Soane’s Life & Times 1812-1813; Part VII: Industry

2013 marks a significant date for Sir John Soane’s Museum, as it heralds the 200th anniversary since Sir John and his family took up residence at No.13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. This blog series has been celebrating this important milestone in the Museum’s history by exploring aspects of Soane’s life during 1812-13.  A fascinating and glittering period, the year that Soane established his now world famous house museum was also one of political, economic and social turmoil both in Britain and abroad. Over five days this week, we bring the series, and this remarkable anniversary, to a close.  

To read the previous blog posts in this series, please click here



Inventions led to a leap forward in British industry. In the last decade of the 18th century, an average of 60 patents were granted for inventions per year. By 1812 this had doubled.
New sources of energy such as steam and gas led to improved manufacturing processes and, in the case of gas, to an entirely new industry. Steam power had been used in mining, iron, wool and cotton industries for a number of years. The introduction of the steam engine improved productivity and smaller engines were soon possible. Richard Trevithick developed a high-pressure steam engine for collieries and iron works, which in 1812 powered the first steam threshing machine. Steam engines also helped develop transport. Matthew Murray adapted Trevithick’s steam engine for toothed rails that could operate in colliery conditions at Middleton. His 1812 locomotive Salamanca was the first commercial steam engine to operate successfully. Scottish engineer Henry Bell used steam to propel boats, and in 1812 built a steam boat Comet (named after the Great Comet). She made her maiden voyage on the Forth and Clyde Canal that year. Bell started a regular steam boat service, between Greenock and Helensburgh, in August 1812 — the first in Europe.


The paddle steamer ‘Comet’ by Alexander Nasmyth, 1816, oil on canvas. In 1812 the Comet was the first steam-powered ship to use a Symington engine
The paddle steamer ‘Comet’ by Alexander Nasmyth, 1816, oil on canvas (Courtesy of the Science Museum)


The Right to Light London

A significant development was the incorporation on 30 April 1812, by Royal Charter, of the Gas Light and Coke Company. Formed to commercialise lighting with gas derived from coal, the new company was given exclusive 21-year rights to provide gas lighting in the Cities of London and Westminster, in Southwark, and in adjacent suburbs: in effect, the right to light London.

Frederic Winsor, from Moravia, had learned about gas produced from wood from the Frenchman Lebon. On arrival in England he advocated lighting London with gas produced from coke. In June 1807 he successfully lit a wall of Carlton House garden in Pall Mall with his lamps, which drew gas from coke stoves through lead pipes. This secured Winsor and his backers the Prince Regent’s patronage. The Gas Light and Coke Company raised £200,000 to finance gas lighting in London streets. By degrees, it was also introduced in public buildings and Soane was approached in 1816 about gas-lighting the Bank of England. Despite initial resistance, partly for safety reasons, demand spread rapidly. Westminster Bridge was lit by gas in December 1813 and Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1819. Soane rescued for his collection four of the stone obelisks which had once supported the oil lamps used in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.


The Good Effects of Carbonic Gas!!!, satirical print by George Cruikshank, 1807, hand-coloured etching. In 1807 Golden Lane was lit by gas using the three-flame system called the cockspur lamp. The acrobat is Frederic Winsor, puffing his National Light and Heat Company
The Good Effects of Carbonic Gas!!!, satirical print by George Cruikshank, 1807, hand-coloured etching (Courtesy of the British Museum)


The Lids Were Simply Soldered On

Progress was also made in food preservation. The first meat canning business was set up in Bermondsey in 1812 by Bryan Donkin, an engineer from Northumberland, and his partner John Hall. In 1814, the Admiralty placed a sizeable order for meat in airtight containers. However, the technology still needed improvement.  The lids were soldered on and the cans had to be opened with a hammer and chisel.

Demand for raw materials to supply the manufacturing base was not without human cost. On 25 May 1812 an accident at a colliery at Felling near Gateshead, County Durham, involving an explosion and fire, cost 93 lives. The oldest victim was 65, the youngest, eight.

Tomorrow, read Part VIII: Tea and Other Diversions


This blog has been reproduced from "Soane's Life and Times 1812-1813" by Gisela Gledhill and edited by Philippa Stockley, which can be purchased from our online store or from the Soane Shop. We are grateful to Gisela and Philippa for allowing us to feature their work in this way.

Posted on 17 December 2013 in Soane's Life and Times: 1812-1813
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