The Greenwich Millennium site is to be on the old gas works site at Greenwich Marsh. The giant gas works and its site have much of interest to the historian. The works has been seen as the conception of one man, George Livesey, whose statue you can just, from the top of a bus, going down the Old Kent Road, in front of the gas works offices. He was Chairman of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and a dominant figure in the late nineteenth century gas industry. This article will take a brief look at his background before 1881, when his gas works at East Greenwich was started.
The Livesey family were a gas industry ‘dynasty’. In 1812 a ginger group, critical of affairs in the world’s first gas company, bought a block of shares. One of the them, a City hosier called Thomas Livesey, was elected as a company director. He stayed, became Deputy Governor and one of the most important influences in the early gas industry. Living in Hackney and known as a philanthropist, he had a brother, James, with a greengrocery business in Bethnal Green. James’ two sons, William and Thomas, were given jobs by their uncle in the gas company offices.
William Livesey went on to have a distinguished career as an expert on gas and Parliamentary affairs. Thomas was promoted through a number of administrative posts at Brick Lane gas works in Islington. He married Ellen Hewes, daughter of a Spitalfields potato merchant, and whose uncle was a distinguished Royal Marine. Thomas and Ellen moved to a new house in Canonbury Terrace, Islington, and there, in 1834, their eldest child was born, and christened George Thomas.
In 1839 Thomas applied for the job of Chief Clerk at the disaster prone Old Kent Road Gas Works of the South Metropolitan Gas Company. Appointed he stayed with South Met. and became company secretary. The family, now joined by a new baby, Ellen, and ten years later, Frank, moved into a house adjacent to the gas works. Canal Grove had been built to overlook the Kent Pond and the Surrey Canal but by the 1840s, these pretty Georgian cottages, now marooned in a trading estate, were surrounded by gas holders. George’s childhood was spent never very far from the gas works. He had many happy memories of playing in the works, and, with other boys swimming in the Surrey Canal. There is no evidence that he ever went to school, but perhaps Ellen taught him at home. George never appeared to be uneducated unless his many enthusiasms and all the bright ideas can be evidenced as lack of discipline. At 15 he began work as assistant to his father, learning everything he could about coal gas and its manufacture.
There was, George Livesey said, a lot of religion about in those days, and, with other young men from the works, he started a study group, meeting in a local timber warehouse. At 18 he signed the pledge. He was to stay with temperance, became a founder member of the Band of Hope in 1855, and was it’s national president in 1906. What ever high places George Livesey was to reach in his life he remained a South London temperance reformer. He knew the world of the Good Templars and the working men’s clubs and when he talked to the workforce it was with this common experience in mind.
At the age of 24 he married Harriet Howard, from Rochester, in St.Mary’s Church, Peckham. They moved into a house at Rye Hill Park in Peckham, now gone. As he prospered they moved on, first to 147 Lower Tulse Hill, then to Penmaen Lodge, Herne Hill – an area where many elite industrialists lived. There they taught at the Sunday School of St.Jude’s Church in Dulwich Road, now an office furniture depot. In the 1880s they moved to South Camden Park, Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, and then, just over the county boundary, to Buckland, Surrey, where they built a beautiful house, Shagbrook, now flats. They attended the ‘old tin church’, still to be seen on Reigate Heath. There were no children but Harriet, was a clever woman and a great influence on George. They may sound a stiff, pious, couple, but were just the reverse. George always could turn in several directions at once!
George stayed working at Old Kent Road, gradually taking over from his father the responsibilities of gas works management. He began to build a career for himself, giving papers at Conferences, writing, taking out patents, designing and building equipment, and sometimes undertaking consultancies. In 1871 Thomas died, very suddenly, during a consultation with a London heart specialist. The South Met. board hesitated before appointing George to his father’s job as joint Engineer and Company Secretary. Perhaps the reason for their hesitation in promoting this enormously talented man was revealed when he said that he wanted to be both Secretary and Engineer to the Company because, while the Board could sack an Engineer, it would take a shareholders’ meeting to sack the Secretary – and George knew all about the ancient art of getting his vote through the shareholders. After 1871 South Met. was no longer a quiet little suburban gas company. With George in charge everything was much more lively.
In a short article, there is no space to describe even a tiny fraction of what George Livesey did between 1871, when his father died, and 1881, when East Greenwich Gas Works was started, and he, allegedly, retired. Some of the pace can be seen from the Company minute books as change after change was forced through. Annual company meetings became exciting affairs with the octogenarian chairman protesting as George packed meetings with shareholding gas workers. At the same time he bombarded the trade press with letters and articles about every conceivable subject of interest to gas engineers. Most of it very controversial and bursting with new ideas.
In 1872 George was called to give evidence before a Parliamentary Select Committee which was to examine gas company financing. He proposed a scheme which linked company profits through an automatic sliding scale to prices charged for gas as an incentive to efficiency. The Board of Trade, who probably put him up to it, were delighted, and the system gradually became a requirement for most gas companies of the time. George described it as ‘partnership’, and it became something he was to talk about a lot more in the future but there were calls, from other gas companies, for South Met. to sack him.
The London gas industry was made up of a number of competing companies and the Government began to press for efficiencies. Pressure was put on them to ‘amalgamate’ into one big company and already, in north London, a giant was emerging as some, already large, companies, joined together. South Met. was not a large gas company compared to some others and it was generally assumed that it would soon be taken over by one of the large more central companies. Such an assumption did not take account of George’s negotiating skills and it was only when he seemed likely to swallow up, not only the whole of South London, but the giant companies north of the river as well, that he was stopped short by the Board of Trade.
By 1881 South Met. covered most of South London and George was to effectively control the rest through the South Suburban company based at Bell Green, as well as a sizeable enclave in east London through the Commercial Company in Stepney. Unable to manage the rest of London’s gas supply he resorted to making long and extremely critical speeches, at north London shareholders’ meetings. One subject for particular comment was the management of their ‘super’ works at Beckton. South London needed its own Beckton, managed to George’s ideas, and he began to look for a site. He found Greenwich marsh.
East Greenwich was begun in 1881, the year George Livesey ‘retired.’ This article has covered his life until then, but more exciting times were to come – the bright ideas, the rows, the strikes, the legal actions, the pace of change and the eventual knighthood. All of this is inextricably bound up with his brand new gas works. In 1881 things had only just begun……
This article is based on archive material and articles and reports contained in the gas trade press, and company magazines. A previous article, with detailed referencing and site descriptions, is Mary Mills, ‘George Livesey’ in London’s Industrial Archaeology, No.4. GLIAS, 1989.