to it as 'fat'. Meanwhile 'chemists like W.T.Brande' insisted that “'naphtha' only applied to the products of distillation of natural bitumen'. Thus 'naphtha' meant one thing to scientists and another to those working in the field. In the twentieth century the precise meaning, already obsolescent in 1820, has been lost.

One of the clearest definitions of what tar distillers sold is the earliest. In 1789 the British Tar Company produced a sales booklet which described the different tar fractions sold. It described: 'Tar No 1... Raw tar from the kiln. No.2. Freed by the kiln from added water.' This was followed by three more 'marks'. This easily understood definition of types of tar by a simple gradation is very rare - usually there is an ever-changing mass of names, most with several meanings.

Winsor and his original supporters advertised their intentions for by-products before the Chartered Gas Company began business. When they described tar it is far from clear whether they were advertising the use of raw or processed tar. They generally failed to mention the need for processing at all. They tried to explain what gas works tar was ‑or rather what it was like, or what they thought it was like. To do this they said that coal tar 'resembles common tar' and was 'applicable to the same uses as tar from Sweden - that is tar made from wood.

The British Tar Company sold 'if ordered' tar which was completely unprocessed. Tar of this sort was known to be a preservative if it was painted on wood ‑ Phillipe Lebon, the subsequently murdered French scientist and tar manufacturer, had recommended it as such in 1799.15

A Benjamin Cook, of Birmingham, wrote to the press in 1808 to describe his experiments on the use of coal tar. Cook appears to have been a toy maker or a brass founder with an interest in gas manufacture - in December of the same year he also published an account of his gas making apparatus. He thought raw coal tar would make 'an excellent coating for all out of door work such as gates, fencing and paling'. Other letters and articles on this theme followed. In 1809 an article in the Edinburgh Review pointed out that tar was 'useful as a coating to prevent damage by wind and rain to timber'.

Ten years later such use of raw tar for outdoor work was again put forward as a good idea when Mechanics Magazine published a number of letters extolling its use by farmers. In 1827 a Christopher Davy described the uses of coal tar ‑'a most valuable product'. It could be used to paint on gates and doors; and for farmers used on hurdles and as a roofing material. Another letter came from 'Amateur Mechanic' who had used tar to paint his roof tiles and as a result they no longer blew off or let in water.

Why were such letters written? They can only have been puffs ‑ were Christopher Davy and 'Amateur Mechanic' trying to sell something? As the century progressed such uses of coal tar must have become increasingly better known and their services were no longer needed. Their letters provide a pointer to the sort of ways in which coal tar, in the days of the early gas industry would have been used.

Before 1800 varnish was made from various mixes of oils, many secret, and used by the 'carriage trade'. Coal tar varnishes were rather rougher than that. In the early days of the gas industry a number of mixes for painting on wood were known as 'varnish' or 'tar varnish' or 'naphtha varnish'. In the early days of the gas industry the British Tar Company's grades of tar sold before 1800 had included a 'pitch varnish' and 'an oil used for varnish'. In the 1820s Frederick Albert Winsor, Jnr. described 'essential oils in different qualities, applicable, instead of turps, in painting from the finest to the coarsest' and ‘asphaltum for...... japanning and varnish of the highest gloss'.21 There were, no doubt, many recipes.

Initially coal tar varnish seems to have been considered as a substitute for other, more expensive, ingredients. In 1809, Benjamin Cook had said that it could substitute for 'the tar spirit brought from Russia and of vast importance to manufacturers'. He described the first distillation of the tar as 'a substitute for turpentine' because it 'takes as beautiful a polish'. In addition, he said, the pitch left after the second distillation ' forms an ingredient for black varnish'. Cook had produced a 'waiter.. japanned with varnish made from the residuum and the volatile oil’ and said that he hoped to put items like this into production.

The subject of varnish had been investigated before the early gas industry made tar for varnish more widely available. Dundonald used tar to make 'varnish' in 1789 and Sir John Black, who examined Dundonald's work, described how 'volatile oil was distilled from boiled tar for it.

In 1808 Cook gave details about how varnish was made. He produced three specimens of spirit, each the product of a re-distillation and explained how these distillates could be used instead of the more familiar oil of turpentine. It made a varnish, he said, in which 'there appears to be no manner of difference'.

One 'manner of difference' however, may have been the smell and the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry panel questioned Accum about this. Of course, he denied any bad smell, but the question is an indication of the image which coal tar varnishes always seem to have had as a cheap, and perhaps nasty, substitute for more expensive traditional oils like linseed and turpentine.

This was a bad start. Coal tar took a long time to lose an image of something rather nasty the use of which often needed to be concealed. The next chapters will look at how the Chartered Gas Company and its competitors went about marketing the tar, which, they had been assured, would bring them in a vast profit.

Mr. Dalton and Poplar Tar Works

The Chartered, the first gas company, had been set up with a remit to manufacture tar and sell it profitably. They had before them the example of Lord Dundonald and the British Tar Company. It was known that the navy wanted a means to protect ships from rot.

They were fortunate enough to find someone who knew about both shipbuilding and tar to do make and sell it for them. It may have seemed that tar was going to be as easy as coke to sell ‑ all that had to be done was to prove its' worth.

In August 1816 a Thomas Dalton wrote to the Chartered Co. 'about tar.' He was foreman caulker at Wells, Wigram and Green's shipbuilding business at Blackwall Yard ‑the 'oldest private business in Britain' - and a working shipyard until 1988. The yard had gone through a number of changes over the years. The site had been laid out in 1587 and it had later, in 1614, been Perry's Yard'. In 1784 it was described as 'the most capacious private dockyard in the Kingdom and probably the world'. Later George Green had bought the yard, and a statue of one of his descendants still stands in the East India Dock Road. Robert Wigram and William Wells became partners in the yard around 1810. Wigram and Wells went on to become investors in the early gas industry. Dalton had been at the yard for 31 years in 1816 and must have witnessed the building of a dry dock still preserved on site today.

Dalton wrote to the Chartered Company from Strongs Buildings, in the recently completed East India Dock Road. He lived in Naval Row, next to the East India Dock itself and on the road to Wigram's shipyard. The area was still semi-rural and he had a large garden plot attached to his house. Like other Poplar residents of the time he kept a pig (which the Poplar Health Committee in 1833 recorded to be a 'clean' pig).

Leaving his domestic arrangements aside, Dalton was an expert on the use of coal tar in shipbuilding. Wigram had bought coal tar from Birch. It had been used in the shipyard, intermittently, for many years. In his employment in the shipyard Dalton had worked with this and other tars. He was a caulker - a profession commemorated by the 'Jolly Caulkers' pub in Rotherhithe. Caulkers made sure that ships were watertight and Dalton described, to the 1809 Parliamentary Enquiry, how paper dipped into tar was used for the purpose.

The exact relationship between Dalton and the Chartered Company is not clear. He seems, initially, to have been employed to sell tar for them on some sort of agency basis. To start with he wrote, on their behalf, to the Navy Board - the civilian body in charge of naval purchasing. The Board agreed to let him undertake 'experiments' - in fact demonstrations - at Deptford Dockyard.

The two inner London Royal Dockyards at Deptford and Woolwich had, begun to concentrate on repair work during the preceding century. Deptford, because of its proximity to the Navy Board offices in Seething Lane was used for experimental or new work10 and it was there that officers would make an assessment and then decide whether to place an order for the Chartered's coal tar.

In 1809 lobbyists working on behalf of the Chartered had pointed out that 15,000 tons of tar were bought from abroad every year for naval use. There was considerable interest in ways of preventing rot of various kinds in shipbuilding. Within the Chartered Gas Company itself some subscribers had a specialist interest in the subject - the interest of the Duke of Athol has already been noted.

The discussion on rot proofing was not new and the navy must have known a great deal about coal tar and its potential. Dundonald had tried to sell his tar to the Navy thirty years earlier and claimed that tests on it had been undertaken at Sheerness Dockyard. He had tried to sell coal tar as a preservative against gribble ‑teredo worm - which was a great scourge to wooden shops in tropical seas. On the other hand Dalton also hoped to sell tar for use in caulking.

There were other contemporary developments in the applications for coal tar being made by Naval architects - although this information would not have been widely available outside naval circles and was probably unknown to either Dundonald or Dalton. From around 1810 designers of warships considered the use of a coating of coal tar on ships for sophisticated structural reasons - to turn them into a 'solid body'.

It is to be assumed, therefore, that the use of coal tar was not completely unknown to the Navy when Dalton drew attention to the use of tar for caulking. He pointed out to them possible savings of '8/6d. per barrel in dipping paper beside oil and fuel'. He followed by suggesting that they might like to take 100 tons 'for use on ships' bottoms'. He later suggested tar for rope making and offered to demonstrate by making up some rope using Chartered's tar.

Dalton's persistence gained some success. In September 1817 the Navy Board officers discussed with him the purchase of coal tar 'in barrels similar to those in which [wood] tar is imported from Russia and Sweden'. It was, however, nearly a year before they placed an actual order for '10,000 tons of coal tar at Woolwich'.

Tar had, at last, begun to sell to the market for which the Chartered Company and their backers intended it.

It was at this time, in 1817, that the Chartered took the decision to open its own tar works. Dalton was to be in charge and he set about preparing estimates setting up the new works. Premises at Poplar 'for one year certain at a rent of £×61' were obtained from Wigram who also agreed to build a wall dividing the site up.

The place chosen was in Orchard Place, on one of the convolutions of the River Lea as it nears the Thames. It was on the southeast side of the northern spur of Orchard Place, and had a frontage on the Lea ‑ in the 1990s it is part of the Pura Food complex.

Thomas Dalton bought a 'crane and pans' and other equipment and a special committee was appointed to oversee the works. They duly visited Poplar and reported to the main Court of Governors on the buildings and the products, which Dalton was considering for manufacture. So that future meetings could be held in the sort of accommodation to which they were accustomed 'a committee table, a Pembroke table, and 8 mahogany chairs' were bought.

The works expanded and over the next ten years more equipment was bought - in 1820 a grinder for colouring material and, four years later, a deal plank to make a tub for washing spirits.

Dalton worked hard to promote his products. He prepared information about the use of tar on ships, producing samples 'of felt dipped in first mineral tar and the other with Stockholm or Archangel tar' with which to show the difference. He wrote to the Board of Ordnance asking them 'to try the black varnish on gun carriages'. He contacted the King's Buoy Warden of Trinity House, whose wharf was next to Wigram and Wells’s shipyard, asking them to try his tar on a buoy. The Chartered Court of Governors minuted its obligation to him for his 'perseverance'.

Tar sales and shipping

It must have seemed that there was an endless market for the new tar in the shipping industry on the banks of the Thames. The West India Dock was newly built and more docks were under construction and planned in Wapping and Shadwell. It was a time of experiment with new methods and new materials for ship building'. The powerful East India Company had a depot immediately adjacent to both Blackwall Yard and the new tar works. They had a potential worth as a customer second only to the Admiralty. In addition 'on both banks of the Thames, eastward to Blackwall and Woolwich there were thriving shipyards and dry‑docks'. All were potential customers.

What neither they, nor Dalton, could have foreseen was that Thames shipbuilding had reached a peak. Many yards were building their last warships and would soon close. When they reopened it was to build ships of iron

Not all the Chartered's tar sales were local. For instance, Messrs. Bayley, pitch tar and rosin merchants of Ford Street, Stonehouse, Devon, bought ‘70 barrels of prepared coal tar to be shipped via the 'London Captain Paul'. An agent was appointed at Ipswich for sale of tar and varnishes at 5% commission. Further afield Von Dadeltzen and Co., on behalf of Peltzer of Hamburg34 bought tar, as did a 'Mr. Tucker of Boston', Massachusetts, and the Company set up special arrangements for shipment to America. Tar went to New York in the ship, 'Marcus Drew'.

Sales were not always successful; 10 barrels of black varnish were returned from Havre de Grace 'for want of a market' and, in any case, as the gas industry grew the Chartered inevitably faced local competition outside London.

The relationship with the Navy Board continued. By 1819 naval shipbuilders were using coal tar as 'the best prevention against dry rot ... and every ship is now completely saturated with it by means of a forcing pump'.

By 1824 thirteen battleships had been injected but then the scheme was changed and linseed oil was used instead. The reason given by the Navy was the unacceptable smell of coal tar. The Navy had commissioned considerable research from Humphrey Davy on protecting ships' bottoms against gribble and other rot. He had hardly considered coal tar, and other strategies were now being adopted. Coal tar, despite Dundonald's years of lobbying, was no longer thought suitable.

In 1827 an offer by the gas company to sell 60,000 gallons of 'mineral tar' to the Navy Board was not accepted. By then the Chartered was not the only gas company in business. This meant that the Navy Board could now advertise for tenders for tar - the Chartered must face competition for its tar sales.

After repeated failures in getting orders for tar from the Navy, the Company Secretary took over the job from Dalton of replying to tenders. He succeeded in getting an order from the Navy Board Commissioners for 'mineral tar fit for making cordage. Rope making was a field which makers of gas tar could well expect to enter by providing a cheap substitute for Stockholm tar.

Within three months of their first sale for rope making it appears that the rope makers of Woolwich Dockyard did not like the smell of coal tar. G.Smith of the Navy Office wrote to say that 'the use of mineral tar in the manufacture of cordage is having a pernicious effect on the workmen'. He 'desired the Superintendent at Poplar to remove what is left at the ropeyard at Woolwich'. Peckston, writing in 1823, confirms that gas tar was disliked for rope making 'because of the rawness and destructive nature of the ammoniacal liquor'. The Gas Company quickly sent the Board '37,000 galls of tar that we feel confident will not be injurious to the health of the their workmen'.48 However the contract was cancelled and the Navy Board agreed to take the rest of the order under threat of legal action.

Once again tar had lost a market because of smell.

Although there are many references to tar sales in the Chartered's Minute Books, the Court decided that the tar works was not successful and that it should be disposed of. In 1823 the coal merchant, Davey (of Davey Sawyer, Bankside), had made 'a proposal about Poplar which we cannot entertain'50 but the works remained in business for several more years. In 1827 more discussions were held on disposal of the works, this time to a Mr. Bromley. In 1828 bad debts of £41 13s. 8d from tar customers were written off.

Five years later the Company commissioned a report on the tar works from a Mr. Hopwood, described as 'the chemist'. His remit was to report 'concerning the results of his experiments on oil of tar..... and his opinions of the Poplar Station'. It was decided that there was 'not much advantage in his proposals' ‑whatever they were. The Court of Governors thought that 'despite the volume of business the works failed to pay its way'.

By 1833 Dalton, who had put so much energy into the works, must have been in his sixties. It may be that he no longer felt able to continue. Closure marked the end of the hopes of the flourishing tar derivatives business so confidently envisaged in 1809. As we will see, however, this was not the end of the story ‑the marketing role, which the gas companies had not been able to fulfil, was to be taken up by others.

Thomas Kempson

One, seemingly straightforward, early customer for raw tar was a Mr. Kempson. He appears in contemporary street directories as an iron merchant with a Bankside address. He was actually based in Hatfield Street1 ‑which today runs parallel to Blackfriars Road in SE1

Now, as then, Hatfield Street ends in Upper Ground, near Old Bargehouse. In 1812 this was the yard of Davey Sawyer, a coal merchant much involved with early gas industry. It was also the site of Hawes Soap Works ‑ soon to be the site of an oil gas works. The owner, Benjamin Hawes Snr., would eventually become Governor of the Chartered. A short distance up river Munro and Evans had opened a small gas works which would grow to become the Bankside Works of the South London Gas Company. They were to build another works ‑ known as the Wellington Street Works ‑ in Pocock Street, beyond the southern end of Hatfield Street.6 It might be possible to speculate on the social interactions of these industrialists.

From before 1814 Kempson had also had a tar works in Limehouse, in partnership with a Mr. Parke. Is this the same Mr. Parke who later made vitriol on Bow Common? In Limehouse were many shipbuilding yards and it was perhaps thought that this was a better place to process tar than Bankside which might have been seen as too far upriver for any serious shipbuilding. A large 'tar yard' is shown on the 1813 Horwood Plan just north of Narrow Street and there were many smaller ones.

They would, before 1811, have made 'Stockholm tar' from wood and Kempson, perhaps, thought coal tar would sell to the many potential customers in this area. Kempson was an early customer of both Chartered and City Gas companies for coal tar. He probably had long term plans to distil tar - clear from the seven-year contract he made with the Chartered.

Unfortunately Kempson's aspirations were not matched by reality. In 1820, after only a few years of his first purchase, he offered his Limehouse tar works for sale to the Chartered.10 He was, at the same time, being pursued for debt by the City Gas Company - another way in which he was a forerunner of many others to come. The Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the City Gas Company visited him in the East India Dock Road where he was said to be living. They did this to 'ascertain his sentiments10 ‑whether this means that they wanted his advice on tar use or (more likely) wanted the missing cash, is not clear. The City Company's solicitor advised them that their contract with him was not viable and no more was heard.

Although the implication in this story is that Mr. Kempson failed in his tar making enterprise and disappeared when debts were called in ‑that is not necessarily what happened. Although he is no longer noted in the gas company records it is possible that he carried on buying tar from them, or from a different gas company ‑and that no records have survived.

On the other hand, to speculate wildly, perhaps he was the Mr. Kempson, who was a partner in a contemporary wholesale druggists, Kempson, Yates, Evans and Parkinson. They failed in 1823 and were reconstituted without Kempson.

Kempson is a good example of an industrialist who bought tar from the early London gas companies ‑he was in the coal/ iron trade on the Southwark riverside and moved eastwards to diversify. He also got into debt. This is a pattern which, with variations, was to be repeated. His failures matched those of the Chartered Company itself.

Mr Flockton

In the case of Mr. Kempson, and many others, it is only possible to guess what their trade was and why they wanted to buy tar. There are, however, a number of recorded purchasers about whose intentions guesses are slightly better informed. One such was active later, in the 1830s ‑ Mr. Flockton of Bermondsey.

By the 1830, tar had found some markets and Flockton was one of those who seemed to know what they were and the best way of getting himself, and his tar distillates, into them.

Webster Flockton first bought tar from the Chartered in 1828. In 1836 he registered a patent for timber preservation ‑only a few months after the opening of the first railway station in London, Spa Road, on the London and Greenwich Railway. It may, or may not, be a coincidence that the station was next to Mr. Flockton's tar works.

It may seem natural that railways should need tar ‑ for the preservation of timber sleepers - indeed, this is a subject to be discussed later. London and Greenwich used stone blocks for sleepers at first - an unused pile of which could still be seen at New Cross Station into the 1990s. The company changed to wooden sleepers, two years after opening in 1838.

The London and Greenwich Railway had from the start, its own gas works, producing gas for station and line‑side lighting. Mr. Flockton appears to have had an interest in this enterprise, which soon after opening was taken over by the specially constituted Deptford, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe Gas Company - of which Mr. Flockton was a director.

In 1840 a meeting of the railway company shareholders questioned their Directors' interests in a number of companies supplying plant and materials to the various railway companies in the area, including London and Greenwich - perhaps Mr. Flockton was one of those they had in mind.

Mr. Flockton seems to have prospered. By 1839 there were branches of his tar and oil business in Bermondsey and Weybridge - both sites near the entrance into the Thames from canals, the Grand Surrey and the Wey Navigation. The business was described as 'turpentine & tar distillers, and seed crushers' ‑a common enough combination of activities for what was basically an oil distillery. Many such businesses ‑like the long established Charles Price oil distillery on Millwall -were to produce timber preservatives of various kinds. By the 1860s, in partnership with others, Flockton had moved to Plough Lane, Rotherhithe - nearer to the Surrey Canal and an area where several other tar distillers were sited.

He is an example of a tar buyer who seems to have had a clear purpose - and perhaps the benefit of the experience of those who had failed, like Mr. Kempson. Flockton appears to have flourished.

Early buyers of tar from the first London gas works

Those who bought tar from the gas companies are mentioned intermittently in the minute books. They provide a record of the ideas and the efforts made to distil tar and to sell it. There were those who were prepared to buy it and sometimes income from by-products is recorded in the gas company minute books. During one week of 1817, for example, Chartered took £2 14s 3d. in tar sales.

By far the largest number of transactions involving tar appear in the Chartered Company minute books - although this may reflect their early start. The City Gas Co. also recorded several before 1820 while Imperial never minuted very much. All the smaller companies, except the Independent, noted some enquiries and sales.

Far fewer names in total are noted as purchasers of tar than those recorded for ammoniacal liquor - and this may well reflect difficulties and the unpopularity of coal tar in this period.

Before 1820, as is clear from the, sometimes increasingly desperate, minutes, that the Chartered had a surplus of tar and no very clear idea of where to dispose of it. Sometimes enquiries came from outsiders who had ideas and suggestions for using the tar, and the gas company was usually happy to offer surplus tar to them.

In 1823 Chartered advertised coal tar for sale.21 After that they, and other gas companies, negotiated contracts, which usually ran over a three-year period and sometimes included transport arrangements. By the late 1830s these contracts were with large specialist tar distillers although most of the gas companies also record a trickle of additional enquiries about tar. The system of awarding three-year contracts means that information in the minute books is very limited after 1840. Such contracts were never, in any case, given the same attention as other activities ‑ like buying coal and making gas.

Several potential customers only appear once in the gas company records in respect of tar. These were sometimes established customers who dealt regularly with the gas companies for other items. The Chartered Company sold tar to the Deptford bone merchant, Richard Torr, in 1833 although he usually bought ammoniacal liquor. Wilkinson normally bought ammoniacal liquor but bought tar in 1837. Marmeduke George Featherstonehaugh bought tar from the City Gas Company in 1819 - he usually bought scrap retorts and sold coal. Mr. Davey of Davey and Sawyer, Old Barge House usually sold coal to the gas companies but bought tar from Chartered in 1823. There is little or no indication why these customers wanted to buy tar on any of these occasions.

Sometimes new customers came to the companies for tar and were turned down. 'Mr. Hardlen of London, Paris and Hamburg Asphalt Company' and Mr. Micklen of Finch Street were both refused tar by Phoenix Gas Co. because Phoenix offered 'only one contract'. In 1831 Mr. Parker was refused tar by Chartered because the 'Company uses all the tar' and by Phoenix because they 'could not consent to part with it for less than 3d. a gallon' ‑ all of which suggests a seller's market. It also made difficulties for Mr. Parker who needed raw materials for his paint and varnish business in Deptford. It might also suggest some rigidity on the part of the gas companies who perhaps couldn't be bothered with added complications.

How much did the gas companies charge for their tar? This is not an easy question to answer because the prices minuted are those agreed at the end of a process of negotiation and are those which the Board have been asked to ratify at their meeting. Prices quoted have little consistency. The following list, taken from a selection of minutes, may serve to confuse things further, but demonstrate the paucity and inconsistency of the available evidence.

1815 ‑ 10‑×12 per ton
1816 ‑ 34/‑d. a barrel
1818 ‑ 2/2d per gallon beer measure
1818 ‑ 3d. per gallon beer measure
1818 ‑ £5 per ton
1826 ‑ 12/6d. a barrel
1831 ‑ 2d. a gallon
1831 ‑ 3d. per gallon
1833 ‑ 1d. a gallon
1845 ‑ 10d. delivered
1846 ‑ 11/6d. a butt of 108 gallons
1848 ‑ 10d. a gallon

Who bought tar from early gas works in east London and where were they from

Some purchasers of east London gas company tar came from a considerable distance. Two - Featherstonehaugh and Stephenson & Ritson - are described as coming from Sunderland. Featherstonehaugh seems to have been a coal merchant. However there is a record of a lime burner in the Swanscombe area of Thamesside with that name. Stephenson and Ritson have not been identified.

Links between North East England and London were well established through the coastal coal trade but some London gas company customers came from districts with less obvious connections. Mr. Bayley, who bought tar from Chartered in 1818, came from the Stonehouse area of Plymouth where he made tar, pitch and rosin. Mr. Wills came from rather nearer to London ‑ Tandridge, slightly to the east of Godstone and in the centre of an area of chalk and stone mines along the Kent/Surrey hills.

Most of the earliest tar buyers came from the immediate locality of the gas works. The first two customers recorded by Chartered, Pritchard and Crease,33 had premises in the Clerkenwell area. Pritchard had an oil warehouse in Smithfield but soon moved to Battlebridge where he made asphaltum. Crease was based in West Smithfield and then moved a short distance to Cowcross Street. All of these addresses, are a short walk from Goswell Road and the Chartered's 'Great Gas Manufactory' in Brick Lane.

Before 1830 most tar buyers came from the industrial suburbs on the City fringes ‑the south London riverbank or to the north in Clerkenwell or Shoreditch. Mr. Davey was, as we have seen, at Old Barge House by Bankside and Mr. Kempson was nearby. Mr. Clarke was in Lower Chadwell Street on the Finsbury/Islington borders and Wilkinson was 'of Battlebridge', slightly further north. None of these addresses are very far from early gas works in Clerkenwell, Shoreditch, Blackfriars and Bankside.

Initially, tar buyers almost always came from these areas although as time went on they became concentrated to the east of the City.

By the late 1830s most sales were to buyers from further east. Several came, for instance, from the ship building area of Rotherhithe. Henry Hughes bought tar from Chartered in 1851. He had a tar distillery in Plough Lane, Rotherhithe ‑ like Mr. Flockton. A Hughes Terrace remained in the area into the 1940s. Henry Burt also opened a tar works in Rotherhithe Wharf - and thus began the company, which became Burt Boulton and Hayward.

Another concentration of tar distillers appears on Bow Common ‑ Bush who bought tar in the 1830s and later, Bethel and Battley. The only divergence from this eastward trend is a small cluster of tar works to the southwest in Nine Elms and Battersea.

There is nothing very unusual or surprising in this. Firms in many trades that had once clustered around the City boundaries began to move out in this period. There was a general and gradual drift east ‑ both northeast and southeast and down river. The same pattern will be observed with those who bought ammonia products from the gas companies and, no doubt, exist in other industries. As companies expanded they needed more space, and that meant that they usually needed to be near water for transport purposes.

There was also pressure on these smelly industries to move away from the inner city. Hunt's Bone Boilers were to claim that they were pressurised by by-laws in Lambeth to move across the Lea to Stratford. Several paint and varnish makers were to claim in company histories that they felt pressure from 'regulations' to move, although it is often difficult to pin down exactly what they mean. It is usually clear that they wanted a larger site ‑and one well away from complainants. A good example ‑ but a much later one ‑ is William Davy who had a tar works at Hackney Wick. His move from there to Rainham was partly forced by petitions against smell from residents in newly built Cadogan Terrace alongside Victoria Park. At the same time extra space and a riverside location suited Davy very well.

Tar distillers and those who used gas industry tar did not only move east. Many went north of the City to Battlebridge and Belle Isle and out to Haggerston and Old Ford. By the 1880s they had moved again ‑ to, for example, East Greenwich and Hackney Wick or, later, further down river to Rainham or Erith. Others went south to Merton and sites along the Wandle.

Those who bought raw coal tar directly from the gas company intended to distil it for resale. Initially they are described in directories as 'oil merchants' or, sometimes, 'varnish makers' or 'seed crushers'. By the 1830s they are nearly all described as 'tar distillers', with the odd exception of those like 'Mr. Lance for wharfaging at Greenwich'.

While many of the early purchasers are obscure, later contracts were made with those who became famous for their tar products - in particular Burt Boulton and Hayward. Many, like them, used the tar, which they bought to manufacture a range of products. It ought to be possible to find out what those products were, and, by discovering other manufacturers, to find out more about the effects of coal tar and its use in the wider London economy. Tar had moved slowly to start with but the fact that there were those willing to buy shows that it had found a market.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Mr. Cassell and gas works tar

In the minute books of the London gas industry between 1820 and 1850 the name that stands out as the pre-eminent tar purchaser is Cassell. The volume of his purchases makes him a far from typical customer. Cassell's activities over thirty years provide a picture of how a tar distiller was able to use what he bought from the local gas industry.

Cassell's business was to buy gas works tar, to distil it and sell the product ‑an activity in which the gas companies themselves had failed. Despite some apparent problems Cassell, and at least one son, managed to survive in the business for many years.

There was, as we will see, more than one Mr. Cassell. They were based in Millwall where their name appears for several sites in the All Saints, Poplar, rate books from the 1830s.

In 1815, John Henry Cassell, probably the company originator, had a business in Poplar High Street where he made rainwater pipes and gutters. He then seems to have set up tar distillery in Millwall and is first noted in the gas company minute books when he bought tar from Imperial Gas Company in 1823. On that occasion he agreed to take all Imperials’s surplus tar, supplying the casks in which it would be transferred onto barges. This implies that he had access to a wharf somewhere on the river - something not available at Poplar High Street - as well as enough capital to fund purchase of the tar. At around the same time he was concluding a very similar deal with the South London Gas Company and another with the Chartered. He also appeared to have a partner, a Mr. Morgan.

Cassell seems to have pioneered the use of gas works coal tar as an ingredient of building materials ‑something that might give a clue to the identity of Mr. Morgan. In the 1820s a F.D. Morgan was in partnership with James Grellier on what was to become the site of the Millwall Atlas Chemical Works. On this site, very near to where Cassell was to set up his 'Lava Stone' works, Grellier and Morgan made Roman cement.This identification of Morgan is, however, very speculative.

The City of London Gas Company's tar works

At some time in the 1820s Cassell began to operate the City of London Gas Company's failing tar works. This had been set up on Millwall in the early 1820s. The gas company had bought the site from William Pitcher one of their original subscribers who had a building business near the City's Blackfriars Gas Works. He was probably the Northfleet and Millwall shipbuilder, who lived on the road which ran from Blackwall to the Greenwich Ferry' and had considerable land holdings in the area.

The tar works set up by Chartered Gas Company was at Poplar. A number of London gas companies set up specialist works in this period. None lasted very long and they seem to have been passed to specialist contractors. In the case of the City of London Gas Company's tar works the decision to do this was made following a fire and losses through fraud.

Cassell signed a formal agreement for a lease on the works in 1830 working in partnership with a Mr. George Ward. Ward is a common name in wharfaging and chemical manufacture in this period - a younger George Ward was later to be involved in an East Greenwich tar works together with members of the vinegar making Champion family.

The site of the City of London Gas Company's tar works has not been easy to identify but for reasons to be made clear later, it was probably the site which the Survey of London identifies as 'Lowe's Wharf'. In 1828 Cassell expanded and took over the site of an old mast house further north on Millwall, and eleven years later extended this site again. This later became known as Patentia Wharf.

Cassell sometimes seemed to be in financial trouble. 'Cassell being taken to court for not paying tar bills' and ‘Secretary went to Millwall for the purpose of getting a payment from Messrs. Cassell' are two notes among several in this period. Despite this, however, his name appears most frequently in gas company records as a tar purchaser and presumably all this tar was eventually paid for.

In 1843 the City of London Gas Company noticed that the Millwall premises, which Cassell still rented from them, were very dilapidated and there was no business going on there. Letters of administration were taken out against John Henry Cassell. The City of London Gas Co. then began to prepare to lease the site to 'Mr. Blatchford'. 'Blatchford' is perhaps Mr. Blashfield who around this time actually leased the site on which F.D.Morgan had been operating his building materials business. Two younger Mr. Cassells then approached the City of London Gas Company. One of them, Edwin Edward Cassell, said that the partnership with his father was been dissolved. City then leased the Millwall site to him and he stayed there until the 1880s. It is this lease, noted by the Survey of London, which identifies the site as the old City of London Gas Company tar works.

The Cassells - tar distillers

What did the Cassells do with all the gas works tar which they bought? They were general tar distillers, selling tar products and fractions to whoever wanted them. A good example of their reputation was given in a patent case where the type of 'coal oil' was crucial. The chemist, Richard Phillips, acted as a consultant in this case and was asked by the judge where he had obtained his samples of tar used for the demonstration in court. He replied 'from Cassell at Millwall'. Similarly Thomas Hancock, who was to develop the emulsification of rubber using tar oils, went to Cassell to buy the selection of fractions needed for experiment. These cases suggest that Cassell were well known as tar distillers and had a reputation for quality.

What they produced and sold to customers was a variety of specialist distillates, which were called by the names used by the British Tar Company, Accum and the early Chartered promoters. Elsewhere chemists were working on a more sophisticated codification and analysis of coal based oil fractions. Sadly, there is simply not enough information about Cassell and tar distillers like him to know how far they were involved with such chemists and how much they contributed to their work.


A possible connection of Cassell with F.D. Morgan and Roman cement has been mentioned above. John Henry Cassell 's site at northern Millwall was called the 'Patent Lava Stone Works'. He seems to have developed a type of bituminous material there. He carried out a number of contracts using this material, including the paving of Vauxhall Bridge Road, in front of the Horns Tavern in Kennington and the flooring of Giblett's slaughterhouses in Bayswater. As a demonstration piece he paved the part of West Ferry Road behind his works. The material, which had all sorts of uses, seems in some ways to have provided an extension for his drainpipe business. He even used one of his mixtures for coffins in the crypt of the Brunswick Chapel, in Three Colt Lane. In 1837 he used it to cap the river wall in Greenwich for the Greenwich Commission of Sewers.

'Lava stone' is not obviously made with coal tar and Cassell 's publicity for it implies that it was made from natural bitumen. However, in view of the amount of coal tar he was buying its true ingredients must be open to question. Cassell was one of several manufacturers of artificial stone at the time that had strong links with gas works tar and the subject will be discussed again later.

even more about the Cassells and coal tar


Another use of coal tar is in 'asphalt' for roads and pavements. This subject will be discussed later but it should be noted that John Henry Cassell patented a 'Cement or combination of materials, applicable to the purposes for which cement, stone, brick of other similar substances may be used'. This proposed the use of coal tar distillates for road surfaces and pavement – to quote the text of the patent itself.

Twenty years later, in 1853, he wrote a 'Treatise on Roads and Streets, where the advantages of a Patent Invention the Paving of Streets and the Making of Roads are fully explained'. This was primarily a sales document and in it John Henry describes his work and the uses for 'lava stone'. Sadly the price list is missing from the British Library copy.


Cassell also made lamps and provided the means of lighting them. He almost certainly had contracts for lighting because on one occasion he gave the fact that 'rental for lamps' had not been paid as the reason for his own non-payment of City Gas Company bills. The lighting may well have been oil based street lighting ‑ for which several systems were developed in this period.

It is also possible that Cassell had some sort of gas lighting plant himself. The evidence for this is confused and rests on an entry in the 1846 Poplar Rate book which records a gas factory on or near part of the site owned by Edwin Edward Cassell on Millwall. This 'factory' is identified by Survey of London, with some justification, as the Millwall Works of the Poplar Gas Company. However, the Poplar Company is not known to have had links with Cassell, and the rate books imply the site was his. E.V.Stewart30 located the Millwall Gas Works site much further south at Cahir Street. A large gasholder, shown on some maps but which probably belonged to a shipyard, may have confused Stewart. Whatever the truth about the Millwall Gas Works, if it can be gleaned from these tangled probabilities, it remains possible that Cassell had a small gas making plant that could have been used to make gas for lighting.


John Henry Cassell may have remained at his lava stone works into the 1860s and Edwin Edward Cassell operated his tar distillery until the 1880s. In addition a Mr. Bruce Cassell had an ammonia salt making plant on Millwall and a Frederick Cassell opened a naphtha and paraffin works in the 1870s at Plough Road in Rotherhithe. All of this seems to add up to a busy, inventive and successful family. They appear to have been local to east London - John Henry lived in the Commercial Road.

There is one strange coincidence. John Cassell, the publisher, of Belle Sauvage Yard off Ludgate Hill, held 1860s' patents on obtaining fuel from coal, peat, etc. and the carburation of gas. In 1862 he set up Cassell, Smith & Company, oil merchants and lamp manufacturers, who were involved with early petroleum. His Hydro-Carbon Oil Co. was based at Southall and Bow and he had a miniature oil refinery in his home. It seems remarkable that two people with the same name should have been in the same business - but Cassell, the publisher, is well documented. His biographer noted no Millwall relations.