Ipswich Icons - When gas was unmetered and instead families had a set cut off time

The 'German gas holder', seen from Felaw Street, Ipswich

The 'German gas holder', seen from Felaw Street, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

Since the Middle Ages, townsfolk have half expected city streets to be safe, and a way of achieving this, during the hours of darkness, is by lighting, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

The German gas holder viewed from across the Wet Dock. The brick buildings on the right are Paul's E

The German gas holder viewed from across the Wet Dock. The brick buildings on the right are Paul's Eagle Maltings. The site is now occupied by Anglo Norden - Credit: Archant

In fact, a decree was issued whereby all households should keep a lamp burning in their front room window throughout the night. This of course was a very hit and miss affair, with a wide variety of lamps being used: some with a small candle, others burning oil ? none as convenient or as efficient as an array of LEDs, which weren’t introduced until the 21st Century.

At the end of the 18th Century Ipswich was experimenting with different makes of oil-fuelled street lamps. Three alternatives were installed in Tavern Street to enable the Paving Commissioners to make their choice. They assembled in Tavern Street one dark evening in 1793, grumbling as committee members frequently do that none of the samples was ideal for the purpose. They did however select Smythuril’s Patent Lamps, and in the autumn of that year the first of 300 such lamps was installed.

Such was the lack of progress before the industrial revolution that these oil-fuelled street lamps lasted 25 years until Robert Ransome suggested they use gas. Ransomes foundry needed coke to fuel the furnaces. Coke is derived from coal by heating it in an oven (retort), which drives off the gas and allows the bitumen to drain into storage tanks ? both waste products from the process.

Ransome had a small coke plant at his foundry in St Margaret’s Ditches, with his brother James, and with John Talwin Shewell (a draper of Tavern Street) they provided £2,600 to supply Ipswich with gas. William Cubitt, who was working with Ransome at that time (1818), ensured the gas from the coke plant was collected and distributed, initially with gas lamps in Carr Street, Tavern Street and on the Cornhill. Ipswich was one of the first towns in the country with streets lit by gas. Not the first: that accolade went to Preston in Lancashire, where gas street lamps had been installed in 1816. The first house in Ipswich to be lit with gas was Allen Ransome’s home in Carr Street, from the pipe supplying the street lights.

The view of Ipswich from the MAN gas holder is similar to that painted by Leonard Squirrell in 1938

The view of Ipswich from the MAN gas holder is similar to that painted by Leonard Squirrell in 1938 - Credit: Archant


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An unwritten specification for gas street lighting (by the chairman of the Paving and Lighting Commissioners) was that he must be able to see the time on his pocket watch when standing midway between two adjacent street lamps.

Thus in 1820 the Ipswich Gas Company came into being, supplying gas not only to the street lights but also to private homes and businesses. Initially there were no meters; the contract to supply gas stated the maximum number of hours the gas could be used, and if your agreed cut-off time was exceeded, a surcharge was imposed.

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The sale of gas to domestic premises was phenomenal and the gas company almost immediately set about building a much bigger gas works alongside what was to become the Wet Dock. Here they could import coal from the Tyne and had the space to install the gas holders necessary for continuity of supply.

The gasworks on this site predated Ransomes’ move to Orwell Works by 10 years.

Dykes Alexander was the first chairman of the company (a Quaker, as was Ransome) and the majority of the 200 shareholders were members of the Alexander, Ransome or Cobbold families. William Cubitt, who had been instrumental in getting the plant up and running, resigned in 1826 and Daniel Goddard took over as chief engineer and company secretary.

When Goddard died in 1842 he was succeeded by his son Ebenezer, and then in 1882 by his son Daniel Ford Goddard. Goddard was a great philanthropist and after only five years he left the gas company and devoted himself to public service. He founded the Social Settlement in Fore Street and spent a considerable amount of his time there, ensuring that not only did it offer accommodation but also social welfare to the local community.

Daniel Ford Goddard was mayor of Ipswich in 1891-92 and (Liberal) Member of Parliament for the town from 1895 to 1918.

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