Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1960.
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Nos. 93–95 Pall Mall: F. A. Winsor and the development of gas lighting
In the early nineteenth century three of the houses which formerly stood on the site of the Carlton Club were occupied by Frederick Albert Winsor (1763–1830), an early pioneer of gas lighting and one of the first to develop the use of coal gas for street illumination. (fn. 1) He was of German origin and had obtained what knowledge he possessed of gas-lighting technique from the Frenchman, Le Bon. (fn. 2) Realizing its potentialities, and with sufficient aplomb to attract attention to his extravagant schemes, Winsor set himself up as an authority on gas lighting, although 'he possessed scarcely any knowledge of chemistry, and was so deficient in mechanical information, that he was unable to give proper directions for the construction of apparatus'. (fn. 3) It is, therefore, surprising that this ill-equipped and volatile foreigner was able, in the face of formidable opposition, to achieve a substantial degree of success as the first entrepreneur of the gas industry in Britain.
He opened his campaign in Brunswick, but in 1803 he moved to London, which then provided the safest and the largest market in which to sell his ideas and was perhaps the only place where he could use Le Bon's French patent with impunity. He started distributing pamphlets advocating gas lighting and began a series of public lectures and demonstrations at the Lyceum Theatre. (fn. 4) Considerable interest was aroused, a 'Society' of subscribers founded to finance further research, (fn. 5) and in 1807 Winsor took over two houses on the south side of Pall Mall which were later numbered 94– 95. (fn. 6) Here he installed his demonstration equipment and continued his lectures. (fn. 7) These new premises could not have been in a better position for Winsor's purpose. According to the report of the trustees of his subscription fund, Pall Mall 'being one of the approaches to the King's palace, and the residence of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and, from other circumstances of local convenience, it had advantages for the display of their experiments, far beyond any other situation in the Metropolis'. (fn. 8)
This favourable reception and the increasing number and importance of the subscribers to his 'Society', encouraged Winsor to celebrate the King's birthday on 4 June 1807 by staging a public demonstration along the garden wall between Carlton House and St. James's Park. The permission of the Prince of Wales was, of course, necessary, but luckily his 'noble independent mind induced [him] . . . to become one of the exalted patrons of this infant project'. (fn. 9) The gas lights were fed by an iron pipe from 'the two close carbonizing iron furnaces' in Winsor's Pall Mall premises. 'The light produced by these gas lamps was clear, bright, and colourless, and from the success of this considerable experiment, in point of the number of lights, the distance and length of pipe, hopes may now be entertained, that this long-talked of mode of lighting our streets may at length be realized. The Mall continued crowded with spectators, until near twelve o'clock, and they seemed much amused and delighted by this novel exhibition.' (fn. 10)
In October 1807 Winsor applied to the parish paving committee for permission to place at each of the extremities of his premises in Pall Mall, an ornamental column holding three lamps on three different branches. These were to serve, so he said, as specimens of a new mode of lighting the whole length of Pall Mall. Permission was withheld, however, until the committee members had attended Winsor's rooms to see the effect of his invention. (fn. 11)
At the end of 1807 (with or without the permission of the paving committee, for their minutes are silent on this point) thirteen lamp-posts, each with three gas jets, were eventually erected on the south side of Pall Mall, extending westwards from Winsor's premises to the corner facing St. James's Street. (fn. 12) When these were lit up the experiment again proved a success. More lamps were then erected between Winsor's premises and the Cockspur Street end of Pall Mall, as shown in a contemporary illustration of the street in Ackermann's Repository of Arts. (fn. 13) Winsor was now operating two large and four small furnaces from his premises in Pall Mall, (fn. 14) and in 1810 he took over a third house later numbered 93 Pall Mall. (fn. 6)
Nevertheless, Winsor had some difficulty in persuading the paving committee to allow the gas lamps to remain standing in Pall Mall, and, although this was eventually granted, further permission was necessary before they could be lit. (fn. 15) The new lamps were never in regular nightly use, and were only turned on occasionally and by permission. In February 1808 four men were paid a guinea each 'to watch Lamps during the night of experiment'. (fn. 16) On the evening of the following 4 June the lamps were again lit to celebrate the King's birthday. In his application for permission Winsor had on this occasion added, 'I hope there will be no objection to my announcing that the Lamps will only be lighted on this occasion and by special permission.' (fn. 15) In December he made another successful application. (fn. 17) By then he had formed the National Light and Heat Company, and as it was intended to apply for an Act of Parliament which would enable the new company to be incorporated by royal charter, it was even more desirable that the proof of Winsor's success should continue a little longer. (fn. 18)
It is probable that more displays of gas lighting continued to be staged in Pall Mall during 1809 and 1810. Winsor's idea of a national gas monopoly had, however, been abandoned. The new Gas Light and Coke Company, which had superseded the National Heat and Light Company and which aimed at limiting its activities to London, Westminster and Southwark, was then promoting; a Bill of incorporation in Parliament and it would have been to its advantage to continue the successful demonstrations during the parliamentary discussions. (fn. 19) After 1810 the Pall Mall experiments seem to have been discontinued as no longer necessary.
In November 1814 the newly incorporated Gas Light and Coke Company obtained the permission of the St. James's vestry committee to lay down gas mains in Pall Mall and other important streets in the parish, for the purpose of house lighting. (fn. 20) Five years later the vestry abandoned the old method of street lighting and made a contract with the gas company. Piccadilly, Coventry Street and part of Princes Street were the first streets in the parish to have a permanent system of gas lighting installed by the parish, (fn. 21) although St. James's Square had been so lit by its Trustees in 1817 (see page 69). Gas lighting was extended to Pall Mall in 1820 (fn. 22) and to the rest of the parish shortly afterwards.
Winsor had long ceased to be the moving spirit behind the whole scheme. He continued to live in No. 95 Pall Mall until 1815, the other two houses being given up, one to the Gas Light and Coke Company which retained it until 1814; one of them was occupied in 1815 by the Waterloo Museum. (fn. 23) From its foundation, the company was dominated by financial interests and Winsor remained merely as a technical adviser. Even this function was taken away in 1812 with the appointment of Frederick Accum, a 'Practical Chymist', as a director and of Samuel Clegg as the company engineer. The directors found Winsor an embarrassing liability and when he fled to France in 1815 to escape his creditors, they removed him from the board and took away the annuity paid to him in recognition of his pioneering efforts. In France Winsor succeeded in floating another company but this came to disaster in 1819. He died in 1830. (fn. 24)