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Book reviews — February 2011

'Stepney Gasworks: the archaeology and history of the Commercial Gas Light and Coke Company's works at Harford Street, London E1, 1837-1946', by Antony Francis
Museum of London Archaeology Series No. 22. ISBN 978-1-901992094-6. Price £10
Overshadowed by larger concerns the Commercial is one of London's lesser known gas companies. Formed in 1837 out of discontent with existing gas supplies in the East End of London establishing a works alongside the Regents Canal in Stepney is the main subject of this publication. Gradually the Commercial become the dominant concern in the area overcoming local competition amalgamating with the last rival, the Ratcliff, in 1875. Finally the Commercial had a supply area of seven square miles. Bordered by the Thames the concern became an enclave eventually surrounded the by Gas Light and Coke Company.

Despite this the company remained independent until reaching a 'working agreement' with the South Metropolitan in 1931. A turning point in the history of the company was the appointment of Robert Jones as engineer in 1854, the first of four generations of a family of notable engineers which served the company and the gas industry in general. Under Jones' direction the works at Stepney was steadily modernised becoming a credit to the company. It is pleasing, therefore, that this recent MOLA archaeology study will bring, as intended by the author, the history of the Commercial and associated works at Stepney to a wider audience. The introduction is followed by a chapter devoted to the Victorian gas works describing town gas production by coal carbonisation, a process that is now steadily fading from memory. Taking the reader through the process from charging retorts, carbonising coal, and condensation to purification unfortunately errors have crept into the text. Guidance from someone with a wider knowledge of the industry would have been of benefit. For example the temperature quoted at the inlet of the hydraulic main of 80°C is more like an outlet temperature.

The next chapter relates the complex early history of the company through rivalry, industrial strife and the decision not to amalgamate with the Gas Light in the 1870s which was not then in such good financial shape as the Commercial. Amalgamation with Ratcliff was stoutly resisted, success was achieved by accepting the sliding scale governing dividends to shareholders the first concern to do so. It was not until the 1920 Gas Act that gas was sold on the basis of its heat content. The rise of the electricity industry presented major problems causing the gas industry as a whole to diversify into utilising its heat content rather than just illumination. A later problem was the exclusion of gas from Local Authority housing developments in its area. Although not mentioned to address the problem a director of the company A M Paddon, gas engineer and parliamentary barrister, together with Sir David Milne Watson, governor of the Gas Light and Coke, successfully gained parliamentary legislation to allow customers the right of choice in the use of gas or electricity. The devastation of war not only caused major damage but also resulted in a major loss in the company's already falling customer base (from gas directories about 30%). No wonder, as the author quotes, Poplar works was able to supply the company's needs and additionally supply 14 million cubic feet of gas to the Gas Light during 1946 (Min of Fuel and Power 1947).

The final main chapter presents a detailed description and development of Stepney works from inception to closure, using material ranging from the company minutes to detailed surveys of the remaining gas holders before demolition. Rarely has a gasworks been described in such detail. Of particular interest is mention of the suppliers of plant to the company, while some are well known, Samuel Cutler and Sons for example, others are not.

The last chapter describes the impact the Commercial Company had upon private and public domains. What could have been further emphasised was the impact the Jones family had upon the industry. Robert was a consultant to a number of companies and as arbitrator would place a Commercial trained engineer to restore an ailing concern. His son, Henry Edward, or Harry as he preferred to be known ran an extensive engineering practice and provided a locum service of Commercial trained personnel to companies with which he was associated. An example of this is found in an early issue if the Co-Partnership Herald. In turn Harry's son F H Jones became director or chairman of a number of gas companies and following the death of Dr Charles Carpenter in 1938 became chairman of the Commercial. His son Sir Henry F H Jones as chairman of the Gas Council in 1966 made the decision to convert gas supplies to natural gas. Finally mention must be made of Alwyn Meade, engineer at Wapping works whose 'Modern Gasworks Practice' became a standard text reaching by the second edition a weighty 800 pages.

Stepney Gas Works: the archaeology and history of the Commercial Gas Light and Coke Company is an attractive publication, reasonably priced and profusely illustrated with maps, diagrams and photographs in addition to a number of drawings and photographs from the Co-Partnership Herald. The author has brought together a considerable amount of detail plus pointers for further research. While errors have crept into the text this important publication should be high on anyone's list of essential reading. Brian Sturt

'Dockland Apprentice' and 'Below the Waterline', by David Carpenter
192 pages, 45 illustrations. ISBN 0 9546488 1 1. £9.99
Readers may remember the book Dockland Apprentice by David Carpenter (GLIAS Newsletter February 2005). This is a racy, autobiographical account of the apprentice days of David Carpenter from Plumstead, who served his time in the late 1950s at the London Graving Dock, Prestons Road, on the Isle of Docks in London. Along with the long hours and rough and dangerous working conditions, quite unthinkable today, what comes across is the warmth of banter and the comradeship of workmates. By comparison work is a much less social occupation than it used to be — we seldom work in gangs any more.

For anyone under the age of forty dipping into this should be an absolute must — brilliant descriptions give a window onto a now unimaginable world where people did real physical work in dirty and quite dangerous conditions, and despite the gulf between then and now.

The book concentrates on the social side, which comes across vividly with larger than life characters at every turn. There is not a great deal about the work itself but there is some mention of working with machine tools and heavy plant, and plenty of visits on board ships.

Archaeologists, historians and museums are currently expending effort reconstructing what the industrial age was like. Here is a firsthand account, albeit from memory, from someone who experienced it from the inside. Written in direct simple English this is not a weighty book but one which should be widely read — surely it will be — Dockland Apprentice is popular and a good read.

After this triumph David has written a second book, Below the Waterline, a sequel to Dockland Apprentice which is about his days at sea in the Merchant Service as a ship's engineer. This book is likely to be if anything more important than the first as David was one of the last hands-on engineers who actually worked in a ships engine room, 'below the waterline'. Nowadays marine engineers spend most of their time afloat in soundproof, air-conditioned control rooms watching computers and CCTV. The recent snow has held up the new books in Scotland but they should be on sale very shortly, see or telephone 01273 583514. Bob Carr

'Lost Victorian Britain; How the Twentieth Century Destroyed the Nineteenth Century's Architectural Masterpieces', by Gavin Stamp
Aurum Press, 2010. 192 pages, 2 photographic endpapers, illustrated. ISBN 978 1 84513 532 4. £25.00
Professor Stamp's new book, launched in December, is another of his excellent productions which can be recommended unreservedly to GLIAS members. Although national in scope it contains a good deal of London interest and the introduction describing the change of heart of pioneers such as John Betjeman, Nikolaus Pevsner and Hugh Casson is enlightening.

There are good photographs of many lost London buildings including the Crystal Palace, the Coal Exchange, Euston station, Holborn Viaduct hotel, No 1 Poultry, Doulton's pottery Lambeth, the General Post Office in St-Martins-le-Grand, the Clothworkers' Hall off Mincing Lane, the house 'Lululaund' in Bushey, home of the painter and film maker Sir Hubert von Herkomer and so on. It is a long and mouth-watering list and this selection is hopefully long enough to whet the appetite of Newsletter readers.

As well as the photographs there is the excellent entertaining text in the author's wonderful inimitable style — familiar from his contributions to Piloti in Private Eye. Gavin Stamp is a Londoner who lives in London and the part of this book which deals with the capital is particularly good. After reading this magnificent volume it is all too easy to exclaim — 'how the world has changed in fifty years'. Proceeds from the sale of the book are to go to the Victorian Society. Bob Carr

© GLIAS, 2011