A brief history of the Wandsworth and District Gas Company
One evening over 160 years ago at the Spread Eagle Inn in Wandsworth a group of local worthies agreed to set up a gas company. This decision was formalised on 27th October 1834 when the Wandsworth Gas Company was established to supply the parishes of Wandsworth and Putney. The elected Committee moved quickly, engaged an engineer, one John Bryan, obtained the lease of a small site, with lockage rights, adjoining the Surrey Iron Railway basin, (later known as McMurray's Canal), and were producing gas by March 1835. In the following [year] 276 lights were supplied.
Despite local opposition the Company survived, and by 1860 had reduced the price of gas 12/6d to 5/- (62½p to 25p) per thousand cubic feet, while paying a steady return to shareholders. There were territorial disputes with the London Company over Battersea Common, and in Wandsworth McMurray's, Watney and Dormay had started to manufacture their own gas. Only Dormay's posed a threat, becoming sufficiently well established to apply for Par1iamentary Powers. The Wandsworth Company opposed, and in 1873 were able to purchase the Dormay's concern for £5,000.
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A major turning point in the history of the Company occurred during the leadership of Henry Edward Jones, who from 1863 served the Company as engineer, Director, and from 1903 Chairman. He was a distinguished engineer who ran a large consulting practice from Palace Chambers, Westminster, and was elected president of the Civil Engineers in 1917. During his tenure the Wandsworth Company grew into one of London's largest gas concerns. The problem of handling increased tonnages of coal by barge via the canal basin, some 50,000 tons per year, was solved in 1906 when SS Radcliff delivered 1,100 tons of coal to the works at Wandsworth. Despite the complications of navigating the Thames above London Bridge, this venture proved a success and the Company had their first collier, SS Wandle, built in 1908. Increased efficiency in coal handling enabled the Company to offer gas at prices among the lowest in London. Low priced gas also appealed to balloonists and for a while Wandsworth became the Mecca of the ballooning
wor1d. In 1912 the first of a series of amalgamations took place with the Mitcham and Wimbledon gas Company, and the Epsom and Ewell Gas Company. The Following year saw the arrival of the SS Mitcham, however further developments were forestalled by the onset of war.
The great war stretched resources to the limit, labour was lost to the Services, materials were in short supply, also Wandsworth became a major producer of toluol for the munitions industry. The German Navy came close to severing the vital coal supplies from the North East. Eventually colliers received armament, thus equipped the Wandle was able to fight off a U boat attack, and was given a hero's welcome on return to the Thames. Mastin House in Merton Road was named after the Wandle's Captain in commemoration of this event. In 1917 the Wandle was lost off Flamborough Head fortunately without loss of life.
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After the war development of the Company continued, low priced gas proving an effective weapon against increasing competition from electricity. To ensure coal was obtained at the lowest possible cost, the Company continued to operate their collier fleet, and in conjunction with the Burnt Island Shipping Company remained in the forefront of development of that complex piece of marine engineering, the upriver collier. There were two further amalgamations, in 1930 and in 1931 with the Kingston Gas Company and the Sutton Gas Company, 1936 saw amalgamation with the Leatherhead gas Company and the Walton and Weybridge Gas Company, also control was gained of the Woking Gas Company. The distribution system was developed so that the amalgamated companies works could be supplied from Wandsworth, thus in periods of low demand they could be placed on standby. Considerable improvements were made to Wandsworth works to obtain maximum output from what was now becoming a restricted site. This period of development was preceded by the 1929 Thames floods, although the works was flooded, supplies were not interrupted. In the same year the first of three units of C.O.L. intermittent vertical chambers were commissioned, the first of their kind in Britain. Resulting from the floods a new river wall 1,400 feet long, was built in 1932, reclaiming a valuable acre of land. This was followed in 1934 by the construction of a large jetty equipped with two five ton hydraulic cranes, holding hoppers, and a conveyor system to the onshore coal store. An immediate success, the jetty reduced turn round times by a tide, thus the Company were able to sell off a collier. As a result of the 1936 amalgamations increased demand required the services of an extra ship, and in consequence the SS Wimbledon joined the fleet in 1937. Another important development in 1938 was the construction of Britain's first tower purifiers, with twice the capacity of the old system, they also achieved a considerable saving in ground space.
The onset of the Second World War plunged the Company into nightmare conditions experienced during the previous war, with added risk of air attack. To pool resources a close working agreement was made with the South Metropolitan and South Suburban companies. As before the collier fleet bore the brunt of the German offensive and received a tremendous battering, the Company were fortunate that none of their ships were lost.
After cessation of hostilities demand for gas rose sharply, considerably exceeding the 1938 figures. A new water gas plant was commissioned in 1947 with a capacity of four million cubic feet per day. Two further colliers were built for the fleet, the last steamship the SS Chessington, and the MV Mitcham the first motor ship. With a capacity of 2, 700 tons equivalent to the capacity of the SS Wandle and the SS Mitcham combined, she was the prototype for further colliers to come.