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Gasholders: The last vestiges of a vanishing industry

Manufactured gas was once an important industry, providing power, light and heat for towns and cities. But the industry declined and today the remnants of this proud industrial heritage are the wonderful gasholders, now themselves rapidly disappearing from our cities.

 

Few people realise that the gas industry actually started in Britain over 200 years ago. Its creation was due to a mixture of the right skills, demand and raw materials coinciding at the same time. Key to its development was the genial Scottish engineer William Murdoch. Working with one of the best teams of engineers assembled at that time, in Boulton and Watt, he turned experimentation into a commercial reality.

Gas was installed into mills and factories across the country, improving safety working conditions and productivity. It needed the vision of a German entrepreneur, Friedrich Winzer, who had been inspired by a French engineer, Philippe LeBon, to create the first gas company in London in 1812 – the Gas Light and Coke Company. An ancestor of National Grid, this company was the first to deliver an integrated utility network, supplying gas beneath the streets of London. Gas was originally used for lighting and today many gas street lamps remain in Westminster.

While the story of the manufactured gas industry, which finally gave way to natural gas in the 1970s, has more plots and subplots than a Sunday night drama, it has largely been forgotten. Gasworks were once to be found in every town and city, however, at the end of the gas manufacturing era, the gas producing plant and most of the associated buildings were cleared. This resulted in much of the important gas heritage being lost; those structures which did survive often did so because they had previously been sold and repurposed. Today three small gasworks survive as museums at Fakenham (England), Carrickfergus (Northern Ireland) and Biggar (Scotland), mainly due to the generosity of their volunteers.

The last fragments of this once important industry were the gasholders, many of which were still needed. Britain had a unique fleet of gasholders, from the early tripod frame holders to the more numerous spiral guided holders. These are however no longer required for the type of low-pressure gas storage they provided the networks which operated them. Most of the remaining gasholders are scheduled for future demolition, with the exception of a few listed for future prosperity. 

These iconic structures have, over the past few years, started to catch the eye of the media. Love or loath them, they have been present on the skyline of towns and cities for many decades. The iconic tall blue gasholder at Battersea has gone, while the large No.1 gasholder at The Oval has recently been listed, as much for its engineering merit as for its iconic status and backdrop for cricket matches.

A few gasholders have been listed, primarily in London, and the Kings Cross Project has shown what can be done if a developer has real vision as to how such structures could bring an iconic presence to their development. Inspiration can be drawn from our European neighbours: there are many excellent examples of the redevelopment of historic gas infrastructure, ranging from the Sulivahti project in Helsinki to the Gasometer City in Vienna.

The gas industry – which owns the redundant fleet of gasholders – has little flexibility or incentive to do anything other than demolish the structures. They are expensive and difficult to maintain and can attract the unwanted attention of those wishing to climb them. They provide an interesting canvas for both preservation and regeneration, but whether those surviving gasholders can capture the public hearts and imagination again, only time will tell.  

Russell Thomas is a ground risk and remediation technical director at WSP.