The Dawn of Gas

Throughout human history, light has been crucial to humans – whether lack of natural sunlight preventing crops growing, or light to work and read. People had to make do with oil lamps or rushes dipped in fat, or the more expensive candles, the finest of which were made of beeswax, and in buildings that could afford them, they were placed in front of mirrors to amplify the light. Whale,  or trane oil, notorious for its fouls smell,  used in oil lamps was largely responsible for endangering whales. So you would think the folk of Bristol would welcome the leap forward that gas light offered, both in terms of convenience and improved lighting.

This is from John Latimer’s Annals of the 19th century:

“The first attempt in Bristol to resort to coal gas for purposes of illumination  was made this year [1811] by a Mr Breillat, a dyer in Broadmead, who is supposed to have seen the gas apparatus erected by Robert Murdoch, some years earlier, at the Soho works, Birmingham. The following advertisement appeared in the Bristol Gazette, of the 6th of September:-

“Lecture and Exhibition of the Gas Lights. J. Breillat respectfully informs the nobility, gentry, and public that he intends for a short time to exhibit every evening at his own house a specimen of the above interesting discovery, accompanied with a descriptive lecture, this present evening, Thursday, at 7 o’clock. For particulars see handbills. No. 56, Broadmead.”

After lighting up his shop, Mr Breillat set up a few lamps in the street, thereby giving Bristol precedency over London in the use of gas for thoroughfares, the first experiment of the same kind in the metropolis being made at Westminster Bridge in 1812. It seems strange that the Bristolians who witnessed Briellat’s success should have been reluctant to abandon their flickering and malodorous tallow candles; but for some time the Broadmead dyer passed among the vulgar as a man having unholy dealings with an infernal power, while the upper classes treated the innovation with contemptuous indifference. The aristocracy, indeed, were decidedly hostile to gas-lighting. In 1816, Lord Lauderdale, in the House of Peers, protested strongly against an invention which threatened to ruin the whale fisheries. Even some scientific men were not less opposed to the new system. When it was proposed to place gas lamps in the streets of London, Sir Humphrey Davy sneeringly asked whether the promoters were going to convert the dome of St. Paul’s into a gasholder. It was not until 1816 that the Bristol Gas Company began operations, Mr Briellat being engaged as manager. The views of the promoters must have been singularly modest, fro the capital of the undertaking was fixed at £5,000; but great exertions were needed to raise even that paltry sum. A serious difficulty next arose with the Corporation. The company, after having erected a small gasometer near Temple Back, applied to the authorities for leave to lay pipes in the streets; but the Court of Alderman (October 1816) expressed grave apprehensions of danger from the proximity of the gasometer to the city depot of gunpowder (at Tower Harritz), and “considered it their imperative duty to withhold any measures being taken in the streets, the gasometer being in its present situation.” The obstacle having been, however, overcome by some means, a few shops were lighted up in May, 1817, and lamps were placed in the principal streets in the following December. In the same month, Lewin’s Mead Chapel,[ home to the Unitarians, famous for philanthropy and promotion of science] the first public building in which the novelty found favour, was opened for evening service. In March, 1818 it was proposed to extend the gas pipes into the Commercial rooms, where the annual cost of oil and candles was £140. As the new company asked £120 for the supply, however, the members of the rooms stuck to lamps and dips until 1825. ”

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