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Thursday, 18 November 2010

London Gas Works: 1895

Another antique book received in the post from, this time:
“Industrial Explorings In and Around London” written in the year 1895, this is the second edition, printed 1896.
In the book, the author / reporter jauntily capers around late Victorian London exploring the various industries, including the piano works, the candle works and rubber works.

Having examined the Victorian use of gas last week as part of the ‘Beyond the Door; or “The Homes of the Victorians” series last week on this blog, I thought it apt to post the author’s humerous chapter on gas, in which he visits the West Ham Gas Works in Stratford, pictured below.

Onto the article; “In Gas Land”

…West Ham Gas Works, which are Stratford way.
At the end of a quiet little street turning out of the main road, just past Stratford Market Station on the Great Eastern line, I discovered it, and it struck me as being uncompromisingly ugly. Nothing here for the painter to linger over, I reflected, neither would a poet be likely to go into rhapsodies over the scene. However, I was not searching for the picturesque. Rather did I hanker after the practical, so I made my way round to the secretary's office, mid found Mr. Snelgrove waiting for me in a room rather more imposing than snug, though
for all its size it struck pleasantly warm after the biting wind outside.

While chatting pleasantly over industries generally, and the gas industry in particular, Mr. Wright, the assistant-engineer, came in, and I was introduced to my guide through this particular land.
So far I have had the advantage of the common or garden explorer in being able to obtain a separate and qualified guide to every land I have passed through, which shows the advantage of doing your exploring at home. Had I gone abroad, I expect one greasy native would have had to serve my purpose for the whole
series. Out in the open again, and we walked straight through Gas-Land to hunt up the initial stage in the process of changing coal at about sevenpence per hundredweight into gas at three shillings per foot.
I used to make gas when I was a youngster, and I daresay many of you have done so too. It is a delectable and messy operation, and dear on that account to
the heart of the average schoolboy. I did it with a churchwarden pipe, a few ounces of coal-dust, and a lump of clay, when the girl had gone out and left the kitchen range unprotected. The illuminant was not blinding in its intensity ; but the satisfaction that that stewing clay and coal-dust gave me was beyond expression. They have improved on my old method in Gas-Land I observed.

I commenced my observations at the top of a perilous-looking light ironwork ladder some thirty feet above the level of the ground. Mr. Wright scaled it with ease and the agility born of use and long practice. I lacking the ease, and being somewhat hampered by a heavy ulster, an umbrella, a notebook, and one lead pencil, arrived many minutes later, somewhat shaky, and out of breath.
This ladder, I may mention, is situated at the end of one of the " retort "-houses, and the temperature of a " retort "-house in the depth of winter would be favourable for fostering tropical plants, I should judge. When I stepped off the ladder on to a staging outside that runs round the building I found it fresh,
to say the least of it, though the view was worth the climb and the cold.
Far below ran the canal, just then frozen and snowed over into a treacherous semblance of a solid supporting body, up which barges bring the coal supplies in forty-ton loads. Gas-Land lay stretched out around me, with tall chimneys, low, squatty buildings, and huge gasometers dotted about at irregular intervals.

Rails lead away from this staging to the various retort-houses, and the coal, landed by steam-cranes, is conveyed in metal cars and distributed about the works by quite a miniature railway service. It finds the ground-level by a series of shoots, which deposit it within convenient reach of the retorts.
I turned into the building again, and gazed down on the busy scene below me. It was an impressive and a striking sight. A long and comparatively narrow passage leads from the open doorway at one end to the ladder above which I was standing at the other,  between the coal supplies that are being continually replenished from above by the shoots, and the " retorts " surmounted by the complicated system of pipes.
In reality the "retorts" divide one huge building into two, being built down the middle and so arranged that they may be charged at both ends. They are set side by side, and are kept at a red-heat by immense coke furnaces, underneath.

I was asked if I would like to see into one of these furnaces, and I rather thought I should, until I casually discovered that the heat is liable to scorch the toes off one's shoes, to say nothing of doing superfluous and vexing damage to one's wardrobe accessories. I said, then, that it would be a pity to put the men to such needless trouble, and sternly negatived the protestations that ensued.
I learnt, however, that these furnaces never go out. Day and night, from Monday morning to Saturday night, the "retorts" are charged, and the process of making gas goes forward. On Sunday they cease and rest, but the furnace underneath burns on just the same.
A "retort" is simply a long, bricked chamber capable of carbonising five or six
hundredweight of coal at one filling. The only opening from it, with the exception of the curved, oval doors through which it is charged, is the one leading to the pipe shown running up just above the mouth. I wondered vaguely, as I leant over that rail and watched the men at work below me, why it was called a "retort." Later, the answer came to me, and I discovered that it was so quick at repartee that no other name could be given it.
"There's coal for you," the men observe, as they ram three or four hundredweight into its capacious interior.
"And there's gas for you," it retorts, with a snap and a burst of flame, as the men hastily retire out of its reach. Then one will run forward and slam the door to and screw it up and you can hear it chuckling away to itself inside there out of the cold long after the joke has died from the remembrance of the busy throng, who have heard it so often that it has probably become irritating and stale.
These "retorts" are charged by means of iron scoops fourteen feet in length, something like a Canadian canoe in appearance, supposing the ends to be cut off square and a T handle fitted at the top. The bowl measures ten feet, and has a carrying capacity of one hundredweight, Mr. Wright informed me, though I
should never have thought it possible. Three times this scoop is filled and emptied into the retort, one man being stationed at the handle, and two others supporting the body by means of a curved iron arrangement termed a "bridle."
This has a handle on each side; the bottom of the scoop fits into the bend, and so the load is borne into the "retort" and run home, the men at the bridle hastily retiring to avoid the rush of flame that takes place as the scoop is turned over and withdrawn upside down by the man at the handle.

The work is done with marvellous energy and quickness, because delay here means loss of gas, and when the last fill is made the contents are pushed back from the entrance, the door is rammed to and fastened, and the "charge" is left baking for six hours.
Each retort carbonises about one ton of coals per diem; there are about sixty-four
'’retorts" in one building, set in two rows side by side and back to back. Gas-Land contains five or six similar buildings, and with 365 days in a year and coals at, say, twelve shillings per ton, it occurred to me that I shouldn't like to foot the coal bill. The same idea will probably occur to you.
At the end of the six hours, the doors are opened and the residue is seen running back in a long red line that is too trying to the eye to gaze in upon.

It is better not to be too eager to get a near sight at this stage of the operations. The "retorts" have a spiteful habit of blowing out a huge sheet of flame and gas and dense sulphurous smoke when the doors are first opened, and if you are not expecting it the surprise is apt to be unpleasant and painful. The coke is then drawn out, by means of long iron rakes, into metal barrows, where it is cooled down by the application of cold water, and wheeled out to an immense heap, around which a whole regiment of grandmothers could be instructed in the art of mastication, publicly, instead of getting surreptitious and imperfect lessons in
their coal-cellars at home.
I used often to be advised to teach my grandmother to eat coke, in my younger days, and, assuming that it is a knowledge all respectable and conscientious grandmothers ought to possess, it struck me that this would have been an excellent opportunity to give the lesson. There was such a sufficiency of material, that the company could easily have afforded the amount an innocent old lady of limited appetite would have consumed in "swatting" up the subject.
Now, we have seen the coal go into the "retorts," and we have seen the coke leave them at least, I have, and you are seeing the process through me hardly so clear and impressive, I'll admit; but lucid and very improving.
In the process it has parted with several properties, notably gas, tar, and ammoniacal water. All these things are comprised in the thick, yellow, smoky gas that rises up from the "retorts" through the series of huge iron pipes that tower in front of them. Arrived at the top, it turns over into an immense iron pipe termed the "hydraulic main," through which it is drawn by a set of powerful steam pumps or exhausters that are working in another part of the grounds. In turning, it deposits a certain proportion of tar which is drained away into tanks, preparatory to being emptied into an immense well, handily contrived out of the basin of an old and long-since discarded gasometer.
Even after it has rid itself of a few superfluous gallons of tar, the gas is hardly in a
condition to be supplied to long-suffering householders, and the outside authorities would probably have something to say on the subject, even supposing the householder didn't kick - an unlikely contingency. So the crude gas is drawn away by the engines through the condensers, a series of upright iron pipes, which reduce the temperature considerably, and prepare it for the "scrubbers" and "purifiers."

The ordinary gas of commerce cannot be seen. It may be smelt, and a lighted match in the hand of a double-distilled idiot will discover its presence and make its whereabouts known to the whole neighbourhood. But up to the time of reaching the '’scrubbers" it can be seen by even a near-sighted person. I cannot say that I myself did actually see it, but Mr. Wright assured me that such was the
case, and I always take these facts from my guides, occasionally passing them off as my own.
Forced by the powerful pumps, the gas then goes on a circumlocutory tour, in the course of which it enters a "washer" a huge horizontal contrivance half filled with water, in which revolve a number of wheels containing bundles of wood somewhat similar to the familiar halfpenny bundles of commerce that are sold by
oilmen. The wheels carry these wood bundles alternately through the gas and through the water, and as ammonia has the property of sticking like glue to a wet surface the result is obvious.
"So sorry," it observes hastily to the gas when it sees the wet bundle coming round in its direction, "but here's a friend of mine, and I must go. Remember me kindly to all at home. Ta-ta! I'll probably see you at the club to-night."
But it doesn't. The water in the tank below has too powerful an attraction for it; and once in, it stays, while the bundle, having disposed of that little lot, goes out to look for more giddy little ammoniacal stragglers. It suggests a conscientious policeman on duty - supposing there were such a thing - only that it is too
intelligent, and it will not lie still, while the average policeman lies anyhow with a magnificent impartiality.

It takes ten gallons of water to wash the gas product of a ton of coal, to say nothing of the scrubbing process that it has to undergo in what are appropriately termed the "scrubbers."
These "scrubbers " consist of two immense iron towers, which stand forty feet high and are filled with layers of coke arranged in tiers two and a half feet thick. At the top, ammoniacal liquor is poured down, and by the time the gas has forced its way through this tortuous length of coke and water it has left behind, in the
form of ammoniacal liquid, all the ammonia it contained. After that it would seem superfluous to talk about purifying it. But they do purify it! These industrial people are so thorough and so wonderfully painstaking!
If it were left to the gas, I have no doubt that it would elect to go straight off and help twist round the wheels of some inoffensive citizen's domestic meter - perhaps mine. It is a light-hearted, frolicsome sort of substance is gas, and it delights in a joke of that sort, even though it cannot stay to witness the
"He, he!" it chuckles, in a silly, irritating sort of way.
"Won't he just say things when the bill comes in!" And it gives the meter an
extra shove and goes rejoicing on its way to its one especial tap just under the baby's foodwarmer.
I am glad they purify it, because, from what I know of gas, I am very sure it has a conscientious objection to the process. This is done in a series of squatty, dome-roofed iron tanks, containing layers of lime six inches deep, which are termed with sweet simplicity and directness "purifiers." These number ten, and the gas takes them in regular rotation, entering at number one and leaving again at number ten, and then, for the first time, it is gas pure, simple, unadulterated and
The ammoniacal waters used at one time to be a waste and an obnoxious product, for a certain proportion of the ammonia being blown off into the air, got the neighbourhood of Gas-Land a bad name. Being of a sensitive nature, this grieved the officials, and they took and collected it - the ammonia, I mean, not the bad name - and sat down before it and pondered deeply and darkly.
The outcome of their ponderings resulted in a comparatively new building, where the ammoniacal water is distilled and treated with lime and sulphuric acid, and finally deposited in the form of a crystallised salt known as sulphate of ammonia. This sells for an encouraging sum for use as manure on tea and coffee plantations, and the officials have reason to pride themselves en the results of their stupendous mental effort.

Freed from the retarding influence of all impurities, back the gas rushes to the meterhouse, anxious to get the remaining formalities over, in order that it may let its light shine before all men and increase the quarterly bill of one man in particular. Sometimes it happens that it may be disappointed at the last gasp, for it has many roads to traverse, and should it mistake the turning it might possibly
find itself up a lamp-post, when the local authorities would have to foot the bill, and a pound or two more or less doesn't matter when the rates are eight shillings in the pound and the parish is ‘’improving."
I followed it into the meter-house, which is a handsome, lofty building, gleaming with polished metal-work and filled with mysterious appliances, wheels, and fittings.
"By the way," I remarked to Mr. Wright, as we entered,
"what do you make here ?"
"Why, gas," he replied.
"Oh, that accounts for it then," I rejoined, "I thought I could smell it."
Up to then I had neither seen nor smelt the product of so much pains and labour, and I had had to take my guide's statements on trust. This I was very ready to do, of course ; but here was tangible proof, and it interested me accordingly.
The meters, of which there are three, are the main feature in this building, and hold an important, not to say obtrusive, position in the centre of the room. There is not much to be seen in them, however, big and imposing as they are. A circular glass window on the face of each shows inside a number of dials similar
to, though much larger than, the ordinary gasmeter for house use. A clock wags a sedate brass pendulum in the centre, and every hour a record is taken of the quantity of gas manufactured.
I got the horrors looking in and watching the tens - of - thousands hand covering the ground. I tried to figure out a quarter's bill at the ordinary rates, based on a calculation from five minutes' observation. This depressed me and gave me a headache, so I quitted meters and mental arithmetic and went over and watched the test flame burning steadily away up in one corner of the room in a polished little case with a glass door to it. Mr. Wright did make me understand the
working of this contrivance; but headache left me hazy on the subject when I tried to remember it. It is a Governmental regulation, anyway, that a sixteen candle-power flame shall be seven inches in height, and in this arrangement the test can be applied and the quality of the gas determined.
Thus tested and measured, the gas once more travels down the yard to one of the numerous "holders," as they are termed the familiar great iron tanks supported in a circle of massive columns, up and down which guidewheels
travel and stay the " holder" from getting jammed, or rocked by the wind pressure
that in a decent breeze on such a vast surface must be enormous.

They have quite recently set up a veritable giant even amongst those giants in Gas-Land, and I may as well describe that one, for they are much of a muchness in constructive arrangementare these "holders," and differ only in size and storage capacity. The great fellow I was inspecting is made in three sections, which fit telescopically one within another. A third of the height, therefore, represents the depth of the tank-well in the ground into which they subside.
This is an ordinary well, brick-lined, and its chief importance consists in the fact that it costs something like £10,000 to dig and construct. The "holder" itself runs the company into another trifle of £15,000 or so. Considered as a monument,
it would doubtless be imposing and impressive, but something quieter and less costly would satisfy me if I had that sum lying about and getting in my way and irritating me so that I had to put it out to service.
Water is an absolute seal for gas, and is used to prevent the escape between the loosely fitting sections and from between the "holder " and the tank. In the centre of the "holder,” rising up from the ground to a few feet above the water-level, are set two capacious pipes, one for filling and one for drawing-off. The gas is pumped in, and the pressure causes the inside receiver to creep slowly upwards, the guide-wheels holding it in place and allowing it to travel freely. When it has fully expanded, an outward-curved rim catches under a similar rim curved inwards on the second tank, and that is slowly dragged upwards, until the third
section is reached and hoisted in its turn. The "holders" are constructed of riveted
iron plates, of half, quarter, and eighth-inch metal, with a domed roof.

A fussy little steam-boiler was at work at the time blowing steam into the water contained in the basin. I gathered from Mr. Wright that the frost would be apt to complicate matters, and this operation has to be kept up all through the severe weather to prevent the water freezing.
The gas is compelled to travel back once more to the meter-house before they have quite done with it, where it passes through one of a series of big iron governors, of which there are five - one for each district - that by rising and
fallng over the outlet-pipe serve to regulate the pressure, in much the same manner that the governor of a steam-engine equalises its speed.

And so it travels out of Gas-Land into the street, and I, having seen all there was to be seen, and having missed hearing nothing for the want of asking, wrapped my coat-collar up round my ears and travelled out with it.

I may post more of these if there is any interest. In the meantime, anyone who does have an interest in Victorian industrial London is welcome to choose from the following list of industries in the book and I’ll post the corresponding chapter:

·  Piano
·  Rope
·  Tram
·  Candle
·  Paper
·  Soap
·  Mineral-Water
·  Matches
·  Rubber
·  Wire
·  Sweets


  1. I would like to know when the piano industry erupted in the victorian england time period

  2. Upper, and in some cases middle class families almost always had a piano, as it was seen as a very ladylike activity to learn to play one, and mothers would teach their daughters, or a piano teacher would be employed.

    As well as reading, painting and stitching and sewing, playing the piano was somewhat of a staple activity for ladies.

    I'm not 100% sure when their sales boomed, but I'd hazard a guess at the 1840's and 1850's. Certainly by the end of the century almost every upper class house would have had a piano.

    If you give me a couple of weeks I shall write up the post about piano manufacture, if you want to read it.

    Thanks for the request,

    All the best!

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  4. Great blog. Your blog is interesting and so informative. Wait for your next blog post. Thanks for sharing with us. Gas engineer London.