The Coming of gas

In the early 19th century, the installation of gas lighting, firstly in the streets and then in homes, marked the beginnings of a different kind of industrial revolution. Gas lighting made the streets safer. Before then, on dark winter nights “the aged and infirm are often placed in danger, and it is all but impossible for a respectable female to pass on the streets in the dark without being insulted by rude jests, clothed in coarse, not to say obscene language, emanating from youths who crowd the corners of the streets.” That was The Derbyshire Times in 1856, the year Ripley’s streets were first lit.

Gas lighting in homes also meant that there was an increase in literacy: people could read and write far better with the bright gas lights than the candles and oil lamps they replaced.

It had long been known that gas produced by heating coal burnt with a bright flame, but it wasn’t until 1813 that the country’s first public gas lights, on Westminster Bridge, were installed. Derby got gas lighting in the 1820s, Belper in 1848. Ripley was a little slower; in fact its first gas was produced by James Crossley, who manufactured it to light his factory but also agreed with the town to supply it for lighting.

James Crossley

Crossley came to Derbyshire in 1851 from London, initially to learn his trade in the Derby Silk Mill. Quickly, he settled in Ripley, taking over the small factory of Thomas Topham. Ripley was convenient for a cotton manufacturer: there was ample coal for the steam engines to power machinery (and to produce gas), and access to cotton thread from the Strutt and Arkwright factories in the Derwent valley.

The Crossley factory gradually specialised, especially in candle wicks (which required no snuffing, as they advertised). James Crossley himself, as well as developing his business, was a major figure in many of the town’s institutions. In the late 1870s, however, he was declared bankrupt and, having moved to Derby, was declared ineligible to hold his seat in local government. He died in 1881, at the age of 53. His son, also James, took over the business and it remained in the family until his death, in 1903, when the firm merged with Morgans of Manchester to become Morgan Crossley. In spite of a disastrous fire in 1923, the mill, or parts of it, remained in operation until the mid 20th century.

As for the gas supply, this was taken over by the town’s own gas works, built near the pit on Peasehill in 1864. It was operated by the Ripley Gas Company (see the advert from 1934), and remained in operation until 1940. Electric lighting didn’t become available until 1913 (for street lighting), and most homes in Ripley would not have an electric supply until the late 1920s or 1930s.

1930s advert for the Ripley Gas Co.

So the next time you pop out on a dark December night, spare a thought for the men (and especially the women) of Ripley before 1856 who braved the darkness to do their shopping.

First published in “All Things Local” in August 2019