Seagate castle, Irvine
Maryborough salt pan houses
weavers' cottages in Crosshill


Culzean coach house
Home    About    Articles    Bibliography    Links    Research Postings    Search   

Copyright notice:  Links to this site are welcomed.  However none of the material on the site may be duplicated in any form.  The copyright of the articles is the property of the authors.  Copyright of the web pages is the property of David McClure.

The Mercury Safety Air Gas Company Ltd.

by Jim Mair
plate 1 (below)

In Ayrshire Notes 16, the present author describes two rival gas works operating in Newmilns and fighting it out in great contention. The burgh was a source of amusement for the people of the neighbouring villages through its claim to have two of everything, signifying its public utilities and civic institutions. However in this case the correct number vaunted was three. The two establishments mentioned in the earlier article produced coal gas, but just off Main Street a small factory also known as the 'gas works' was in business.
The Mercury Gas Company resembled in entrepreneurial flair many small firms in Ayrshire towns that were trading successfully in national and international markets. In time many were gobbled up by predators or had their product replaced by modern equivalents or new sources of energy, but the Mercury had a healthy existence during the first decades of the twentieth century under the ownership and direction of John MacPherson. First described as a plumber he later, when he had established his company, transmogrified himself into a gas engineer. Both designations were appropriate when it came to buying in the cylinders and machined parts for the apparatus and linking them with the necessary mechanism and pipes.
The plant provided heating and lighting to premises in isolated localities, such as farms and country houses, not attached to the main gas supplies, or to customers who chose to be independent of the town gas companies. It was suitable for schools (such as the Grammar School, Pocklington, East Riding of Yorkshire), reading rooms (such as Drymen, Stirlingshire) and small businesses, such as the Premier Tanneries in Glengarnock. Plate 1 shows the more popular model of water-driven plant that could be adapted to supply households and premises with the required number of lights or heating apparatus. A 150 light plant was installed at Drumshoreland Hospital, near Broxburn, West Lothian. The architect of the hospital approved it for its 'special feature of conveying its own air in the pipes, thereby saving the air in the rooms from being robbed of oxygen which is so essential for sick rooms. [It] is quite a triumph from a health point of view, and should commend itself to all public and private institutions where a pure atmosphere is valued.' (note 1)
The system had clear economic advantages over coal gas, which cost around 3s 6d (171/2p) per 1000 cubic feet. At the same period the Mercury was run on a mixture of air and petrol, 971/2% air to 21/2% petrol, operated by a small water engine with a pressure of 20 lbs. In one test, using a quarter of a gallon of petrol, costing at that time about 1s (5p) a gallon, '219 cubic feet of air gas were made and consumed through ten burners throughout the house, using 36 gallons of water costing 0.216 pence, less than a farthing.' (note 2) Advantages of the system were the elimination of condensation and, as a safety gas, it eradicated all chance of asphyxiation or explosion in any apartments where the gas burned. No unpleasant odours were produced and, as an automatic plant, it turned itself on when one light was ignited and stopped working when the last light was extinguished. If circumstances prevented the use of water or it was not available the plant could be operated by weight and pulley as shown in Plate 2.
All the standard equipment necessary for lighting, heating and cooking could be operated from the installation: lights, radiators, boilers, cookers, irons, gas fires and even ironing machines, which were given a favourable report by Mr Watson of the Loudoun Laundry Co. Another satisfied customer further afield, but in the same line of work was the D & J Tullis Laundry in South Africa. Some of the wide range of products offered by the company are shown in Figures 1 and 2, but every type of domestic and industrial appliance used in the coal gas industry could also be used in the Mercury system
The widespread and international utilisation of the Company's plant is indicated by the addresses of a selection of its clients:-
Oil Well Engineering Co., Cheadle, Manchester
Burmah Oil Co., Burmah
Hall, Leslie & Co., Buenos Aires, Argentina
Mr Buchanan, Tobago
Mr Harry Moore, 8-10 Petit Dock, Ghent, Belgium
Fumigalli & Co., heating engineers, Genova, Italy
M. Ruffenacht, Rue de Versailles, Paris
Cuckney Church, Nottinghamshire
After quick growth following the launch of the business with prospects of further improvement, the company settled down into a regular steady trade. It displayed its various models and techniques at many industrial exhibitions winning awards, including the prestigious gold medal at Manchester in 1910. An office with a showroom was opened in Bath Street, Glasgow, moving later to West Regent Street, while the works remained throughout in Newmilns. An undated price-list of the company's products is shown in Figure 3, and it maintained a stake in the market until the outbreak of the Second World War.
The company, regardless of the appeal of its product and its competitive edge, could not hope to survive without an enlarged sales force and an increased works capacity. Branch factories in areas most suited for commercial development might have nourished further growth, but alternative systems of motive power and lighting in rapidly expanding coal gas and electricity enterprises contributed to the company's stagnation. The cleanliness, efficiency and safety of the company's gas plant might have maintained a niche in the market, but the pre-war development of bottled gas, including Calor Gas, endangered the Mercury's on-site mechanical system. Without access to the company records, the ebb and flow of its business activity cannot be traced. It remained a family concern with limited prospects for expansion even with its widespread commercial outlets.
Many small businesses, unless they acquired government orders, suffered eclipse during the Second World War. The Mercury Safety Air Gas Co was already in decline and the last references to its existence lie in the valuation rolls for the Burgh of Newmilns & Greenholm for 1940. What was described as the company's premises at Main Street from 1911 onwards as a workshop had by 1940 become merely a store. By the end of the war it was recorded as vacant premises, which soon after were cleared of all residual equipment and materials to be converted into the local fire brigade station.
At one time the 'gas works' had formed part of a small industrial complex alongside Thomson's aerated water factory and Todd's stocking-making workshop, all within a typical townscape of domestic housing, retail shops, factories and workshops. Most people lived by or near their place of work in small, self-sufficient communities. The trend towards the much-acclaimed economies of scale in business endeavour soon gave the coup de grace to most small forms as the move to larger units accelerated. These were located at a distance, and the social and economic structure of small towns and villages was weakened or disintegrated. The Mercury Gas Company characterised the enterprise and acumen of a period of industrial development unlikely ever to be repeated.


1. William Baillie, architect, Glasgow, quoted in the business brochure of the Mercury Safety Air Gas Co Ltd., p.14.
2. Brochure of Mercury Safety Air Gas Co Ltd., p.2.

© Jim Mair 2003
plate 2 (below)
figure 1 (below)
figure 2 (below)
figure 3 (below)
back to top
Home    About    Articles    Bibliography    Links    Research Postings    Search