Horseley Fields Gas Works

In 1794 William Murdock invented the first practical system of gas lighting by heating coal in a closed iron vessel, piping it into his house at Redruth in Cornwall, and using it to light a series of gas burners. At the time he was employed by Boulton and Watt of Birmingham, who opposed his involvement with the invention, preferring him to concentrate on his job, which consisted of supervising the installation of Boulton and Watt steam engines in the local tin mimes. As a result Murdock left the company and moved back to his native Scotland.

In 1798 Boulton and Watt offered Murdock the post of Manager at their Soho Works and agreed to the installation of two gas lamps outside the factory. This was the first installation of gas lighting in the country. The following year it was extended and the whole factory was illuminated by gas. The company went on to install many such systems in factories throughout the country.

People became aware of the benefits of gas lighting when George IV had it installed in Carlton House, his London home. Within a couple of years gas lamps were installed in Pall Mall, the first street in the world to be lit by gas. In 1812 the Gas Light and Coke Company opened the first gas works in the U.K. which supplied gas to light the City of Westminster. By 1819, 288 miles of pipes had been laid in London to supply 51,000 burners, and within ten years most of the country’s larger towns and cities were lit by gas.

Street Lighting in Wolverhampton

An early gas street light.

Street lighting first appeared in Wolverhampton in the 1770s in the form of oil lamps. By 1800 a lamp was positioned at every corner and over the doorway of every Inn. The streets were dimly lit and remained so for over twenty years until the oil lamps were replaced by the far superior gas lights.

The Town Improvement Acts compelled towns to clean, light, pave, and make the streets safe. After the invention of gas lighting, the Improvement Acts referred specifically to streets being lit by gas. Such an Act was passed for Wolverhampton in 1820.

In November 1819, 57 subscribers purchased shares in a new venture called ‘The Wolverhampton Gas Light Company’. The company was incorporated after an Act of Parliament, passed on 27th June 1820. It stated that the 57 subscribers would fund the venture, and that the town of Wolverhampton was "a large and populous place, and it would be of great advantage to the inhabitants thereof, and to the public at large, if the streets and other public passages and places were better lighted".

It also mentioned that "Inflammable air or gas, being conveyed by means of pipes, may be safely and beneficially used for lighting the several streets etc. and for lighting shops, private houses and buildings, and the coke may be beneficially employed as fuel in private house and manufactures".

The 57 subscribers included:

John Weaver and Benjamin Parton Mander, paint manufacturers
Chrees and Tompson, solicitors
Henry Hordern, banker
William Ready and William Ryton, constables
William Hanbury Sparrow, ironmaster
Joseph Smart, one of the founders of the Wolverhampton Chronicle
Richard Fryer, banker and company treasurer
Harry Parkes, Commissioner and company clerk
John Dixon, of Ready and Dixon

The company’s engineer was John Grafton who had taken out patents for gas purification in 1818, 1819 and 1820. The pipes were laid during the summer and autumn of 1820 by the firm of Ready and Dixon, and the work was completed by January 1821.

The location of the gas works. Based on the 1842 Tithe map.

Two gasometers were ordered for the company’s gasworks, which were built in Horseley Fields. Production began on 17th September 1821.

In 1821 the company celebrated its achievement by building a 40 forty foot high, cast-iron column in High Green, with a gas lantern at the top. Unfortunately it was a disaster, being too high from the ground to throw sufficient light. The structure was demolished in 1840.

A more noteworthy event happened in 1824 when a new balloon ascended from the gas works in Horseley Fields. This was to be the first of several balloon flights that were made using locally produced gas.

The balloon was piloted by Mr. Green, a well known balloonists who had made several ascents in the Midlands, but had never flown from Wolverhampton. Such a flight was an expensive affair and so he decided to arrange a flight from Wolverhampton on the understanding that any spectators would have to pay to watch the event to reduce the cost.

Lighting in Gas Yard, Horseley Fields. It was named after the nearby gasworks.
A subscription was guaranteed and the flight was arranged for 17th September. For a fee of 2 shillings a spectator could watch the entire event from the Union Mill yard, that overlooked the gasworks.

Although cloudy, it was a fine day and large numbers of people gathered in the town, which had never been so full. People watched from every corner including the top of St. Peter’s Church tower. The spectators in Union Mill yard saw the whole event including the inflation of the magnificent Coronation balloon. Guns were fired to mark various stages of the process.

Mr. Green was joined in the balloon by Edward Clarke, a Wolverhampton iron founder. The National Anthem was played, and the balloon ascended for about a mile before safely landing on Dunston Heath, near Penkridge. The flight covered a distance of twelve miles and was a great success for all concerned.

Early gas lighting in Horsefair. The large lamp on the right is above the entrance to the Old Crown pub.
Gas installations continued, albeit on a smaller scale.

On 8th January, 1823 the town’s theatre at the back of the Swan Inn, off High Green was converted to gas lighting and the gas company was paid £350 annually for the gas supplied to the street lamps, which were provided by the local authority.

In 1826 this sum was increased to £420 for the two hundred lamps, that were each lit for 22 nights a month, from the middle of September to the middle of April. The lamps were lit within half an hour of sunset until four o’clock in the morning, but were not lit on 8 or so days each month because people were supposed to rely on light from the full, or nearly full moon. No allowance was made for the weather or smoke from factory chimneys.

The lighting times remained in use until 1834, after which the lamps were left on during the winter months until 7 a.m. for the arrival of the early mail and other coaches. By 1849 most of the streets in the town centre were lit by gas, using a total 411 lamps. Some of the more distant roads such as Penn Road and Tettenhall Road were also lit.

By the late 1840s a larger works was needed to cope with the rising demand and so in 1849 a new gas works was built in Stafford Road.

The Corporation decided to purchase the gas company in the mid 1860s.

Negotiations took place, but the asking price was far too high for the Corporation and so the scheme was abandoned.

The site of the gas works today.

In 1869 Wolverhampton Corporation came into conflict with the gas company. Councillor R. Sidney informed the council that he understood that the gas company was using some of its profits to extend Stafford Road works. According to the Act of Parliament the company could only distribute a 10 percent dividend amongst the shareholders, and must have a reserve fund of £5,000.

After this the balance of the profits should go towards reducing the charges to the customers. As the Corporation was the largest customer it was thought that it should be charged less. The Corporation approached the company on this matter and the directors challenged the Corporation to prove its claims. The Act of Parliament under which the gas company operated, stated that any case of dispute between the company and its customers should be referred to the Court of Quarter Sessions at Stafford. Their decision on the matter would be final.

The case came up for hearing, and the verdict was that although there were irregularities in the keeping of the accounts, the Corporation had failed in its contention. The gas company was ordered to deduct income tax from any future dividend paid to its shareholders, and to keep the accounts in better form. At the next meeting of the Town Council the committee reported that the cost of the appeal to the Quarter Sessions was £215 and the result would be a gain for the Corporation. The directors of the gas company were very disappointed at the result.

The gas works at Horseley Fields continued to operate until 1900. The site was soon taken-over by T. & C. Clark to extend the Shakespeare Foundry.

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