Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The two gas-holders at the eastern end of Old Kent Road are reminders of a time when Britain acquired its gas by manufacturing it from coal and, in particular, of the South Metropolitan Gas Company that came to dominate the production of gas in South London. The industry provided employment for many thousands, both those directly employed by the gas companies and those employed by associated industries. The Company was founded in 1829 and in 1833 acquired 3 acres of land from the Surrey Canal Company, next to the bridge that crossed over the canal on the Old Kent Road. Until the formation of the South Metropolitan, the Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company, founded in 1824, was the only supplier of gas south of the river with works on Bankside.
South Metropolitan began to lay pipes, built two gas holders and was ready to supply gas in 1834. The company prided themselves on supplying “pure” gas. They built a purification house and used cannel coal to manufacture gas which produced a flame of high luminosity. This strategy however had its problems. The Phoenix Gas Company produced gas from regular coal and was able to provide the commodity at two shillings per 1,000 cubic foot cheaper. By 1838, they South Metropolitan realised this was a financial mistake and switched to manufacture from common coal.
The strategy of producing “pure” gas had led to the construction of the purification house without any ventilation. This led to a huge explosion in 1836 though industry experts were surprised it had not occurred earlier. Just before 6 pm on 9 October 1836, it was reported “an immense sheet of flame shot across the sky which was instantly followed by an explosion as loud as a simultaneous discharge of a park of artillery, and a vibration of the earth similar to that produced by the shock of an earthquake.” There had been a build-up of gas from a leak within the purification house which, due to lack of ventilation, was highly combustible. This had been ignited by an inexperienced visitor carrying a naked flame into the building. Fortunately there was no loss of life but two men suffered serious burns.
The South Metropolitan and the Phoenix were now locked in rancorous competition and led to the situation where both companies were digging up the same road to lay gas mains and both trying to sell their product to the same householder. An agreement between the two companies in 1853 led to only one company laying a mains in each road. The Metropolitan Gas Act of 1860 gave a monopoly to the companies in different areas and introduced an industry standard.
The South Metropolitan expanded and by the 1870s its 3 acre site had increased to 36 acres which now held seven gas holders. Christchurch, which had been erected adjacent to the gas works in 1838, was demolished to make way for the company. A new church was built and consecrated in 1868 on the other side of Old Kent Road, on land provided by the company who also contributed £5000 towards the costs.
Right: Clarence Wharf Pier, Rotherhithe
Far Right: Gas Holder overlooking Surrey Water, Rotherhithe
The South Metropolitan Gas Company amalgamated with its former rival the Phoenix Gas Company in 1881, having already amalgamated with the Surrey Consumers Gas Co in 1879. This latter company was based in Rotherhithe and founded in 1851. One of their four gas holders still remains, as does Clarence Wharf Pier where coal was unloaded and then taken by barge to the Old Kent Road works. In addition to those two sites, after the amalagamation with Phoenix, the South Metropolitan Gas Company now also had sites on Bankside and Vauxhall. Still though more land was needed and 96 acres were acquired in East Greenwich and a further gasworks built.
The success of the company was largely due to Thomas Livsesey and his son George. Thomas joined the company in 1841 as General Manager and later became Secretary. He brought stability, growth and respectability to the running of the company and was responsible for the improved working relationship with Phoenix. When he died 30 years later, his son George took over and has been described as a worthy successor to his father. Both men were philanthropists and gave money to local charitable causes, the most visible that still remains is the former Livesey Free Library, later the Livesey Museum. George introduced profit sharing for the workers and when he died in 1908, 7,000 gas workers followed his coffin as it journeyed from the Old Kent Road gas works, down Asylum Road then on to Nunhead Cemetery.
George Livesey's grave in Nunhead Cemetery.
The South Metropolitan Gas Company became a part of the South Eastern Gas Board upon nationalisation in 1947. The gas works in Old Kent Road were closed in 1953 when the site in East Greenwich was enlarged. The Grand Surrey Canal was filled in during the 1970s and five of the gas holders dismantled. Southwark’s Reuse and Recycling Centre has been built on a part of the site but the site overall looks bleak. As a part of the Old Kent Road Opportunity Area where regeneration is planned by the Council and the Greater London Assembly, hopefully the land will soon be put to use for house-building.
Right: Women working at the South Metropolitan Gas Works during World War One. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 30859)
For a more in depth article regarding the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the Liveseys, go to www.marysgasbook.blogspot.co.uk