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Story Of London

London’s Utilities in 1853 – III: The Gas Supply

The third instalment from the article in “The Leisure Hour – A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation” which appeared in issue number 80 on Thursday July 7 1853 under the heading of “Subterranean London” deals with Victorian London’s gas supply. First viewed as ” one of the greatest absurdities of the imagination” the advantages of gas lighting were quick to make themselves felt on both the physical and moral character of the metropolis.

CHAPTER THREE“Pure and brilliant light”.Side by side with the water pipes, and sometimes crossing them at right angles, lie the gas pipes. Their turnings, windings, and ramifications are almost endless; and their length, which underground cannot be less than a thousand miles, is prodigiously more above-ground, and defies all attempt at calculation. Time was, and that within our own recollection, when the idea of lighting a town or even a house with gas was scouted as one of the greatest absurdities of the imagination.It was not until years after the close of the late [Napoleonic]war that gas came into general use. The first London company was the chartered Gas-light company, whose works are in Horseferry-road, Westminster. We well remember the sensation produced by the laying down of the pipes, and the interest with which the process of fastening them together with molten lead and oakum was watched by the public – as well as the incredulity of the populace with regard to the expected result. It was not till success had been achieved that the people believed it possible, and then the apparatus could not be prepared fast enough to satisfy their demands.This is not to be wondered at. Before this discovery, London after sunset was in almost total darkness, just rendered visible by the dim blinking of oil lamps, which in times of fog were not to be discerned at all. In the days of our boyhood, a young lady would have been thought rash who should have walked from Charing-cross to St. Paul’s two hours after sunset. Foot-pads waylaid travellers in Lincoln’s-inn-fields. Then link-boys plied for hire as soon as darkness came on, and pedestrians found their services a safeguard as well as a guide.The descent of darkness upon the city was the signal for the swarming forth of the hordes of abandoned wretches, who earned by plunder that subsistence for which they were too idle to work; while the only police were a set of superannuated watchmen, too weak to do more than waddle wearily under the load of as many great-coats as they could obtain by charity, and whose guardianship was the scoff and scorn of evil-doers. In the main thoroughfares one half of the shops were closed at an early hour, and those which remained open, lighted but with two or three tallow candles, offered a tempting booty to the prowling wretched with whom robbery was a trade.The introduction of gas soon wrought an astonishing change in the moral aspect of London. The deeds which cannot bear the light shrunk away from it: the opportunity which makes the thief was wanting, and theft grew less frequent. What the sanguinary codes of our lawgivers who hung up men and women a dozen of a morning for crimes of petty pilfering, could not effect, the blaze of the gas lamp accomplished: it reduced the convictions for shoplifting, and largely contributed to the repeal of bloody statutes which were a horror and a disgrace to our common humanity.There are now above a dozen gas-light and coke companies in London, the names of which we need not enumerate. There are besides many working establishments which manufacture and consume their own gas. Some of these companies consume as much as 100,000 chaldrons of coal each per annum, and it may be that above a million of money is spent yearly in London in the purchase of coal for the manufacture of gas. [Note 1]The coke, however, which is nothing but coal deprived of its inflammable matter, yet remains for fuel, and has become so necessary for many manufacturing and other purposes, that in some parts of the kingdom, where the gas-works do not furnish a sufficient quantity, it is made from coal burned in kilns, the gas-producing elements being wasted.From the purity and brilliancy of the light it affords, and from its requiring the least possible degree of attention on the part of the consumer, gas has largely superseded all other modes of lighting, and has given rise to various branches of manufacture, some of them in the highest degree ornamental. The gas fitter of the present day is a constructive artist, whose labours adorn the palaces of the sovereign and the mansions of the nobility: he has banished the smell of the lamp from our public assemblies, and led alight more brilliant than that of the day into the dark and secluded resorts of congregated labour.He has made gas available for culinary purposes by adopting it to the cooking-range of the kitchen, and for domestic comfort by substituting it for the coal-fire of the drawing room. He leads the subtle element for hundred of miles through the solid ground, and carries it by invisible channels through the nooks and corners of your dwelling, and enables you to poor a flood of light wherever you choose with a touch of the finger. Further, if you reside too far from the factory to be supplied from the mains, he condenses the invisible fluid into portable cylinders, and despatches it to your distant abode at a cost still less than that of the offensive oil or obnoxious tallow.There is but one drawback attending its use, and that is the peril resulting from excessive carelessness. Now and then we see the front of a house blown into the street, and hear of fatal accidents from fires and explosions occasioned by the escape of gas. These things have, however, latterly been much less frequent than they once were, and they are clearly to be escaped altogether by the exercise of ordinary vigilance.