THE MILLENIUM SITE – WHO BUILT THE GASWORKS
The site of East Greenwich gas works has been chosen for the Millenium exhibition. The gas works was a large and important one and there are many storioes about the people who worked there, events which took place on site and some of the developments in local industry which came before it.
East Greenwich gas works was a very late and very modern gas works go, in fact the most recently built in London. It was a new, super, works built by the South Metropolitan Gas Company. South Metropolitan Company had been set up in the late 1820s based on the works at the Old Kent Road. This is not exactly the site we can see today because it has moved east down the road some distance. The original works was based on the Surrey Canal which ran across the road, just west of Peckham Park Street. It was quite small and made gas from special ‘cannel’ coal. A great many early gas works were fraudulent and South Metropolitan were no exception. It was run by two brothers, slate merchants, called Roberts ‘in the habit of issuing cheques and pocketing the money’. In 1834 the company was taken over and reformed by a group headed by Alderman Farncombe (‘Rum Old Dolly, A Tory Quean’) a Southwark Wharfinger. Farncombe was a member of the Tallow Chandler’s Company, one of several who took up places on gas company boards in this period.
South Metropolitan employed as the company engineer George Holsworthy Palmer who soon fell out with them over secret experiments he was carrying out at the works. Having been sacked, he reappeared briefly to ‘recommend that it all be abandoned’ on the night of 9th October 1836 when the explosion in his unventilated purifying house was heard all over London. Palmer continued his career, explosively, elsewhere. Old Kent Road works was rebuilt and in 1840 a young man called Thomas Livesey, from Islington, was appointed as Clerk. Thomas, and his sons, was to have a profound effect on the gas industry in South London. He remained at Old Kent Road until his death in 1872. His son, George, who began work in 1848, died in 1908 as Company Chairman and it is he, with his brother Frank, who built East Greenwich Gas Works.
Alderman Farncombe resigned in 1859 at the age of 80. Under his Chairmanship the company had flourished and was making a healthy profit. Throughout this period the majority shareholder was Richard Foster, and other members of the Foster family were on the Board. They were bankers with a strong Christian ethos which extended into beliefs about incorporating working people into the wider society. Richard Foster built a number of churches, including St.Augustine at the back of the Old Kent Road works in Lynton Road. His ideas had a profound effect on the company and a number of welfare measures, including pension and holiday schemes for the workforce, were set up.
George Livesey took over the company management on his father’s death, and with his more forceful personality, moved the compamny onto the national stage. Government and local authorities were becoming concerned about inefficiency in the gas industry and began to encourage the smaller London companies to join together. In South London George Livesey undertook a number of negotiating coups and South Metropolitan took control of the Bankside, Vauxhall and Greenwich based Phoenix company, the Rotherhithe based Surrey Consumers and, later, two companies in Woolwich. Livesey also became Chairman of the Lewisham based South Suburban and the Stepney based Commercial, although they remained nominally independent. He tried to move on and take over all the gas works in North London as well, but was stopped by the Board of Trade.
In the early 1880s it was decided to build a big new works and to close down some smaller sites – thus a site on Greenwich marsh was chosen and East Greenwich built. This then was the company which built the gasworks on the site which will now see the Millenium celebrations. It was a highly suceessful company, at the time commonly seen as the best managed in the country. Some company achievements had received a lot of publicity, although it is often difficult to disentabgle them from the high profile enjoyed by George Livesey. Their main base remained the Old Kent Road works, today George Livesey’s statue can be seen just inside the gate, a small holder on site dates from 1867 and is one of the oldest remaining in London, the large holder dates from 1881.
Of the companies which they took over Phoenix too had been large and succesfful. Their main works had been at Bankside, now long under the Bankside Power Station, but their gasholder at Vauxhall is known to all cricket fans. They had a smaller works at Thames Street, Greenwich, where a gas holder tank remained on site as a storage pit until very recently. Phoenix also had holder stations – one now the site of a school in Pocock Street, SE1, and another on the site of council flats in Roan Street, Greenwich. A gas holder remains on the Surrey Consumers works site in Brunel Road in Rotherhithe. They also had a holder station on part of the car auction site in Lower Road, SE8 and on the old Greenwich Railway Gas Works site in Copperas Street, SE8. The two Woolwich works were on the river front on the site of the present Leisure centre and the old power station.