Book reviews — June 2021
'Industrial Letchworth: The first garden city, 1903-1920', by Letchworth Local History Research Group
ISBN 978-1-912260-28-7, paperback, 144pp. Feb 2021 ₤14.99 (+p&p UK ₤2.75). Available from: Email: UHPress@herts.ac.uk Web: www.UHPress.co.uk
When Letchworth was founded in the early 1900s it was the first Garden City as envisioned by Ebenezer Howard (who is also buried there). It differed from previous model housing schemes, such as New Lanark, Saltaire and Port Sunlight, by not relying on a single large employer but endeavouring to build a self-supporting community based on a diversity of industries, lured into relocating from London and other overcrowded cities by a combination of self-interest and high principle. This splendid book, written by local residents with an Afterword by staff from the School of Architecture at the University of Grenoble, focuses on the town's industrial history up until 1920.
The first section (51 pages) provides the background to the early years of Letchworth, particularly the structure and activities of the development company, First Garden City Ltd. The remainder focuses on the industries themselves. Unsurprisingly several of the first companies established on site were based on construction such as manufacturers of asphalt products and bricks, and a timber merchant, but also included the Garden City Press thereby initiating a theme of printing and publishing later represented by J.M. Dent & Co. (originators of the Everyman Library), W.H. Smith & Sons (bookbinding) and several others.
In excess of 50 companies are described illustrating the breadth of industrial activity introduced, including representatives of the motor industry, foundries and other engineering manufacturers, scientific instrument makers, textiles and clothing, food and drink and pioneering cinematic companies. The book is well produced with a wealth of archive photographs, plus useful fold-out maps and a timeline summarising Letchworth's industrial evolution. Martin Adams
'The Early East London Gas Industry: How it began and how it helped London industries to grow', by Mary Mills
Amazon, February 2021. Paperback ₤15
When this book arrives it's quite a surprise. It is a hefty volume an inch thick with pages 11in x 8½in illustrated with period street plans. The pages are spaciously laid out and it is printed in Great Britain. How do they do this for ₤15 including delivery? Bought from a bookshop a few years ago it might have cost three times as much.
But what's the book about? The title might suggest something as exciting as British Blast Furnace Statistics * but The Early East London Gas Industry covers much more than just East London. The earlier part of the book gives a good account of the development of gas lighting in central London from around 1800. As more gasworks were built gas lighting was introduced elsewhere.
There's a popular misconception that gasworks were Victorian, about men in top hats. No, they came at an earlier period well before the railways, in mailcoach days. Many entrepreneurs who pioneered gaslighting probably wore outfits reminiscent of a Jane Austen television production — this is the world described by Georgette Heyer.
These were innovative times with people trying out all sorts of things. The Docks in London were being built, steamships were introduced and shipbuilding was changing from wood to iron. Most gas-lighting promoters were also involved in other quite different schemes, sometimes without success. Gasworks often had problems too.
The author's PhD is about the East London gas industry but this book is more a racy read than a thesis — suitable for a large audience. The introduction is good — you can read this on the Amazon website, see
This is not a technical history, you will find little on gas manufacture, overwhelmingly it's a book about people. With the number of characters introduced and the numerous subplots it's reminiscent of Dickens. Many of the people are obscure and perhaps being written about for the first time but there are some well-known figures, especially those with an aristocratic background.
More notable figures include Alexander Angus Croll (1811-1887) who deserves a biography to himself, see pp247-257, and the Hills family. Frank Hills was a particularly big player whose business ethics were by no means above reproach. He ended up a very wealthy man with fingers in numerous pies and there is still much to find out about this character.
Many of the people mentioned were trying to discover profitable uses for gasworks waste. From this developed the by-products industry which is discussed later in the book.
For a number of gas companies there are tables giving the names of the subscribers and some details for each person. While there might be a lawyer, a doctor, and perhaps someone rather grand — especially for the later companies there are also small traders — a currier, a hat maker, a candlestick maker and so on. This could be a mine of information for family historians as these lesser figures are probably appearing in print for the first time. A digital version of the book would be especially useful. The book may also be of interest for people exploring London, finding out on foot where various gasworks used to be could become an absorbing pastime.
Despite the daunting title, this book is pleasantly readable and it can be recommended for people other than gas historians. Weighing in at about a kilogram it's on the heavy side for use in the field and a digital version is needed. Bob Carr
* British Blast Furnace Statistics 1790-1980 by Philip Riden & John Gilbert Owen, published in 1995. Covering nearly 200 years this is actually a very useful reference book.
© GLIAS, 2021