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 at once contentious and evocative, loved and loathed by sections of society.
Historic England has listed some of the best examples, and photographed others before they are gone.
Here, our Listing Adviser in the London and the South East Region Seb Fry, charts the development of these iconic structures.
The Invention of Gas Light
Gas light in England was pioneered by the inventor William Murdoch 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 which relates to these early laboratory vessels which also measured the volume of gas. However, they gradually grew much 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 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 and soon gas lighting would spread to towns and cities across England.
Initially, gasholders had enclosing brick buildings known as ‘gasholder houses’. Inside 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 tank of water as it was filled.
The octagonal gasholder houses at Warwick are a unique survival in England (Built in 1822, Grade II-listed) 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 which was floated by the gas within a circular tank of water. 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 most 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 were the use of free-standing cast-iron tripods.
Indeed the oldest surviving gasholder in the world; the only Georgian example, Gasholder No.2 in Fulham, London, takes this form (Built in 1829, Grade II*-listed).
Nonetheless, between about the 1840s and 1890s the majority of guide frames came to be 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, where there is a unique grouping of seven, are among the finest ever constructed (all Grade II-listed).
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 then 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, Grade II-listed), built next to The Oval cricket ground. It not only formed part of the urban landscape but also 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; one of the most technologically and structurally innovative gasholders ever built (Built in 1879, Grade II-listed). 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 became the predominant form in the 20th century, widely built around the world.
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 process of conversion. Coal gas stopped being used in favour of natural gas transported and eventually stored in the pipelines themselves. 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 which is known as ‘Gasometer City’. These iconic structures will therefore continue to serve as valuable reminders of a bygone age.