Gasworks once brought light and warmth to homes across England.
Hundreds of their most prominent landmarks, gasholders, are now being demolished and lost from the landscape forever.
Gasholders are contentious and evocative, loved and loathed by sections of society.
Some of the best examples have been listed, and we have photographed others before they are gone.
Who invented Gaslight?
The inventor William Murdoch pioneered gas light in England in the 1790s. The gas was made by burning coal in ovens called ‘retorts’. Once it was produced, ‘coal gas’ needed somewhere to be stored: a gasholder.
The basic form of gasholder was first used by chemists in laboratories, comprising a small upturned metal vessel, or ‘bell’ as it became known, in a tank of water that made a gas-tight seal.
Gasholders are sometimes erroneously called gasometers, a name related to these early laboratory vessels that also measured the gas volume. However, they gradually grew larger and were essentially containers rather than ‘meters’.
From Gasworks to Gasholders
In the early 1800s, gas was used to light factories and textile mills. The earliest surviving remains of a gasworks in the world are at Dolphinholme, a small village in Lancashire.
The gasworks built in 1811 produced coal gas to light the textile mill, the village street and the mill manager’s house. It is now protected as a scheduled monument on private land.
The world’s first public gasworks was built at Westminster in 1813. Gas lighting would spread to towns and cities across England.
Initially, gasholders had to enclose brick buildings known as ‘gasholder houses’. The gas bell was attached to a chain hung over a roof beam and balanced with a weight at the other end. This allowed it to be floated by the gas and steadily rise in the water tank as it was filled.
Built in 1822, the octagonal gasholder houses at Warwick are unique in England but no longer retain the gasholders inside. The practice was abandoned when it was realised the enclosures trapped any escaping gas, increasing the likelihood and consequences of an explosion.
Instead, gasholders would be located out in the open air. The most distinctive visual element was the guide frame, a circular metal structure comprising a frame of metal uprights (often columns) and horizontal girders.
The guide frame supported the metal gas vessel or bell floated by the gas within a circular water tank. The bell had wheels attached to it which ran on vertical rails attached to the frame so that it could rise as it was filled or fall as it was emptied of gas.
Eventually, the bell became telescopic, consisting of interlocking sections situated one inside the other; when the inner one was fully extended, the outer one would also start to rise. The tank was often below-ground and built of stone, brick or concrete, but occasionally it could be built as an above-ground metal tank.
Gasholders with a guide frame of cast-iron columns were predominant until the late 19th century. Initially, these frames comprised just three columns linked by girders. An early alternative for larger gasholders was the use of free-standing cast-iron tripods.
Indeed the oldest surviving gasholder in the world, the only Georgian example, is Gasholder No. 2 in Fulham, London, built in 1829, which takes this form.
Nonetheless, between the 1840s and 1890s, most guide frames were composed of cast-iron columns. These were architecturally-elaborate gasholders with classical architectural features such as Tuscan capitals.
Those at Kings Cross and Bromley-by-Bow, London, with a unique grouping of 7, are among the finest ever constructed.
Reinvention in the 19th century
The period from the 1870s to the 1890s saw massive changes in the design of gasholder guide frames using wrought iron and steel.
Gasholders became major feats in civil engineering. One branch of gasholder design combined large latticework metal uprights, essentially functioning as buttresses, with horizontal girders.
The most prominent example is Gasholder No. 1 at Kennington, London, built in 1877, built next to The Oval cricket ground.
It formed part of the urban landscape and the atmosphere on match days. One cricket commentator once mused: ‘As the bowler runs in, it’s so quiet you can hear the creak of the gasometer’.
Another branch of gasholder design was the development of guide frames as cylindrical ‘lattice shells’. These had exceptionally thin metal uprights combined with diagonal beams, reducing the use of horizontal girders until they could be emitted altogether.
The revolutionary prototype is Gasholder No. 13, Old Kent Road, London, built in 1879, one of the most technologically and structurally innovative gasholders ever made.
It inspired the development of helical or geodesic structures, a form later seen in Barnes Wallis airframes for aeroplanes (1930s), Buckminster Fuller’s Domes (1950s), and even the skyscraper known as the Gherkin, London.
In 1890, the next major gasholder development occurred with the construction of the first spiral-guided gasholder.
These gasholders no longer had a guide frame but only a telescopic bell that rose, as it was filled with gas, in a cork-screw or spiral motion. Spiral-guided gasholders, widely built worldwide, became the predominant form in the 20th century.
Decline and New Uses of Gasholders in the 21st century
Following the discovery of natural gas under the North Sea in 1965, the gas network underwent a massive conversion process.
Coal gas stopped being used in favour of natural gas transported and eventually stored in the pipelines. Gasholders became redundant and began to be demolished in large numbers from about 2000 onwards.
Some gasholders have found inventive new uses. The guide frames of the gasholders at Kings Cross now surround apartment blocks and a park. A similar scheme is set to be built at Kennington.
In Oberhausen, Germany, a gasholder is now an epic exhibition space, whilst in Vienna, Austria, there is a neighbourhood built in four gasholders known as ‘Gasometer City’.
These iconic structures will therefore continue to serve as valuable reminders of a bygone age.
Written by Seb Fry, Listing Adviser in the London and the South East Region.