Jody Baker: Mrs. Bayns And The Gas, Light And Coke Company

Saturday, February 16, 2013 - by Jody Baker

It was a London night in Surrey. The fog had settled in so dense that beads were forming on the windows and rolling down the panes. Our home is not luxurious by Victorian standards. But it affords us all of the comforts that we want or need. We are not wealthy by London standards. We are wealthy by the standard of him who said: “Wealthy is the man who wants slightly less than what he has.” (“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” - Epictetus) 

Mrs. Baynes told me that she has heard that soon we are to receive gas lighting for our cottage. London’s Gas Light and Coke Company (chartered in 1812) is laying gas lines in central Surrey from Escher down to Oxshott. Since we live about midway between the two, we will be able to make our connection soon. Mrs. Baynes has already been shopping for gas-lit fixtures that we shall install when we are connected up. 

Tonight she has before her a copy of Dr. Watson’s report on the Copper Beeches matter along with several other papers on foolscap. “Inspector,” she said softly, “since we shall have gas lighting soon, let me read to you how your friend Dr. Watson writes in such realistic and descriptive language where he mentions gas lighting. 

“He says this:  ‘It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-coloured houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet.’ 

“Isn’t that marvelous,” she said. “So vivid and graphic that you can almost feel the chill of the fog and the warmth of the fire.” 

“Verisimilitude, my dear.” I stifled a smile. 

She didn’t break stride. She asked, “What do you know about illuminating gas?” 

“Well, I know they don’t pipe it to us across the Big Pond  from Texas.” 

“Don’t get smart with me, big boy,” she shot back. 

Soothingly, I replied, “I do know that Josiah Amberly, the Retired Colourman,  used household gas to murder his wife and a young doctor in a case over near Lewisham.  That case was solved by Inspector MacKinnon of the Yard, with a bit of help from Mr. Holmes.” 

“But do you know anything about how the household gas is produced.?” she persisted. 

“Not really, but....” 

She interrupted, smiling the smile of one who is about to begin a lecture. And then she began: “Coke is used to convert iron to steel, but to make coke you’ve got to cook a bunch of coal and drive off certain by-products. They call that the `destructive distillation process.’ Now, two of those by-products are coal tar and coal gas.” Are you listening, Inspector?  It begins to get good here. “Since 1733 it was known that coal gas was flammable, but nobody found any good uses for it. For years the coal tar and gas were waste by-products. 

“Then in 1771,” she continued, “ along comes a bright young man by the name of William Murdoch. William worked for a company that was operated  by James Watt — you know, the guy that invented the modern steam engine. Murdoch was working at Watt’s Soho foundry works, and he thought that he could find a commercial use for this coal gas so it wouldn’t all go up with the smoke. Well, Murdoch experimented over and over. At last with the support of Gregory Watt --- a son of you-know-who --- Murdoch got the company to manufacture small commercial gas-producing units to be installed right on the buyers’ premises. These were used for gas light for the mills and factories. Now, that was a giant step forward, and by 1804 these units were being sold all over the place. 

“Then along came Frederick Winsor.  Now, he’s the guy that demonstrated, in 1807, that this coal gas could be produced in a central location and piped out to gas lamps. To prove his point, he and Thomas Sugg, a plumber, laid pipe and sent the gas supply to 13 gas lamps erected up and down Pall Mall. 

“Things are picking up here, Inspector, and you’d better listen. For years Winsor was deep in debate and lobbying with members of Parliament. Then, finally, a Royal Charter was granted. This was signed on April 30, 1812, by King George III, himself. It established the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company (known, generally, by the name of the  Gas Light and Coke Company). Well, Inspector,  Winsor was `off-to-the-races.’ 

“He now had the first commercial gas company in the world. They built the gas works to produce the gas, and they set about laying wooden pipes to carry the gas. They illuminated Westminster Bridge on New Years Eve in 1813. A beautiful sight to behold. This is the same Gas Light and Coke Company that is bringing gas to us.” 

She had plans to continue her lecture on into the night. She pulled out another sheaf of papers, “Inspector, the other by-product of coke is coal-tar. Sherlock Holmes seems to know a bit about coal-tar, and I will tell you about that next?” 

She paused, looked up and cried out: “Inspector, are you listening?  Inspector!-- Oh, for heaven’s sake.” 

I woke up with a start and sat bolt upright in my chair and rubbed my eyes. I looked at Mrs. Baynes and said, “It’s late, my dear, and I think I’d better walk the dog around the yard before I retire.” 

I exited the room and quietly closed the door behind me. Mrs. Baynes continued to sit --  puzzled, silent and stunned.  As you know, we have no dog. 

Respectfully, 
Insp. Baynes


(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at josiahbaker@bkhcw.com.) 


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