An engaged couple we were well acquainted with had noted the slogan of the then nationalised gas industry “All by Gas”. The young lady lived in a home with an old gas geyser above the bath and she and her mother were scared by its pops and mini explosions. Her fiancée continually quoted “All by Gas” making her laugh, despite her fears. When they were being married he noticed that his bride was very nervous and as the organist commenced, the organ bellows made a wheezing noise so he whispered “All by Gas”. This made her giggle and she had difficulty with her responses, but in the end all was well.
Coal gas for lighting first commenced towards the end of the 18th century and by 1807 one side of Pall Mall in London was illuminated. It must have been a sensation! Soon small private gas works proliferated, town by town. When the industry was nationalised in 1948, despite many earlier local groupings, over 1,000 local undertakings were taken into state control. The industry was “privatised” in 1986 to become “British Gas” and North Sea Gas soon took over from coal gas, producing a cleaner, less smelly, controllable fuel. Liquefied gas from overseas later supplemented that from the North Sea.
Some time ago I mentioned that Lyme Regis was probably first in Dorset to have electric street lighting in 1909, after gas lighting in 1859. Bridport was later, not having electric lighting until 1930, but it was first in the county to have gas in 1831.
Rodney Legg in his The Book of Bridport tells us that the Bridport Gas & Coke Company was incorporated after a meeting in the Town Hall, with W. E. Gundry as chairman and William Battiscombe, William Colfox, George Darby, James Hodder, W. Perham, Dr G. R. Roberts, A. Selwood, John Pike Stephens and Sylvanus Stephens as Board members. Bridport Gas Works was built to the west of South Street, between the Chantry and South Bridge. Most board members were local businessmen, several from the local rope, net and sailcloth industries and also nonconformists, as were many of the town councillors.
Dr Giles Roberts, a dispensing chemist, druggist and herbalist was best known for his skin ointment the “Poor Man’s Friend”. His pharmacy was in the old George Inn, opposite the Town Hall in East Street and he offered these premises for a trial of gas lighting. The Dorset County Chronicle in October 1831 reported that “fires were lit in the retorts on Friday last and great crowds gathered to watch as the lamps were lit in Dr Roberts’s premises, and cries of wonderment were heard at the brilliance of the wondrous illuminations, the Town Band added to the enlivenment of the proceedings.” The retorts are now retained in Bridport Museum.
Within a couple of years 48 street lights were lit and 49 lights in the Market House. Previously the roads were dimly lit by oil lamps. Shortly after 120 private lights were installed with charges of £1 per annum from dawn to dusk for the basic “Cockspur” light. Burners had 5 inch chimneys with an allowable flame of half this. Better burners included the “Batwing” costing £2-5s, to the 14 hole “Argand” at £4. By 1858 advertisements appeared such as “French gas jet on new improved principles with 40% saving in consumption and a brighter light. Available from James Patten, Builder, Bridport”.
By 1834 the company made a profit of £133, which would have been more had the Town Council paid its bills promptly. By January 1842 after non-payment for two years of street lighting the company cut off the supply. It was not restored until the following winter. This situation continued over the years with arguments over the cost of supply.
In 1872 a house was built for the Works Manager, including a Board Room on South Street, now a shop. New offices and a showroom were built nearby in 1899, now an attractive private house. A new road towards the old gas works site was named Dr Roberts Close a few years ago in commemoration of his part in the venture.
Gas supply was extended to North Allington by 1844, but not until 1863 to Barrack Street and East Road. This enabled J.P. Gundry, of the rope and net firm to have his East Road house lit by gas at last. The shipbuilder Elias Cox, Town Councillor and Mayor, was influential in bringing the supply to West Bay in 1868.
Coal to produce the gas was originally brought in by ship to West Bay, later some came by rail. The major by-product was coke. Coke and tar were sold off to boost the profits.
The wonder of gas lighting has now gone from our streets, but gas is commonplace in cooking, water and central heating. Dr Roberts’ old pharmacy continued to be lit by gas until 1956. The local industrialists soon recognised its value and Bridport was first!
Bridport History Society recommences on Tuesday September 9th with a talk by Richard Sims about the “Crewkerne Textile Industry” at 2.30pm in the United Church Main Hall. Membership subscriptions are due. All welcome, £2-50 entrance for non-members.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 456876.