Henry McLauchlan Backler: advocate of municipal gas lighting

In which we consider the life and times of Henry McLauchlan Backler (1824-1892), born in Paris, died a rather wealthy man in London.  Strong advocate of municipal gas lighting and director and company secretary of many overseas gas lighting companies.

Henry McLauchlan Backler was born in Paris, where his father John Backler, apothecary and cupper, had fled in 1820 when under suspicion of fraudulent dealings in his partnership with Thomas Mapleson, cupper to the Prince Regent and then the King. Henry’s birth (12 February 1824), and those of his two sisters Sophia Matilda and Sarah, were registered in the non-conformist registers in Paris for the year 1834.

It is reasonable to assume that as the oldest son of a successful apothecary and cupper, Henry might have had an education in Paris similar to that of his father at St. Paul’s School in London.  However, no records of Henry’s early years have yet come to light.  His education was such as to equip him for a successful business career, as we shall see.

Henry’s father John Backler died in Paris in 1846.  Records show that John Backler’s wife and surviving children then returned to England, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they could not be pursued for his outstanding alleged legal infringement.  The 1851 Census separately records Henry, his mother and his widowed sister Susannah Maria Raoux.

Henry had married Eliza Cole on 3 January 1846, and before the 1851 Census, they had produced their two children:

Florence Sophia McLauchlan Backler, born 29 September 1847

Laura Louisa McLauchlan Backler, born 28 February 1849.

The family lived in Meadow Place, Lambeth in 1851, father Henry shown as ‘Secretary to a Gas Company’.    Meadow Place is a small road just south of Vauxhall Station.  Its location near to Waterloo Station and Bridge would have been convenient for Henry to access central London.  But each successive Census would show moves up-market to their eventual home in the wealthy area of Champion Park in Camberwell.

A career in gas:  My first sightings of Henry came through the Times and 19th century newspapers indexes in a trawl of the ‘Backler’ name through the 19th century.  I found information about the respective businesses of Samuel (apothecary) and Joseph (stained glass artist), mainly in adverts for Samuel’s lotions and potions, and exhibitions by Joseph at his showrooms on Newman Street, near Oxford Street – blogs about both are forthcoming.  But dated much later in the 19th century, I came across references to variations on the name of ‘H. McL Backler’; ‘Henry McL Backler’ and ‘H.M. Backler’.  I didn’t know who he was for quite some time, but the pieces began to fall into place when I uncovered the biographical information above in the nonconformist BMD Registers.

Gas as a whooping cough ‘cure’:  I was intrigued by a letter to The Times on 29 August 1864 in which Henry expounded as a cure for whooping cough ‘the practice of sending children to inhale the gas from newly-opened purifiers’, stating that ‘from information obtained at various works [in France], which I frequently visit, I may infer that the cure for whooping cough is perfect.’  Some 45 years previously, Henry’s  half-uncle Samuel Backler had advertised his own cure for whooping cough in The Times, inviting orders for pills of unspecified content which he assured readers would prove immediately effective![1]

For quite some time I had no idea what this letter referred to.  I decided to try to learn more about Henry’s career in the gas industry through a number of sources.  They included:

  • reports in various London newpapers of his different business interests, consisting of adverts convening meetings, or giving annual or half-yearly reports of the various companies with which he was associated.  From 1850 – 1892 he was auditor to, General Manager, Secretary, Director and/or Chair of at least the Continental Union Gas Company, the Oriental Gas Company (enabled by an Act on 13 February 1857 – see http://indiankanoon.org/doc/333275/), the Turkish Gas Company and the European Gas Company (which owned the majority of shares in Unions des Gaz in France). (Check out this website for a quick look at the gas industry in Europe: http://www.academia.edu/6391506/Gasworks_manufactured_gas_plants_in_Europe )
  • Board of Trade records of limited companies in the BT31 series at The National Archives
  • specialist journals, such as the Journal of Gas Lighting and Gas World, accessed through the auspices of the National Gas Archives in Warrington, Lancashire.

A plethora of municipal gas companies: Through these sources I could build a picture of Henry’s business activities, which were almost exclusively of overseas enterprises for municipal lighting, with dividends often as high as 10 per cent.

Here I copy just a pair of examples of the very many reports I have downloaded.  Careful scrutiny of all of them over a period of some 40 years reveals a lot about Henry’s business activities, the economic climate in which his businesses prospered (or not), and insight into the perceived threats to the industry by electricity.

An advert (a company report) from The Times of Wednesday 15 July 1891, late in Henry’s career, is typical of the type of report which appeared in the press over the years.  It reveals something of the costs the company incurs, principally through the price of coal.  It shows that the kind of contract the company could negotiate with the municipalities it supplied was absolutely key, and that the company was forced to reduce its prices in the interests of long-term sustainability.  It also shows the importance of the by-products of the industry, for instance coke and tar.  J. Blacket Gill, a new member of the Board, was a trustee to and beneficiary of, Henry’s Will.  When reading these adverts across the years, personnel of the different companies appear repeatedly.  I think Henry operated in a business world where a few people held a number of positions of power.  On Tuesday Feb 6, 1872 (p 7, issue 27292), a report in The Times ‘Money Market and City Intelligence’ commented on the incestuous nature of the various municipal gas companies which were being formed:

A prospectus has been issued of the Foreign and Colonial Gas Company, with a capital of 100,000l., in shares of 10l. (half to be first subscribed).  The first work proposed is the lighting of the city of Antequers, in Spain, under an exclusive concession for 58 years.  While the advantages of amalgamation are actively pointed out with regard to railway, telegraph, and other undertakings, it is difficult to see the expedience of pursuing an opposite principle in companies of the present description.  There is an Imperial Continental Gas Company, with a capital of 2,800,000l ; a European Gas Company, with a capital of 234,000l.; and a Continental Union Gas Company, with a capital of 8000,000l.; yet, to start some new works at an interior town of Spain which are not to cost more than 24,000l., a new Foreign and Colonial Gas Company is to be inaugurated with all the usual distinct administrative offices, such as a Board of Directors, auditors, solicitors, and clerks.  Another peculiar feature in the prospectus is that two of the Directors belong to Boards of other companies formed for the very same objects – one of them belonging to the European and the other to the Continental Union Gas Company.

Another article from much earlier in Henry’s career (The Times, 7 March 1856) shows Henry as auditor to the newly-developed Turkish Gas Company; he was already Secretary to the European Gas Company (which was a major holder of shares in the Unions des Gaz in France), and this illustrates some of the duplication in personnel reported above.  It also illustrates how much detail there is in pieces such as this about context of the businesses, for instance describing the extensive nightlife and many buildings which could be illuminated.

Metropolitan Steamboat Company:  All these Gas Company adverts taken together would allow analysis of the ebb and flow of British involvement in municipal gas lighting abroad.  In the midst of them appears a business interest of a different nature – an advert for the Metropolitan Steamboat Company (The Times, 7 March 1856), one of whose Directors was H McL Backler, Chairman of the Continental Union Gas Company.  Plans were for the company to build boats specifically designed for speed and comfort; for attention to refreshments; and for links with interchanges with railway companies. This company appeared to be an amalgamation of the London Steamboat Company and the Woolwich Steampacket Company. I haven’t been able to find anything else about this company, but it illustrates some of the diversity of Henry’s business interests.

 TNA – the BT31 series:  I decided to see what I could find out about Henry’s various companies at the National Archives.  Series BT 31 consists of files of dissolved companies of all kinds incorporated between 1856 and 1931 and dissolved before 1932; some files of companies incorporated between 1856 and 1900 and dissolved between 1933 and 1948; files of public and private non-exempt companies incorporated up to 1970 and dissolved between 1948 and 1971 with a one per cent sample of files of exempt private companies.  (Records of existing companies can be viewed at the search rooms of Companies House, although once a company is dissolved, its records are destroyed after 20 years unless part of the sample held at TNA.) Only a sample of dissolved companies had full returns preserved after many were destroyed after 1950, but I struck lucky with the European Gas Company.  The books begin with details of the incorporation after the 1856 Companies Act, with many images including H M Backler’s signature (see right, from TNA, BT31/35913/1604).

Eur gas co Ltd HMB sign BT31 35913 1604

Back to the cure for whooping cough:  When I first saw the letter about the whooping cough cure in the Times, I was mightily puzzled.  My idea of ‘gas’ is based on natural gas from the north sea, with only a dim memory of when ‘gas’ meant something derived from coal or some other product (such as whale oil).  Of course the gas Henry was involved with was coal gas, the production of which involved huge capital investment in equipment and technology.  Henry was a member of the Gas Institute, originally known as the British Association of Gas Managers.  He actively promoted the cause of gas over electricity, for instance in  ‘Remarks on The Electric Light,[2] which summarised his views on why it was highly unlikely that electricity could ever take precedence over gas for lighting, owing to high costs and the need to replace the ‘candles’ every half hour or so. During the 1880s, though, the pressures of  technological developments in electricity were reflected in his annual reports to the shareholders of the various companies with which he was involved, although even just before his death in 1892 he was reporting that he didn’t think electricity would be a threat to gas in the supply of fuel for municipal lighting.

The gas involved in the ‘cure’ for whooping cough was that of the gas purifiers. The use of gas as a cure was not confined to this country or Europe.  A contemporary article about whooping cough shows that this was used in America as well[3]:

‘Several stories from around the turn of the century described crowds of children gathered at factories belching pollution, which was thought to be an effective treatment for whooping cough. “Gas As A Medicine: Chicago Factories Are A Whooping Cough Cure,” was the headline for one 1898 story that appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune. “One Place Last Year ‘Treated’ Three Thousand Children.” Another, appearing in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1893, read “Children At Gas Tanks: They Come To Inhale The Fumes For The Care Of Whooping Cough.”’  Google searching on ‘gas as a cure for whooping cough’ shows that this approach was used up until the middle of the 20th century!

The National Gas Archive:  TNA’s BT31 papers, combined with the newspaper adverts I have described above, allow me to see the breadth of Henry’s involvement as a businessman across the gas industry, and to learn more about the fortunes of that industry over a period of 40 years.  However, they don’t give much insight into his personality.  This was to come through his obituary which appeared in the Gas Journal, and which was sent to me by the Archivist at the National Gas Archive in Warrington.  Even allowing for hyperbole in obituaries, it offers some insight into a man who was not only a good businessman, but also someone who was respected and liked. Alas I can’t figure out how to reproduce it here – so that will have to await another day.  Suffice to say that Henry died on 30 November 1892.  We will look at his Will, and the fate of his wife and two daughters in the next blog.

[1] The Times 12 April 1819, and other dates

[2] Henry McLauchlan Backler, FRGS, FRHS. Remarks on the electric light, revised edition. Printed for private circulation by Waterlow & Sons Limited, London Wall, London, 1878.  This publication is held in the British Library.

[3] Chicago Tribune, 6 January 2012: Our whooping cough story, and why medical reporting is so interesting |By Trine Tsouderos

 

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