COAL TAR BEFORE THE INVENTION OF TOWNS GAS
The dry distillation of organic materials was commonly practised by alchemists and was probably applied to coal at an early date. The earliest reference to coal gas was in about the year 1600 by the Dutchman, van Helmont, who found that coal "did belch forth a wild spirit or breath" which he named gas. About fifty years later Clayton, in Yorkshire, distilled coal in a retort producing a "wild spirit or breath" which he was able to show was a flammable gas. The first record of coal tar seems to have been in 1665, when J J Becher, a German professor of medicine, brought to England his process for making tar from coal by dry distillation in closed vessels. Becher was the first person to attempt a reasonable explanation of combustion and it was upon his work that the phlogiston theory was based. In 1681 Becher and H Serle were granted British Patent 214, for making pitch and tar from coal. They claimed that the coal tar they produced was superior to wood tar (or Stockholm tar). This had been made, probably for thousands of years, by thermally decomposing wood by heating it in the absence of air, a process related to charcoal burning. Its principal use was for preserving timber, in particular the structures of ships, and for treating ropes.
In 1741 Goethe described a visit which he made to what he called "the burning hill", near the village of Dutweiler in the German Palatinate. There he met a peculiar man named Stauf, whom he christened a "coal philosopher". Stauf was carrying out the process of destructive distillation (or carbonisation) of coal in a crude form of coke oven, collecting the oils, resin and tar which were given off.
In 1779 J Champion was granted British Patent 1224 for extracting tar from coal in the course of making coke for blast furnaces. In the same year the manufacture of tar was begun in Bristol and a Mr Dixon made tar at Cookfield, which he despatched to Sunderland for shipbuilding purposes until 1783.
The Earl of Dundonald
Probably the first serious attempt to manufacture coal tar was made by Archibald Cochrane, the ninth Earl of Dundonald. The Earl was a self-taught inventor, who sadly never made the fortune he deserved from the process of manufacturing tar from coal at his estate at Culross Abbey, near Edinburgh. Throughout the 18th century, the Baltic Powers had virtually a monopoly on the supply of wood tar and pitch, and they were thus in a position to exert diplomatic pressure on a nation that was increasingly dependent for its prosperity on shipping. This was clearly an undesirable situation. Furthermore, during the Napoleonic wars, the increased demand for wood tar for the large numbers of ships being built could not be satisfied, and the situation was further exacerbated by the American War of Independence which adversely affected supplies of wood tar from that country. The need for a substitute was the principal reason for Dundonald’s research. He used all his financial resources to construct a plant for decomposing coal by heating it in the absence of air in a closed vessel known as a retort (the process was later called carbonisation). Coke, a valuable fuel, remained in the retort. British Patent 1291 was granted him in 1781 for ‘… a method of extracting or making tar, pitch and essential oils … from pit coal.’
Dundonald had another tar works at Muirkirk, which was managed by his cousin John Macadam, the inventor of macadamised roads. There were five more works in the Midlands, including one at Dudley Wood and one at Calcutts in Shropshire. Then Dundonald began to suffer financial problems and, by 1785, his tar was being widely marketed by the British Tar Company. He suffered a further commercial setback when the Admiralty lost interest in tar, favouring the use of copper to protect ships hulls. The builders of new ships were not particularly interested either, declaring that, "The worm is our best friend", meaning that they made more money from repairing ships than they did from building them. Most of Dundonald’s tar was sold to industry. In the 1790s, Dundonald set up a works at Bow Common in East London. Interestingly, one of Dundonald’s descendants, Thomas Barnes Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald, was granted a patent in 1863 referring to improvements in the production of hydrocarbons from gas tar.
Dundonald’s experiments in the manufacture of tar from coal became interesting when he fitted a gun barrel to the delivery pipe leading from his condenser. On applying a source of ignition to the end of the gun barrel, a brilliant light blazed out. He had discovered that, in addition to tar and other chemicals, his process produced a gas that burned with a luminous flame. But because the objective of his research was to increase the revenue from coal by manufacturing tar and pitch from it, he failed to recognise the commercial potential of the gas as an illuminant; it was left to others to develop his discovery and grow rich from it. He did, however, light one room of his house with it – as a novelty "to amaze" his guests.
In 1782 Dundonald described his process to the well-known partnership of Matthew Boulton and James Watt, hoping that he might persuade them to invest in it. Boulton did in fact visit Dundonald in Scotland in the following year to discuss the matter, but for some reason the partners showed little interest in his discovery.
But Dundonald’s process soon attracted wider interest. For example, in 1791 the Society of Arts awarded a prize to a William Pitt for an account of a tar making plant at Dudley Wood Ironworks. There was a small number of tar distillers in business throughout the country some years before towns gas was manufactured on a commercial scale, but the coal tar industry really began to develop when large quantities of crude tar became available from the purification of gas. At first, most of the crude tar produced by the new gas companies was sold to independent tar distillers, but some of them carried out tar distillation on a modest scale at their own works; a practice which was to continue for many years.
COAL GAS AND THE GAS LIGHT & COKE COMPANY
In 1791, one of Boulton and Watt’s employees, William Murdoch, patented a process similar to that of Dundonald’s, but his intention was to manufacture an illuminating gas, rather than tar and other chemicals. By 1792 he was producing coal gas on a small scale. It is possible that Murdoch had been told about Dundonald’s work by his employers, but this does not imply that he made use of the information.
Murdoch’s first large-scale gas-making plant commenced production at Boulton and Watt’s Birmingham factory in 1798. Tar was produced as a by-product but it was regarded simply as an unpleasant and useless waste material. As the scale of gas production increased, so did the problem of disposing of it. A certain amount of research to discover methods of doing this was carried out by the chemists of the time, but their limited knowledge and crude apparatus made their task a formidable one.
During the next few years more gas-making plants were constructed These were, however, relatively small and were mainly used for single factories or mansions. Murdoch preferred small local units of this type. He showed little interest in distributing gas, for example through a piped system throughout a town; this concept had yet to be developed. Although Murdoch is often regarded as the inventor of coal gas, he never regarded himself as such. In a letter to Members of Parliament in 1808 he pointed out that he was the first person to apply gas as an illuminant which was superior to oils and tallow.
At about the same time as Murdoch was working in England, the Frenchman Le Bon, in Paris, patented a process in 1799 for making illuminating gas from wood, coal or other combustible materials by heating them in a closed retort: his "Thermolamp".
In 1802, a flamboyant Moravian, Friedrich Albrecht Winzler (later Frederic Albert Winsor), a peripatetic, self-styled professor of economics; part visionary, part charlatan, became aware of Le Bon’s work. He attempted to purchase one of his Thermolamps, but without success, so he designed one himself. Unlike Murdoch, who favoured "private" gasworks, Winsor recognised the enormous commercial potential for a system that would transmit an illuminating gas via a piped distribution system throughout a town or city from a single gas-works. In pursuit of his ambition, he came to London in 1803 and embarked upon a vigorous publicity campaign which included a number of spectacular demonstrations of public lighting. He was soon on the way to success.
In 1807, a committee was set up under J L Grant to promote Winsor’s claims regarding gas lighting, but the pioneer operators, Murdoch and Dundonald, opposed his proposals. But eventually, after overcoming many obstacles, including raising the sum of £100,000 which Parliament required him to do, Winsor received the Royal Charter from the Prince Regent to establish the first major gas undertaking in the world: the Gas Light & Coke Co. The company was to supply gas to the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, and the adjacent precincts and suburbs. Its first Court of Directors met on 24 June 1812.
Because the GLCC was incorporated by Royal Charter, its Board of Directors was known as the Court, and its Chairman, the Governor.
The history of the GLCC has been comprehensively covered by Everard and others and will not be undertaken in this account.
THE FIRST BY-PRODUCTS FROM GAS MANUFACTURE
In the early days of coal gas manufacture, two crude materials were obtained from the purification of the gas: crude tar and gas liquor. Two others: spent oxide and benzole, were not produced until much later – in the latter part of the 19th century. At first, the tar and gas liquor were regarded as obnoxious waste materials: a nuisance to be disposed of. But it was not long before their potential as a source of valuable chemicals began to be recognised and, throughout the country, works were opened up to exploit this new source of revenue. Tar was the richest and most profitable source of chemicals and its processing was the most widely carried out of these four crude materials.
Some by-products processing was carried out by the gas companies themselves but, more commonly, the crude tar and gas liquor were sold to independent chemical manufacturers. They sometimes produced other chemicals in addition to tar and ammonia products, and did not necessarily process the latter throughout the whole period of their existence. One such company was set up in about 1820 near Edinburgh. One of its products was coal tar naphtha, which was first used by Charles Macintosh to make rubberised fabric, a process that he patented in 1823.
It is not within the scope of this work to give a comprehensive history of the British by-products industry. Information is included on the processing of by-products by those independent tar distillers and chemical manufacturers whose works were situated in the geographical area that was to become the domain of the GLCC. Also included is an account of the early research into coal tar chemicals, since the discoveries that were made encouraged the GLCC to construct Beckton Products Works, recognising a potentially profitable commercial opportunity.
The activities of the GLCC in the field of by-products manufacture are, because of their importance to this account, described separately in Chapter 4.
Appendix I gives details of some of the companies who either purchased and distilled crude tar from the gas works of the GLCC, purchased refined tar from its Poplar works between 1817 and 1833, or carried on the business of tar distillers. The company records are often not clear as to whether crude or refined tar was purchased. Some of these companies continued in business after the opening of Beckton Products Works in 1879.
Two East London gas companies gave some thought to processing their own by-products, but very little came of their efforts. The City of London Gas Light & Coke Co served the City, Aldgate and part of Whitechapel. It had a by-products works at Milwall, where pitch was produced prior to 1820. The business was not profitable, however, and the works closed down in 1821. The Imperial Gas Light & Coke Co served an area from Pimlico to Whitechapel. In 1827, it considered manufacturing chemical by-products and the Directors allocated money for building a tar and ammonia products works at Millwall, but the plan never came to fruition.
Before the middle of the 19th century the distillation of tar produced only a limited range of by-products: principally solvent naphtha, creosote, refined tar and pitch. The use of creosote or tar for preserving wood received a considerable boost with the coming of the railways and the use of large numbers of wooden railway sleepers. One of the earliest patents for this (BP 7731/1838) was granted to Bethell, who was the founder of one of Britain’s largest tar distillers, Burt, Boulton & Haywood, which specialised in wood preservation. Also in 1838 the first patents for the use of tar in road construction appeared, but these were not developed commercially for some years. Burt, Boulton & Haywood had a very long life. The Prince Regent Tar Co, a wholly owned subsidiary of the company, was distilling tar from a number of gas companies north of the Thames (except the GLCC) up until the 1940s. When the gas industry was nationalised in 1948, Printar Industries was formed, jointly owned by Burt, Boulton & Haywood and the Eastern Gas Board, for the purpose of distilling the latter’s crude tar.
Coal tar dyestuffs
Between 1820 and 1850 a great deal of research went on into the chemistry of coal tar. A wide range of chemicals were obtained from it, including benzene, naphthalene, anthracene, aniline, quinoline, pyridine and the phenols but, at first, no commercial uses were identified for them. There was however, a growing interest in the possibility of synthesising substances which had hitherto only been available from natural sources and, as a result of this, a momentous discovery was made in 1856 which was to be responsible for the foundation of the coal tar chemicals industry. W H Perkin invented the first synthetic dye, at first named Tyrian purple and later Mauveine, made from the coal tar derivative aniline, which was manufactured from benzene.
By 1857, the demand for the new dyestuff had become so great that the manufacture of aniline for his process created a demand for coal tar benzene on a scale never before visualised. The tar distillers could not at first supply it in sufficient quantity or of the required purity. Perkin’s achievements attracted a great deal of attention and soon led to the discovery of further synthetic dyestuffs such as Alizarine and the azo dyes. Factories were built for manufacturing these, in both Britain and France. The coal tar dyestuffs industry had come into existence and was based mainly on the coal tar derivatives: benzene, toluene, naphthalene, anthracene, phenol, the cresols, and carbazole.
Surprisingly and sadly, after Perkin’s retirement at the early age of 36, in 1876, followed by some other pioneers of British dyestuffs production, our dyestuffs industry began to decline. This was due to the lack of economic support from its principal customers, the textile manufacturers, and to the lack of provision of suitable education and training for industrial chemists. The manufacture of coal tar dyestuffs was taken over by Britain’s German and Swiss competitors and, although the UK was the foremost textile producer in the world, the textile manufacturers were happy to import dyes from the Continent.
Other coal tar derivatives
At the same time as these changes were taking place in the dyestuffs industry, other coal tar chemicals were being developed and a new major industry, manufacturing a wide range of organic chemicals, came into existence. For about eighty years (until the coming of petrochemicals), this was to produce the starting materials for the manufacture of the majority of organic chemicals, including dyestuffs, pharmaceuticals, and solvents.
The discovery by Lister in 1865 of disinfectants provided a market for refined phenol, the cresols and xylenols. Naphthalene has already been mentioned as a starting point for artificial dyestuffs and further uses, as a moth repellent ("moth balls") and in the manufacture of plastics, soon emerged. In 1879 Remson discovered the artificial sweetener, Saccharine. Then followed road tar, coal tar fuels, explosives and plastics. Salicylic acid was first made in the 1890s from carbon dioxide and phenol and its acetyl compound, Aspirin, was arguably the first and most widely used of the synthetic drugs. Beckton Products Works was in the forefront of these developments, and was to become one of the principal manufacturers of both the primary derivatives from coal tar and a number of secondary products.
A number of gas companies in the London area, particularly the Imperial Gas Co, not only sold gas liquor to independent chemical manufacturers, but also carried out the manufacture of ammonium compounds. Particularly important was sulphate of ammonia, which was to be widely used as an agricultural fertiliser for more than a century.
Sulphuric acid was made by the Lead Chamber Process, using gas-works spent oxide, pyrites or elemental sulphur as raw materials. Iron oxide was first used in London for the removal of sulphur from towns gas by the Imperial Gas Company in 1851, followed by the GLCC in 1856. In 1861 a firm at Creekmouth, Barking (probably Lawes Chemical Co) used 2180 tons of spent oxide to make sulphuric acid. The GLCC made sulphuric acid by this process at Beckton Products Works from 1880 until its closure in 1970. However, apart from those plants which used gasworks spent oxide, the Lead Chamber Process was generally superseded, in about 1900, by the Contact Process using elemental sulphur. Sulphuric acid manufacture was one of the principal chemical processes carried out in the West Ham area.
Appendix 3 lists some sulphuric acid manufacturers in the GLCC’s area. It is probable that at least some of them would have used spent oxide from the GLCC as their raw material before 1879, when Beckton Products Works came into existence.
THE GAS LIGHT & COKE COMPANY AND ITS CHEMICAL BY-PRODUCTS
This chapter is concerned with the involvement of the GLCC in chemical by-products manufacture prior to the opening of Beckton Products Works in 1879.
Chemical by-products before the formation of the GLCC
Winsor’s principal interest was always the manufacture of illuminating gas, but he did draw attention to the potential value of chemical by-products on a number of occasions. As early as 1803 he stated publicly that his patent stoves (retorts) would extract inflammable air, oil, pitch, tar and acids from all kinds of fuel. In 1804 he was granted a patent for "an improved oven, stove, or apparatus for the purpose of extracting inflammable air, oil, pitch, tar and acids from, and reducing into, coke and charcoal, all kinds of fuel." Also in 1804 Winsor formed a "Society" to further his experiments. Somewhat surprisingly, pamphlets issued by the Society emphasised the value of coke, tar and gas liquor as the most important products of the gas manufacturing process, rather than gas. A publication by Winsor recommended gas liquor as being superior to bark for tanning leather. Whether, like Dundonald, he believed that this was where the financial profits lay, or whether his intention was to encourage investors and to assess the extent of the opposition and rivalry (which was not inconsiderable) is not known. His emphasis on by-products soon changed, however, and he concentrated on publicising illuminating gas.
In 1807 Winsor sought to establish, but without success, the National Heat & Light Co. Despite this, its prospectus is of interest, since it contained the following reference to the value of by-products:
The [refined] coal tar is so-called from its resembling common [or crude] tar in its appearance and many of its qualities. It differs from it, however, in being less combustible and, of course, is better adapted for many of the purposes to which tar is applied. It may be used with advantage for painting and securing wood when exposed to the action of air or water.
The properties of ammoniacal liquor have not yet been fully investigated. It would appear that it is applicable, not only to the manufacture of muriate of ammonia (sal ammoniac) but … to the tanning of leather and as a mordant in dyeing.
When advertising the proposed GLCC in 1809, the manufacture of muriate of ammonia (ammonium chloride or sal ammoniac) was mentioned.
In 1809 Frederick Accum, the widely respected and multi-talented industrial chemist, who would in 1812 become an erstwhile member of Board of Directors of the GLCC, and later its Chief Chemist, supported Winsor, emphasising the "national advantages to be gained from the use … of tar, and ammoniacal fertilisers." In the same year, lobbyists working on behalf of the future GLCC pointed out that 15,000 tons of tar per annum were purchased from abroad for the use of the Navy.
The GLCC is formed
The first Court of Directors of the newly-formed GLCC met on 24 June 1812. Even at that early date, they were in agreement with Winsor about the potential value of by-products. The prospectus of the Company acknowledged this, claiming, inter alia, that:
… the application of tar and pitch is universally known, and the asphaltam proved to be equal to the finest foreign Japan. The ammoniacal liquor has many properties, and among others, that of being eminently useful to the dyer … .
However, in the early days of the company’s existence, the quantities of tar and gas liquor that were produced sometimes exceeded demand, and their disposal posed a problem.
Despite the major part Winsor played in the formation of the GLCC, he was not, at first, made a Director or even an officer of the new company, greatly to his disappointment. He was finally voted on to the Court of Directors in 1813, but was only given unimportant tasks to carry out. One of these was to scour London "between the three bridges and beyond them on both sides of the river" in search of suitable barrels for the storage and despatch of by-products. His discoveries included old "oil pipes" which had a capacity of 100 gallons, 90 gallon treacle barrels, and porter puncheons. He finally reported in favour of oil barrels for tar, and beer, wine and rum casks for gas liquor. Due to his unpredictable nature, Winsor caused the GLCC numerous problems and eventually the Company was obliged to dispense with his services. He was forced (by a process which today would be termed constructive dismissal) to relinquish his Directorship and leave the company in 1815, with an annuity of just £200 per year.
In spite of the fact that he left the GLCC under a cloud, Winsor should be credited with the rapid growth in the success of gas lighting, for being the driving force behind the formation of the GLCC, for recognising the potential value of chemical by-products, and for forecasting the coming into existence of ‘a great national gas company’. He was also responsible for constructing the first proper gas-works, in Great Peter Street, London. The principal recognition that he received for all this was to have the approach road to Beckton Gas-works named Winsor Terrace!
In the early days of its existence the GLCC had difficulty in disposing of crude tar, due mainly to its unsuitability for coating wood or metal.
In 1815, Fredrick Accum, Chief Chemist of the Company, published his famous book Practical Treatise on Gas Light. He was interested in by-products and stated that "to render tar fit for use it requires to be evaporated to give it a sufficient consistence". Or, in modern terminology, to be dehydrated and have some of the lower boiling components distilled off from it. He carried out the operation in closed stills: the first time that these had been used for that purpose; earlier on, pitch had been produced by boiling down tar in an open vessel. Accum’s still produced a low boiling distillate which was sold as a cheap substitute for natural turpentine. It was used as a solvent in paints and varnishes, and later for the public lighting of Waterloo Bridge and neighbouring streets, burning it in constant level lamps. Accum was one of the first chemists to carry out formal research into chemical by-products from gas manufacture. At the request of Winsor and the other promoters of the new company, he conducted a long series of experiments. He described these in his testimony before committees of the House of Commons and the Lords, when he produced specimens of ammonia, sulphur, oil, tar etc, and discussed their possible uses.
In 1816, the GLCC’s Chief Engineer, Clegg, carried out some experiments on carbonising crude tar to make gas. Although the trials reached production scale, they were unsuccessful and were abandoned in 1817. Surplus tar was then sold to an independent tar distiller, Thomas Kempson, for an unspecified period. Also in 1816, Thomas Dalton, a foreman caulker at the Blackwall shipyard of Wells, Wigram and Green, wrote to the GLCC about possible applications for tar. As a result, it seems that the GLCC employed Dalton as their sales agent for this substance, principally for use in caulking and rope making.
In 1817, the GLCC decided to process all its crude tar itself, instead of selling it. Premises were leased at Poplar ‘for one year certain, at a lease of £61’ and a tar works was established at Orchard Place, near the junction of the River Lea with the Thames, which could be regarded as the forerunner of Beckton Products Works. Thomas Dalton was appointed Superintendent and, during the next ten years, he developed and expanded Poplar Works and built up and promoted the range of products, which included pitch, refined tar, varnishes, oils, paints and lamp black. A major outlet for tar was its use by the Royal Navy for preserving its wooden ships. In 1823 the first export orders for tar were received and deliveries were made to Hamburg and, in 1827, to the USA. Tar was also sent by sea to Aberdeen. In 1824 the Court of the GLCC minuted its obligation to Dalton for his perseverance.
In 1824, Mackintosh, the inventor of rubberised fabrics, purchased coal tar spirit from the GLCC and this would almost certainly have come from Poplar. Thomas Hancock, whose factory was near Brick Lane gasworks, purchased spirits of tar from the GLCC in 1828, to be used in manufacturing rubberised fabrics, possibly under licence from, or in partnership with, Mackintosh.
But in spite of Dalton’s hard work, and the many references to tar sales in the Court minutes, the Directors decided in 1833 that ‘despite the volume of business the works failed to pay its way’ and it was sold.
Tar distillation by the GLCC after the closure of Poplar works
Between the sale by the GLCC of Poplar works in 1833, and the opening of Beckton Products Works in 1879, there is very little reliable information about the way in which the GLCC disposed of its crude tar. Poplar works was sold as a going concern to Turner, Shackell & Hopkinson, and was later owned by Turner alone, who continued to buy (and presumably process) crude tar from the GLCC. In 1840 the premises reverted to the ownership of the GLCC, and tar distillation may have ceased then, but Turner was still at the works in 1853, making ‘varnish’.
Some of the GLCC’s crude tar was probably sold to independent tar distillers, but there is some evidence that the Company did distil tar at certain of its gas works. In 1833, George Lowe, Superintendent at Brick Lane gas works, patented a method of collecting tars of different specific gravities, which suggests that tar distillation was being carried out there. In 1848 the GLCC supplied tar to the Wylan Patent Fuel Co, Greenwich, for making fuel briquettes with coal dust. This may have been crude tar, but if it were refined tar then the GLCC may have been distilling crude tar. In 1855, a quantity of coal tar spirit was sold to Mackintosh, suggesting that the Company was distilling tar at that time, but where this was done is not known. In 1850, F J Evans, Manager of Westminster gas works, produced a patent, jointly with Richard Laming, about improvements to tar distillation plant, and in 1865 another referring to the curative properties of "dead oil", a high boiling coal tar distillate. This shows a familiarity with coal tar distillation that was probably acquired by practical experience within the GLCC.
Around 1836 there was a slump in the demand for crude tar from gas-making plants and large stocks of it had to be disposed of by burning it, mixed with breeze, under gas-making retorts.
There is confirmation that, shortly before the opening of Beckton Products Works in 1879, some of the Company’s crude tar was being sold for processing to independent tar distillers. In the Co-partners Magazine of April 1937 a pensioner, H T Bird, who had probably been an office worker, wrote:
While the Beckton gas works were in course of construction, all [sic] our residuals were sent for treatment abroad, so my knowledge of French and German was available.
It seems unlikely that this was entirely accurate, but it does show that some crude by-products were being exported at that time. Between the commencement of operations at Beckton gas works in 1870 and Beckton Products Works in 1879, crude tar from Beckton was conveyed by barge to other tar works for distillation, although it is not clear whether these belonged to the GLCC or independent companies. The largest of these in the GLCC’s area was Burt, Boulton & Haywood, with works at Prince Regent’s Wharf, Silvertown and at Millwall. Crory, in East London Industries, 1876, states that "Into these [Prince Regent’s Wharf Works] and the Millwall Works, the whole of the gas tar made at most of the gasworks in London finds its way. This is about 12,000,000 gallons annually". Also, Poplar works was reported as being a tar works as late as 1880, possibly distilling crude tar from the GLCC.
Although gas liquor was, in many ways a ‘poor relation’ to coal tar, its commercial potential had been recognised even before the GLCC came into existence. Ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac) had been made in London as early as the 18th century and was mentioned by Accum when giving his support to the formation of GLCC. And in 1810, he claimed that ammonium carbonate would be a valuable source of revenue.
When, in 1814, the Court considered the desirability of setting up its own by-products research organisation, the first project was concerned with the manufacture of ammonium salts (probably sulphate and carbonate), and other uses for gas liquor. Benjamin Newton, a Director of the GLCC, engaged a Mr McCormick to take charge of the research. Two weeks later, however, the Directors changed their minds and McCormick was paid off with the sum of two guineas, as the Court minutes report, "for wasting his time". No results of his work survive.
The first practical research in the GLCC on the processing of gas liquor was carried out by Frederick Winsor, Jnr, his father having recommended him to the Directors. Winsor, Snr was, at that time, at the peak of his career in the GLCC and, for a while at least, had considerable influence with the Court. The research commenced at Peter Street gasworks in 1814, when Winsor Jnr was just sixteen years old. But because the Directors failed to define Winsor’s terms of reference properly, difficulties inevitably arose. He made many promises, but delivered very little. As mentioned earlier, his father then fell out of favour with the Company and, after a few months, Winsor Jnr was relieved of his post, denied access to the works, and his research stopped. Within a week these prohibitions were lifted, but interest in the work declined and, in 1815, Winsor was told to dismantle his equipment and his laboratory was demolished. There was then a wrangle about the payment due to him for his work. Eventually a modest sum was agreed upon and Winsor left the scene. At a later date, he commenced a sixty years’ association with the GLCC, becoming a Director of the Company. It was he who first suggested that an integrated by-products works be constructed.
Meanwhile some other Directors of the GLCC had begun to take an interest in by-products. The first of these was Thomas Livesey, who investigated possible uses for gas liquor. In 1814 he arranged for a sample to be sent to Barchard, Hilton & Platt, textile dyers, situated in the Borough, for experimental use as a mordant, and he also sold all the weak gas liquor from the GLCC’s Curtain Road works to Alcock & Co, Haggerston. There are no records of the results of these experiments.
In the same year, John van Voorst, a shareholder in the GLCC but not a Director, arranged for experiments to be carried out by a Mr Dunstan, an apothecary, in Old Broad Street. Dunstan reported that gas liquor would be valuable to dyers and would give a considerable advantage in producing sulphur salts (presumably sulphate of ammonia). In 1815 further experiments in the processing of gas liquor were carried out by the GLCC. They were, however, unsuccessful and thenceforth the liquor was either sold to outside contractors for processing, or disposed of as waste.
In May 1815, David Richards, who had formerly been employed by the GLCC in 1813 as a foreman, was a sales agent for the GLCC’s gas liquor. He sold gas liquor to a chemical manufacturer, Jewell, who made sulphate of ammonia from it, in association with Richards who was acting on behalf of the GLCC. In January 1816 Richards carried out some research on gas liquor on behalf of the GLCC, and in November of the same year sent a sample of sulphate of ammonia (probably made by Jewell and himself) to a Mr Cotton of Kenilworth. This was rejected because of its poor quality, and the GLCC terminated Richards’ contract.
Samuel Clegg took an interest in gas liquor at this time. In April 1816 he recommended that sulphate of ammonia should be made from surplus gas liquor, and in 1817 he tried, unsuccessfully, to use gas liquor to remove hydrogen sulphide from coal gas.
There was, by now, a growing interest in gas liquor from independent chemical manufacturers, for making sulphate of ammonia and sal ammoniac, which resulted in substantial sales of gas liquor by the GLCC; Appendix II lists some its customers.
In 1822 the GLCC bartered coke in exchange for sulphuric and hydrochloric acids with Thomas Farmer of Kennington, who also purchased ammonium carbonate, chloride, and sulphate from them. In 1828 the GLCC engaged a contractor, Sergeant, to manufacture sulphate of ammonia on their behalf at Brick Lane and Westminster gasworks. By 1833 they had become dissatisfied with Sergeant’s efforts and changed to a different contractor, Greenhalgh, who made sulphate of ammonia and sal ammoniac for them. In 1830 the GLCC bartered sulphate of ammonia and sal ammoniac in exchange for hydrochloric acid from a Mr Malades.
Eventually, the GLCC decided to undertake the processing of gas liquor itself and, in 1832-1833, its first two ammonia products plants were established, at Westminster and Brick Lane gas works. There was a steady and profitable demand for sal ammoniac and sulphate of ammonia. In 1832 George Lowe, Superintendent at Brick Lane, took out patents for making Prussian Blue from gas liquor and, for enriching coal gas with coal tar naphtha. Additionally, at about the same time, the chemical manufacturer, F Hills, was making sal ammoniac on behalf of the GLCC.
In 1857 F J Evans, the Manager of Westminster gasworks, was granted a patent referring to improvements in the manufacture of sulphate of ammonia, so obviously the GLCC were still making it at then. It appears, therefore, that the GLCC processed some of its gas liquor virtually from the date of the Company’s formation, to make sal ammoniac and sulphate of ammonia. This was certainly done at Westminster and Brick Lane gas works, and possibly at others. It also sold gas liquor to independent chemical manufacturers and, from 1859, for direct application to the land as a cheap agricultural fertiliser (this was still being done at Beckton Products Works as late as 1950). After Beckton Products Works commenced operations in 1879, all processing of gas liquor was consolidated there.
Appendix II provides data on gas liquor for the period 1815 to 1832.
The planning of Beckton Gas Works
During the mid-19th century, the GLCC continued to develop and grow. In 1867 a General Amalgamation Bill resulted in the Company amalgamating with, or taking over, a considerable number of other London gas companies. By 1876 the Company served the whole of London north of the Thames, except for Poplar, Stepney and parts of Westminster, Chelsea and Fulham.
During the 1860s, its principal gas works was at Westminster, but there had always been difficulties in transferring coal into that works from ships in the Thames. This problem, combined with the increased production of gas, was the driving force for the construction of a new, larger and more accessible gas-making facility, where colliers could be brought right up to the works.
A site was selected at Gallions Reach, Barking, Essex, on the north bank of the Thames, and construction of Europe’s largest gas works commenced. Gas was to be conveyed from the works to central London by a trunk main. The first pile was driven by Simon Adams Beck, who had become Governor of the GLCC in June 1860, on 19 November 1868, and on the following day the Court recorded that "… the Company’s property at Gallions Reach near Barking Creek be henceforth called Beckton".
In 1868 Beckton was a lonely spot and the nearest habitation was the village of East Ham, a few miles to the north west. Beckton was so isolated that the GLCC built a small village stretching along Winsor Terrace, the approach road to the works. This contained Anglican and non-conformist churches, shops, a post office and, of course, a public house. One hundred and twenty houses were built, which were occupied by key operatives such as foremen and engineers, who would be on call. Later on, in the 1920s, hostel accommodation was provided for bachelor engineers, and in the 1930s a number of prestige houses were built on the other side of the Manor Way for process managers. Many of the original 19th century houses are still inhabited today. By 1870 the first part of Beckton gas works was nearing completion. Gas production commenced on 25 November 1870, but the works was still undergoing construction as late as 1882.
Closely related to the establishing of Beckton Gas Works was the decision by the GLCC that it would be more profitable to process tar and ammonia by-products within the company itself, rather than to be in the hands of independent chemical manufacturers. This decision proved to be a sound one. The revenue from tar and ammonia by-products proved to be a worthwhile source of income, remaining substantially constant over the years at about 11% of the total profits of the company. By becoming fully involved in the manufacture of chemical by-products, the GLCC was able to increase the scale and sophistication of the processes involved, and to set higher standards for the products. To this end, within a few years the construction of Beckton Products Works, on a site adjacent to the gas works, commenced.