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Notes and news — August 1985

In this issue:

A F Suter & Co. Ltd, Victory Works, 83/84 Eastway, Hackney Wick, London E9

Following the visit to see the Victory Works (GLIAS Newsletter April 1985), unique in the U.K. for the bleaching of shellac, I have received the following from Mr J R Suter, who kindly showed us around the works and introduced the processes to us. It is heartening to hear of the strength of an old established firm and processes and we very much regret anything which might have seemed contrary to this in our report. Mr Suter writes:

Youla Yates

Ealing Hygienic Laundry, Felix Road, West Ealing W13

Started about 1915, this laundry continued until about 1982. Gunnersbury Park Museum was contacted by the redevelopers of the site and allowed to make a survey of the laundry's layout and equipment. As a result the museum now has account books and business records of the laundry for the last 20 years of its life, photographs of the interior taken in 1985, recordings of interviews of ex-members of staff and two machines with line-shafting, a collar starcher (made by F. Townend & Co, Acton), and a collar press (J. J. Lane & Co., London E).

Members seeking further details can contact me at the museum on 992-1612. Phil Philo

Slough Estates Power Station and Taplow Repeater Station

On Monday, 18th February 1985, a party of GLIAS and Newcomen Society members visited two sites west of London, meeting at 9.30am in frosty but sunny weather outside Slough railway station, from which the visits were made by private motor car. In the morning we were the guests of Slough Estates plc. dating originally from 1920 when the Slough Trading Company Limited bought the War Office Mechanical Transport Repair Depot. We made a detailed tour of their interesting unique private power station where there is a series of seven steam turbines driving electric generators ranging from a 1935 2.5 MW back pressure set (believed to have been made at BTH Stafford?) to two 15MV passout steam sets installed in 1966 and 1968 which supply low pressure steam to industrial premises on the Estate. In 1982 a combined cycle multi-fuel John Brown gas turbine and Babcock waste heat recovery boiler were introduced, increasing capacity by 23 MW to 90 MW. This new plant affects a 20% saving in fuel and works satisfactorily for 24 hours per day. It is likely that the older turbines will soon be phased out. In addition to generating electricity the power station supplies 520 million pounds of steam per year to roughly 36 consumers, Mars (the confectioners) taking over half and 990 million gallons of water are extracted from the Company's own artesian wells. Most comes from deep boreholes sunk to the Lower Greensand at a depth of 1,150 feet. The Slough Estate has four cooling towers, the oldest dating from c.1936 with the latest cross-flow type being installed around 1968. Some dramatic icicles were noted. Being mostly steam antiquarians we much appreciated the very attractively painted and well-kept collection of steam turbines.

At the Horse & Groom on the Bath Road we took a jovial lunch, pleasantly reminiscent of an outing of the Pickwick Club and found that the afternoon location was right next door. Taplow telephone signal repeater station was built in the early 1920s, before mains electricity was locally available, to boost signals to and from the West Country. Two sets of generators were installed to charge batteries, working 24 hours alternately. When mains electricity became available the generating sets were only required for standby and one was exported to India c.1935. Now redundant, the remaining set consists of a Ruston & Hornsby solid injection horizontal single cylinder 4 stroke, oil engine, size 11, class H, No. 115967, (bore about 14½ inches), driving two G.E.C. (Witton) generators in tandem by means of a shaft extended from the flywheel. With the engine running at 210rpm one generator produces 22/30 KW at 22/30 volts (1,000 amps) and the other (No. 84850) 11 KW at 150/220 volts. There is also auxiliary equipment such as a low voltage electrically driven air compressor with air bottle and piping for cold starting and an attractive black electricity control panel with period meters. The oil engine is on the ground floor, upstairs there is a considerable amount of disused early trunk-telephone equipment including relays and a fine set of barrettas which would repay further study. The modern replacements take up little space.

I am very much indebted to Mr. Robert Cox for arranging both visits and supplying much of the above information. Thanks are due to Slough Estates pic and their Generation Manager, Mr. R. Walker, for the morning visit. British Telecom are to be thanked for the visit to Taplow Repeater Station and for starting the Ruston oil engine and Peter Skilton for information. Bob Carr

Henry Heath's Hat Factory, 105-109 Oxford St, 16-18 Hollen St, W1

Henry Heath started his hat making business in 1822, in Allen's Court formerly adjacent to the present building. He made all types of hats for men and women including the Duke of Wellington's Field Marshall's hat and straw hats for Victoria's grandchildren (she plaited the straw herself), but they were most famous for silk (or top) hats.

When the firm first started, beaver hats were worn by all respectable people, but as the beaver became hunted to near extinction, thus rutting-up the price, roughly napped hats were introduced, initially for the army and navy. This was then superseded by the silk plush hat, which became standard for a century. By the 1880s Henry Heath was exporting all over the world and in 1887 his sons rebuilt the factory and extended on the site of the Mitre public house and brewery (the vaults of which remain under Oxford Street) which had been built by Allen Hollen in 1715.

The building was designed by Christopher and White and is of typical construction for the period — cast iron columns, wrought iron beams, timber board and joist floors, loadbearing brick external walls. Its main architectural glory is the unglazed buff terracotta façade to Oxford Street in a free 'Flemish' style, the ornamental work of which was designed and made by Benjamin Creswick of A H Mackmurdo's Century Guild, pioneers of the Arts and Crafts Movement. On the gables are four large ferocious beavers, lower down are portraits of George IV and Victoria, elsewhere are lions' heads and originally there was frieze illustrating the various processes of hat making, which was described when new as 'a unique treatment of a shop fascia and a fine work of art'. This was destroyed in the 1950s and now only the head of a beaver trapper exists, discovered during restoration works.

The complex consists of a four-storey rear building, a five-storey building on Oxford Street, a single-storey link block and a basement under all the site. The Hollen Street building was the factory with the boilers and raw material storage in the basement. Goods were brought in and out through the large double doors and weighed on the small weighbridge on the ground floor. A hoist took the materials up to the manufacturing floors and brought the finished hats down into the back of the shop or down to the warehouse in the basement of the front building. The ground floor of the Oxford Street building and the link block were the main showroom, the first floor was the fitting room, with a mezzanine in the link block adjacent for final trimming and adjustment. The second floor was the residence of Mr. Heath, with the bedrooms for his family and servants on the third floor. The fourth floor was a dormitory for the workers. St Patrick's school, adjacent, provided apprentices.

Henry Heath Hat Factory, Hollen Street, W1 Henry Heath Hat Shop, Oxford Street, W1

The firm thrived through the early part of this century, having branches all over the City and Westminster. They went into decline in the 1930s, closing down their other shops. They left the premises in the early 1950s, remaining as a wholesale business in Brewer Street, Soho, until this too closed in 1958. The market for top hats had disappeared.

The building was much altered in the subsequent years and little, original remained except the Hollen Street factory building and the façade to Oxford Street both much mutilated. The Oxford Street building was used as shops and offices whilst the factory lay derelict for many years. From 1982-5 the building was completely restored in phases for the Crown Estate Commissioners (who have owned the site since 1536 and to whom the building had just reverted) by the author, whilst working for Frederick Gibberd Coombes & Partners, the work being carried out by Bell & Co. (Westminster) Ltd.

The building is now used as shops onto Oxford Street, flats on the upper part of the Oxford Street building, and the remainder workshops for small businesses. The Hollen Street factory and the façade to Oxford Street have been restored to their original condition, including a replica of the Century Guild wrought iron lamp on Oxford Street. Jon Wallsgrove, 9th July 1985

A brief history of the Wandsworth & District Gas Company

150 years ago at the Spread Eagle in Wandsworth a group of enterprising local worthies agreed to set up a gas company. This decision was formalised on 27th October 1834 when the Wandsworth Gas Company was established to supply the Parishes of Wandsworth and Putney. The elected Committee moved quickly, engaged an engineer, one John Bryan, obtained the lease of a small site, with lockage rights, adjoining the Surrey Iron Railway Basin (later known as McMurray's Canal), and were producing gas by February 1835. In the following month 276 lights were supplied.

Despite local opposition the Company survived and by 1860 had reduced the price of gas from 12/6d to 5/- (62½p to 25p) per thousand cubic feet, while paying a steady return to shareholders. There were territorial disputes with the London Gas Light Company over Battersea Common and in Wandsworth, McMurray's, Watneys & Dormays had started to manufacture their own gas. Only Dormays posed a threat, becoming sufficiently well established to apply for parliamentary powers. This the Wandsworth Company opposed and in 1873 were able to purchase Dormays' concern for £5,000.

A major turning point in the history of the Company occurred during the leadership of H.E. Jones, who from 1864 served the Company as engineer, the Director and from 1903 Chairman until his death in 1925. He was a distinguished engineer who ran a large consulting practice from Palace Chambers, Westminster and was elected as President of the Civil Engineers in 1917. During his tenure the Wandsworth Company grew into one of London's largest gas concerns. A considerable improvement in coal handling was achieved in 1906 when SS Ratcliff delivered 1,100 tons of coal to the works at Wandsworth. This venture proved a success and the Company had their first collier, SS Wandle, built in 1908. Increased efficiency producing low priced gas made Wandsworth Works a Mecca of the ballooning world. In 1912 the first of a series of amalgamations took place with the Mitcham and Wimbledon Gas Company and the Epsom and Ewell Gas Company. The following year saw the arrival of the SS Mitcham, however further developments were forestalled by the onset of war.

The Great War stretched resources to the limit, labour was lost to the services, materials were in short supply, also Wandsworth became a major producer of toluol for the munitions industry. The German Navy came close to severing the vital coal supplies from the North East. Eventually colliers received armament, thus equipped the Wandle was able to fight off a U boat attack and was given a hero's welcome on return to the Thames. Mastin House in Merton Road was named after the Wandle's Captain in commemoration of the event. In 1917 the Wandle was lost off Flamborough Head, fortunately without loss of life.

After the war development of the Company continued, low priced gas proving an effective weapon against increasing competition from electricity. There were two further series of amalgamations, in 1930 and 1931 with the Kingston Gas Company and the Sutton Gas Company, 1936 saw amalgamation with the Leatherhead Gas Company and the Walton and Weybridge Gas Company and control was gained of the Woking Gas Company. The distribution system was developed so that the amalgamated companies' works could be supplied from Wandsworth, thus in periods of low demand they could be placed on standby. Considerable improvements were made to Wandsworth Works to obtain maximum output from what was now becoming a restricted site. This period of development was preceded by the 1928 Thames floods, although the works was flooded, supplies were not interrupted. In the same year the first of three units of C.O.L. intermittent vertical chambers were commissioned, the first of their kind in Britain. Resulting from the floods a new river wall, 1,400 foot long was built in 1932, reclaiming a valuable acre of land. This was followed in 1934 by the construction of a large jetty equipped with two 5 ton hydraulic cranes, holding hoppers and a conveyor system to the onshore coal store. An immediate success, the jetty reduced turn round times by a tide, thus the Company were able to sell off a collier. As a result of the 1936 amalgamations, increased demand required the services of an extra ship, and in consequence the SS Wimbledon joined the fleet in 1937. Another important development in 1938 was the construction of Britain's first tower purifiers, with twice the capacity of the old system; they also achieved a considerable saving in ground space.

The onset of the Second World War plunged the Company into nightmare conditions, as experienced during the previous war, with added risk of air attack. To pool resources a close working agreement was made with the South Metropolitan and South Suburban Companies. As before the collier fleet bore the brunt of the German offensive and received a tremendous battering; the Company were fortunate that none of their ships were lost.

After cessation of hostilities demand for gas rose sharply, considerably exceeding 1938 figures. A new water-gas plant was commissioned in 1947 with a capacity of four million cubic feet per day. Two further colliers were built for the fleet, the last steamship the SS Chesington and the MV Mitcham the first and last motorship. With a capacity of 2,700 tons equivalent to that of the SS Wandle and SS Mitcham combined, she was a prototype for further upriver colliers to come.

Nationalisation of the Gas Industry took effect from 1st May 1949, and the Wandsworth and District Gas Company, with sixty other companies passed to the Southeastern Gas Board. At the time of Nationalisation the Company supplied an area of 160 square miles, had 225 thousand customers and used in excess of a half a million tons of coal per annum, brought to Wandsworth by their fleet of six upriver colliers. Rationalisation of manufacturing plant enabled works of the amalgamated Companies to be closed within the first ten years of Nationalisation. In April 1970 the MV Croydon made the last run up to Wandsworth and the works closed in the following month. The site has been razed and little remains as a reminder of one of the Nation's largest gas companies. Brian Sturt

James Hutton, Geologist (1726-97) — Oceanographic experiments at Billingsgate 1776-1777

Letters in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (which are discussed by me in Annals of Science, 40 1983, 81-94) show that Hutton took an active interest in oceanography. Firstly, when Banks and James Lind were planning to go on Cook's second voyage, Hutton exhorted them to keep records of temperature and salinity at various depths, and also supplied them with two 'diving machines' (probably water samplers). Secondly, he himself conducted some experiments at Billingsgate, probably in 1776 or early 1777.

Our source of information is a torn and almost illegible letter to Hutton dated 11th February 1777. The writer was a London merchant, Alexander Shairp, of Shairps & Co, who traded with Russia and North-east America and had recently returned from Labrador. The letter reads: 'I am now to thank you for your report, but am little satisfied with your reasons for the water being colder upon the Dank. However, your Billingsgate experiments made us laugh — the ladies smiled and one of them with a significant shake of the head seemed to confirm what you conjectured with regard to Alien (?) growing (?) look warm diving into mysterious things..." If anyone has further knowledge of these experiments, or can elucidate the letter in any way, I would be most grateful if they would contact me.
Jean Jones, 6 Greenhill Terrace, Edinburgh EH10 4BS

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© GLIAS, 1985