First gas Supply in Middleton

Extracts from an article written in 1995 by Doreen El-Ahwany that lists the many sources used.

(A full history of the Gasworks is nearing completion)

Middleton Gas Company was set up by an Act of Parliament to supply gas to the townships of Middleton and Tonge in 1846.

Prior to this time, Middleton and Tonge were using candles and oil lamps for lighting. These candles often guttered in a draught. The candlesticks had to be cleaned daily, with snuffers being used to keep the wicks trimmed. This illumination was inadequate, as the candles gave a flickering light which proved bad for the eyesight. Local workers used oil lamps whilst working at the loom; these lamps gave off a smell, but this wasn`t disagreeable. Another source of lighting was by the use of portable lanterns - mainly for outdoor use. Heating was obtained by using coal or wood fires, mainly in an open grate. These fires also gave off light, but very little.

At Rhodes, just outside Middleton town centre, Mr John Burton was the first man to introduce gas into the district. He owned a calico printing business in Rhodes village, and he built a gas works on his factory premises, where he privately manufactured gas. This was amid jeers of his townsmen - many did not approve.

Middleton had an increasing population with 1,717 inhabited houses in 1851, an increase from 10 years previously when there were 1,442 houses.
New factories had been built, but the inadequacy of the existing artificial lighting meant poor working conditions. It soon became obvious that the town would have to follow others with a gas supply. Manchester erected a Gas Works in 1817, and Salford in 1835. Nearby at Oldham, the inhabitants had had their gas supply since 1825.

In all the towns there had been public outcries prior to the introduction of gas. People thought the gas would either blow up their towns, or else poison the air. Some actually thought the gas would "destroy the navy". The reason being that whale oil had been used for lamps in the past; if the gas was introduced, whale oil wouldn`t be required, and fisheries would disappear. The best sailors were trained on the whalers - so the Navy would be ruined when the supply of such sailors ceased.
When gas lighting had been introduced into the House of Commons, even M.P.`s were seen going round feeling the pipes to see if they were hot. They were afraid that the flame might continue down the pipes.

The folk of Middleton and Tonge were no exception to the opposition of gas supplies - many ratepayers meetings were held to oppose the introduction. These took place in the newly-built Tonge Lane school, and in the assembley rooms at the Boars Head public house. There were heated discussions both for and against. Inhabitants feared explosions and suffocation from the gas, but they were told it was superior to other light sources, and their health wouldn`t be affected if the gas was used properly. No-one mentioned the offensive smell the gas would produce!

The arguments didn`t stop progress, and the new Company was formed in 1846 with Mr Grundy as their law clerk. It was to be a joint stock company, and subscribing to the Incorporation were: John Ashworth the younger, Joseph Ashworth, John Aspell, Thomas Bolland, David Chatburn, Samuel Fielding, James Fielding, William Horsman, Samuel Haslam, Edmund Howarth and Henry Shuttleworth. The capital was £5,000 divided in 500 shares of £10 each, and there was a clause in the Act limiting the dividend to 10 per cent in any one year, with power given to raise a further £10,000, and to borrow not more than one third of the capital. The company was empowered to construct the Gas Works, and to lay pipes for lighting the buildings.

An excellent site for the Gas Works had already been found. Middleton Hall had been demolished in 1845 and the land leased for building. Two large cotton factories belonging to Mr Thomas Dronsfield were erected on part of the site, and the gas works were established in the former gardens between the site of the Hall and the River Irk. Gas Street was laid out stretching from the newly-constructed Old Hall Street and across the River Irk to Park Lane. The building on the Old Hall Street corner became the Grapes Inn.

The foundation stone of the new works was laid by Mr Samuel Fielding on 14 Dec 1846. To mark the occasion he was presented with a silver trowel bearing the names of the directors, etc. These works were completed on 21 Aug 1847 which coincided with Middleton Wakes Saturday, and the shops and public houses were for the first time lit up from the Company`s works.

The gas supply was centered only on house lighting, shops, factories - with street lighting not being contemplated at that time. Gas pipes soon invaded one house after the other. Small explosions occurred, but they were far and few between. One of the earliest explosions in Middleton, perhaps the 1st recorded, was at the Levers Arms on Manchester New Road in 1846. The tenant, Mr Rawlinson, together with Benjamin Fielding and George Andrews, had noticed a strong smell of gas, and they had foolishly entered the cellar - carrying a lighted candle! There was a large explosion which resulted with the 3 men being thrown across the room. Fielding and Andrews were seriously burnt, the ceiling damaged, and the cellar door almost blown off. This could have been avoided, as they had been cautioned by the gasworks manager about going into the cellar with a candle until after the system had been fully inspected.

This incident made people more aware that coal gas was explosive. Though the gas had a strong and disagreeable smell (it smelt of rotten eggs) it did warn people of its danger. It was considered perfectly safe so long as it was confined to its supply pipes, and not to escape into rooms unburnt. As the gas contained carbon monoxide - a poisonous ingredient - escaped gas could suffocate people in confined areas. The gas did cause some indoor pollution however, with smoke damage to furnishings, and a lot of householders complained of headaches. The quality was improved after Samuel Clegg had nationally introduced his purification system which freed the gas of hydrogen sulphide.

At the Gas Works, which was probably built by S. Pincoff & Co., the gas was first made in hand-charged horizontal retorts. The first gasometer only lasted for about 20 years - being later replaced in the 1860s and then again in the 1930s. These gas holders were named gasometers as they were once used to measure the gas, before station meters came into use. Generally, when gas was first used for domestic lighting, the ratepayers were charged by the hour for the number of hours used. Fraud was widespread with the gas companies only receiving payment for half the gas consumed. Officials were employed to ensure customers didn`t burn lights for longer hours than they had paid for. Samuel Clegg invented gas meters, but it is not known when these were introduced into Middleton, though the 1851 census shows a 17 yr old youth described as a gas meter maker.

Though there were local coal fields - Tonge mine and Hopwood Colliery - that were operating in the 1840s, none of these supplied coal to the Middleton Gas Company. This was because the fuel that was used was cannel coal - a richer coal which produced gas of high candlepower. Large quantities of coal were brought to the town from pits at Pendlebury and the south-west Lancashire district by rail, so the supply could have come from that source. Mills Hill Railway station had opened in 1839, and Middleton Junction station, at Larkhill in Tonge, opened May Day in 1857.

The first gas manager was William Etchells - he was also the engineer. By 1851, Mr John Fielding had taken over as the manager, and lived at the gas works with his wife and four daughters. He remained as manager for many years, where he was mainly responsible for the administration.

A further Act was passed in 1854 which enabled the Gas Company "to better supplying with gas to the town at Middleton and the Neighbourhood". This enabled the company to improve and extend their works.

The ratepayers of Middleton slowly became accustomed to the presence of gas lighting in their homes and shops, but there were still miles of streets which had no public lights. This meant total darkness after the shops had closed for the night. Soon, the introduction of street lighting was being discussed, but, again, this caused endless disputes. The lamps were thought to be a luxury which was uncalled for, and Mrs Buckley of Queen Street, thought that it was another "Government plot to blow us up".

Street lighting was eventually introduced, with Tonge adopting the Lighting and Watching Act of 21 Sept 1857 - before Middleton. Tonge appointed Lighting Inspectors in November of 1857 - the first ones being Edmund Whitehead, Richard Ogden and James Collinge. The first lamp was placed near the footbridge which spanned the River Irk on Townley Street, not far from the gas works. The 2nd lamp was fixed on Abraham Ogden`s ironworks wall in Oldham Road.

Subsequently, lamplighters were appointed to light the lamps. In Sept 1859, three men were appointed - John Thorpe, Thomas Wild and Philip Watson.

With the streets lit, and the previous profits of the gas company being at 10 per cent per annum, all looked well for the future of the company. However, by December 1860, Absalom Wellens, who lived in Gas Street, had issued a notice calling a meeting. It was eventually agreed to sell the gas works to the Middleton and Tonge Improvement Commissioners (when formed) on payment of annuities at the rate of 10 per cent. The Improvement Commissioners were a form of local government, and they took over responsibilities in many towns, due to inadequate services provided by private utilities.

The Improvement Act was passed 28 June 1861 for the purchase of the gas works, though the Commissioners didn`t take over until 1st October. The area supply of gas was then enlarged to Alkrington, Great Heaton, Little Heaton, and Thornham. This was the first real action of local administration.