Sunday, September 13, 2009

City of Birmingham Gas

In a sense, Birmingham is the home of gas, as William Murdock came from Cornwall in 1777 to join Boulton and Watt at the Soho Manufactory. There he discovered the use of coal gas for lighting and gave a public display at the Soho works for the celebration of the Peace of Amiens in 1802. A year later the whole of the works was lit by gas.

In 1816 tenders were invited for street lighting by gas, and only one offer was received, from a Mr. Gostling of London, who had already installed lighting in Westminster. The tender was accepted, and he was immediately asked to extend his contract to another 16 streets. As this was beyond his private means, he set up the Birmingham Gas Company by private Act of Parliament. In 1818 Birmingham had its first street lighting by gas, which was manufactured in Gas Street.

The 1849 Kelly’s Director lists the Birmingham Gas Light & Coke Company with works at Gas Street, Fazeley Street, and Windsor Street, and the Birmingham & Staffordshire Gas & Coke Company with its Birmingham works at 57 Adderley Street.

By the 1870s there were 33 municipal gas undertakings in the country. This was at a time when Birmingham reached the peak of its prosperity, and enjoyed the leadership of the Mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, who in 1874 persuaded the Council to vote by 54 votes to two in favour of buying the companies out. An Act of Parliament in July 1875 authorised the deal and the Birmingham Corporation Gas Committee was set up.

From the start, the Birmingham Gas department was a success, making more money which benefited the ratepayers, while gas charges were reduced twice in the first five years. Between 1929 and 1931 the Gas Department installed gas connections and slot meters to about 21,000 court and terrace houses without charge, enlarging its statutory area of operation from 125 to 195 square miles.

By 1938 one-third of the gas produced was used for manufacturing purposes. Gas was still used largely for street lighting, with spectacular high-pressure fittings in Victoria Square, Now Street, Corporation Street, and parts of Hagley Road.

With nationalization in 1949 the undertaking came under the control of the West Midlands Gas Board.

-submitted by Paul Green

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