Victorian Gas Works

Gas lighting transformed London, it is hard to imagine now just how much. I think the only way to begin to understand it, as much as we can from this vantage point, is through literature.

1305530Flora Tristan’s London Journal is wonderfully evoctive of the beauty of gas lighting, the magical effect it had on London:

But it is especially at night that London should be seen: then, in the magic light of millions of gas-lamps, London is superb! Its broad streets stretch to infinity; its shops are resplendent with every masterpiece that human ingenuity can devise; its multitudes of men and women pass ceaselessly too and fro. To see all this for the first time is an intoxicating experience. Then again, in the daytime, the beautiful streets, the elegant squares, the austere iron gates which separate the family mansion from the common run of humanity, the vast expanse of gracious rolling parkland, the beauty of the trees, the number of superb carriages and magnificent horses which parade the streets — all this seems magical and blurs the judgment, so that no foreigner can fail to be entranced when he first enters the British capital. But I must warn you that the spell fades like a fantastic vision, a dream in the night; the foreigner soon recovers his senses and opens his eyes to the arid egotism and gross materialism which lurk behind that ideal world (17).

I’m not sure that something hasn’t been lost now, the texture of the light changed and the last remaining shadowy places illuminated with electricity. There are still a few streets where you can experience gas lighting, you can find them here. It’s something well loved and well studied, a short description of how and when it came to illuminate London’s streets can be found here, or more at length in Liza Picard‘s work on Victorian London. The way it transformed how people could walk through the city at night, especially women, is so self-evident yet often forgotten.

Gas_Light_&_Coke_CompanyAlso often forgotten, I think, is the labour and technology that made is possible. One of the most powerful passages of Tristan’s journal describes the gasworks at Horseferry Road. There is nothing at all left to show that a gas works once stood here but a plaque.  Tristan’s words give a vivid sense of the working conditions:

One of the largest gas-works is in Horseferry Road. Westminster; I have forgotten the name of the company. You can not visit it without a ticket of admission: In this palace of industry the abundance of machinery and iron is quite overwhelming; everything is made of iron — platforms. railings, staircases. floors, roofing etc.; plainly no expense has been spared to ensure that buildings and equipment alike are made of the most durable materials. I saw cast-iron vats with the dimensions of a four-storey house. I wanted to know how many thousand tons they hold, but the foreman with me was just as uncommunicative as the foreman at the brewery, and preserved an absolute silence.

We went into the big boiler-house: the row of furnaces on either side were burning brightly; the scene was not unlike the descriptions the poets of Antiquity have left us of Vulcan’s forges, save that the Cyclops were animated with divine activity and intelligence, whereas the black slaves of the English furnaces are sullen, silent and impassive. There were about twenty men present, going about their work in a slow, deliberate fashion. Those with nothing to do stood motionless, lacking the energy even to wipe away the sweat streaming down their bodies, Two or three turned their blank gaze towards me; the rest did not even raise their heads. The foreman told me that only the strongest men were selected as stokers; even so, they all developed chest diseases after seven or eight years of the work, and invariably died of consumption. That accounted for the misery and apathy depicted on every countenance and apparent in every movement the poor wretches made.

This language is so emblematic of the odd politics of her solidarity with, and yet low opinion of, the working classes. She is offhand about their early deaths, but it breaks my heart to think of it.

The work demanded of them is more than human strength can endure. They wear nothing but cotton drawers; when they leave the boiler-house they merely throw a coat over their shoulders.

Although the space between the two rows of furnaces must have been fifty or sixty feet, the floor was so hot that the heat penetrated my shoes immediately and made me lift up my feet as if I had stepped on live coals. I stood upon a large stone slab, but even this was hot, although it was well off the ground. I could not stay in this veritable hell; the heat was suffocating, the smell of gas was making me dizzy and my chest felt as if it would burst. The foreman took me to a gallery at the end of the boiler-house where I could see everything in relative comfort.

We made a complete tour of the establishment; I was lost in admiration for all the machines, for the meticulous care that marks every stage of the work; but in spite of all precautions there are frequent disasters in which men are injured and even killed. 0 God! Can progress be bought only at the cost of men’s lives?

She is not, and I could hardly expect her to be, interested in the geographies of light, that this is gas produced to light up the expensive shops of the West End at the cost of workingmen’s lives and environment:

The gas produced at this factory is taken by pipes to light the Oxford Street area as far as Regent Street.

The air is horribly tainted: at every instant you are assailed by poisonous fumes. I emerged from one building, hoping to find the air purer in the yard outside, but everywhere I went, the foul exhalations of gas and the stench of coal and tar pursued me.

Not only is this killing the men who work here, it surely must also be killing all those who live around it, albeit more slowly. Her lack of interest in how this is affecting the poor people and dock workers living in the area is in its own way a testament to what communities fighting for environmental justice have been able to achieve.

It also makes me wish that she were not writing from such a position of privilege, that she had trudged here from wherever she was staying, for surely then the effect of the fumes and the housing of the workers would have also figured in this description. As it was, Tristan was there only briefly and already felt dizzy and sick. Odd then, and oddly Victorian, that she focuses in on the dirt.

What is more, the entire premises are very dirty. The yard — with its pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish — testifies to a total neglect of hygiene. It is true that the materials used to produce gas are of such a nature that it would require vigorous measures to keep the place clean, but two men would be sufficient for the task, and for a trifling increase in outlay, the entire establishment would be healthier.

Returning once more to the working conditions suffered:

Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866
Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866

I was on the point of suffocating and could not wait to escape from such an evil-smelling place when the foreman said, ‘Stay a moment longer, there’s something very interesting for you to see; the stokers are just about to remove the coke from the ovens.’

I returned to my perch in the gallery; the sight that met my eyes was one of the most appalling that I have ever seen.

The furnaces are above ground level. with a space below to catch the coke. The stokers, armed with long iron rakes, opened the ovens and raked out the coke, which fell in blazing torrents into the chamber below. Nothing could be more terrible or majestic than the sight of so many mouths all pouring forth flames, nothing more magical than the cavern suddenly illumined with living fire, descending like a waterfall from a rocky height, only to be swallowed in the abyss: nothing more terrifying than the stokers, their bodies streaming as if they had just emerged from the water, lit on both sides by the dreadful braziers that thrust out their fiery tongues as if to devour them. Oh, no! a more frightful spectacle it would be impossible to imagine!

South Metropolitan Gas Company's works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke.
South Metropolitan Gas Company’s works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke, wood engraving published Paris, 1891.

When the furnaces were half empty, men perched on vats in the four corners of the lower chamber threw water on the coke to extinguish it. The scene changed; there arose a dense hot whirlwind of black smoke which ascended majestically through the open skylight. Now the furnaces were visible only through this haze, which made the flames seem even redder and the fire more menacing; the stokers’ bodies turned from white to black, and the unfortunate wretches were swallowed up like demons in some infernal chaos. I was caught unawares by the smoke, and barely had time to make a hasty descent.

I awaited the end of the business, anxious to see what would become of the poor stokers. I was astounded that not one woman appeared. Dear God! I thought, have the men no mother, sister, wife or daughter waiting at the door as they emerge from that hell, to wash them in warm water, to wrap them in shirts of flannel; to give them something nourishing to drink; to greet them with friendly words that would give them heart and help them to endure their cruel lot? I was in a fever of anxiety; not one woman appeared. I demanded of the foreman where these men, soaked in sweat, would go to take their rest. ‘They’ll lie down in this shed.’ he replied, quite unconcerned, ‘and in a couple of hours they’ll go back to their stoking,’

I find this simultaneously horrific in what men were forced to suffer to earn a wage, and almost laughable in terms of her horror at the absence of women occupying such middle-class Victorian roles as mopping their husband’s brow and inspiring him with hope and bringing him nourishment. I imagine these wives, sisters and daughters were all both hungry and hard at work themselves keeping households together or taking in laundry, cleaning the homes of the wealthy, working in factories themselves.

But again, we return to another of the reasons men died so quickly in this work:

This shed, open on all sides to the wind, was really no more than a shelter from the rain, and inside it was as cold as ice. A sort of mattress lay in one corner, almost indistinguishable from the coal around it. I saw the stokers stretch out on their stony bed, with no covering but a greatcoat so stained with sweat and coal-dust that it was impossible to tell its original colour. ‘There,’ said the foreman, ‘that’s how these men get consumption; they don’t look after themselves, going straight from the heat into the cold like that.’ (72-75)

You like Tristan better when she says she left in a huff after that remark.

A few more things on gas — in A Match to Fire the Thames, there is a brief description of the workers organising for the first time at the Beckton Gas Works — owned by the same company — under the leadership of Will Thorne. They won an eight hour day (it is impossible to imagine working in these conditions at all, much less from 10 to 14 hours), with fewer retorts to fill and all for the same daily wage. Long live the union.

"Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)" by Willem van de Poll - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)” by Willem van de Poll – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other is that in addition to the poisoning of air and ground, the construction of gas works was also a part of the steady destruction of gardens supplying the city, from Old and New London: Volume 4:

The works belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company, which occupy a considerable space of ground between Peter Street and Horseferry Road, stand partly on the site of what was, at the beginning of the present century, the residence of a market-gardener, known as the “Bower” ale-house and tea-gardens—a name still perpetuated in that of the adjacent public-house—”The White Horse and Bower,” in the Horseferry Road. These gasworks (one of the three earliest stations established by the first gas company in the metropolis, which received its charter of incorporation in 1812) owe their origin to the enterprise of a Mr. Winsor, the same who, on the evening of the King’s birthday, in 1807, made a brilliant display of gas along the wall between the Mall and St. James’s Park. It may be worth while to note here that the general lighting of the metropolis with gas began on Christmas Day, 1814. A branch establishment in connection with these gas-works has since been erected further westward, close by Millbank Prison, and more recently a larger establishment has been opened at North Woolwich, where the works henceforth will mainly be concentrated, so that latterly very little business has been actually carried on here.

The later history of these gas works is also rather fascinating, and described on the Subterranea Brittanica site:

The ‘Rotundas’ consisted of three buildings, two of three storeys and one of two (originally five), all linked together and occupying a site in SW1 bounded by Great Peter Street to the north, Marsham Street to the east, Horseferry Road to the south and Monck Street to the west. The site had previously been occupied since c.1877 by the gas works of the Gas Light and Coke Company. The two gas holders were demolished in 1937 leaving two very large circular holes in the ground. During the blitz a large bomb fell on the gas works which blew four workmen into these holes, unfortunately only two survived.

A government contract was issued to construct various protected buildings in London, these included Montagu House in Whitehall for the War Office, Curzon House in Curzon Street for the Army, The Admiralty Citadel on Horseguards for the Navy and the Rotundas, all designed to withstand the impact of a 500lb bomb. With their 12 foot thick concrete roof the latter complex was equipped to house several thousand Government officials in complete safety from enemy attack for up to three months.

The Rotundas were built in the holes left by the gas holders, each of three storeys with one and a half floors above ground and the same below. They were identified as the North Rotunda at 59-67 Great Peter Street, the South Rotunda at 18/19 Monck Street. The complex was completed by the five storey Steel Frame Building, with one level below ground at 17 Monck Street. The upper three stories were later removed.

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