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Beckton Gas Works
Armada Way, Gallions Reach, Newham, London, UK
associated engineer
Frederick John Evans
George Careless Trewby
date  November 1868 - December 1870
era  Victorian  |  category  Power Generation  |  reference  TQ441816
ICE reference number  HEW 2283
Beckton Gas Works, on the north bank of the River Thames in East Ham, supplied Londoners with ‘town’ gas made from coal. When it opened it was the largest gas works in Europe. After the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea, the works were closed and part of the site was redeveloped. The remains of the coal jetties and some of the gasholders may still be seen.
The Chartered Gas Light & Coke Company, founded in 1812, was granted powers to build Beckton Gas Works under an 1868 Act of Parliament. The name was chosen to honour the company’s Governor Simon Adams Beck (1803-83).
The company's Chief Engineer Frederick John Evans (1818-80) designed and supervised the works, assisted by John Orwell Phillips and Vitruvius Wyatt (1824-97). The site was some 60 hectares of open low-lying marshland the company had acquired next to the river. The first pile of the river retaining wall was driven on 29th November 1868.
The riverside location allowed direct delivery of coal by sea from Durham and Northumberland. Ships owned by the company docked at a T-shaped jetty (TQ448812) founded on concrete-filled cast iron piles. Its front face is 123m from the foreshore and there is 7.6 to 9m depth of water at high tide. The head of the jetty is 229m long and berthed five steam colliers.
The coal was unloaded unloaded using hydraulic and steam cranes and placed in iron hopper wagons. Trains of 16 wagons each were pulled by steam locomotives along twin elevated railway lines from the jetty to the 12 retort houses. In 1880, it was reported that in winter (the busiest season) the ships brought in almost 22,000 tonnes of coal a week.
The retort houses are large airtight cast iron cylinders, inside which coal is heated to high temperatures. Gases given off by heating are extracted, cooled, washed with water and cleaned with lime. The resulting coal gas is then stored in gasholders ready for supply. By-products from gas production include coke, coal tar and sulphur. Gas was supplied from Beckton to the City of London for the first time in December 1870, through a 1.2m diameter main to Westminster.
In 1872, a freight railway line was opened westwards from the gas works to Custom House Station (TQ407809) at the Royal Victoria Dock. A passenger service began the following year, used mainly by workers at the plant.
The gas works had at least nine gasholders. No.8 Gasholder (TQ442815), which survives, was designed by Wyatt and built in 1876-9. It contained 56,600 cu m of gas in two telescopic lifts, rising inside a decorative iron guide frame. The tank is 59m in diameter and 11.3m deep.
No.9 Gasholder (TQ441814), now demolished, was built in 1890-2 to the design of George Careless Trewby (1842-1910), Wyatt’s successor as Chief Engineer. It held some 226,000 cu m of gas and was one of the largest gasholders in the UK. It had a mass concrete tank 76m in diameter and 14m deep. The gas bell had four lifts. The guide frame had 28 tapering box lattice standards of mild steel and was 54.9m tall — an early use of mild steel for this purpose.
In 1895, a second T-shaped jetty (TQ446810) was added to the south of the first and its construction also featured concrete-filled cast iron piles. This jetty was used for the export of residual by-products, notably coke.
The establishment of Beckton Gas Works brought prosperity to the Chartered Gas Light & Coke Company. In the years after the works opened, the company merged with other London gas companies and increased both its customer base and production.
In 1870, the company amalgamated with the City of London Gas Light & Coke Company, the Great Central Gas Consumers Company and the Victoria Docks Gas Company. More followed — the Equitable Gas Light Company in 1871, the Western Gas Light Company in 1873, the Independent Gas Light & Coke Company and the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company in 1876, and the London Gas Light Company in 1883.
The company’s total gas production in 1870 was around 37 million cu m. In 1877 and 1880 output had increased to 281 and 350 million cu m respectively. By 1900, it had reached 604 million cu m.
In July 1926, the original coaling facilities were augmented by a new coal handling plant, including an eastward extension of the 1870 pier (to TQ450814, still intact). The extension measures 122m by 21m, is constructed in prestressed concrete and carried on 268 piles. King George V and Queen Mary opened the new plant. Through continuing expansion, the gas works eventually occupied a site of some 240 hectares.
Beckton Gas Works stopped producing coal gas in the 1960s. The discovery of natural gas reserves in the North Sea meant it was uneconomic to manufacture gas. The works were mothballed in 1967 and the retort houses taken out of use. The last shipload of coal was delivered to the jetties on 16th April 1969 and the last train left the works in 1970.
British Gas maintained an office on site until the early 1990s. The only traces of the works that survive are the 'Beckton Alps' (a grass-covered mound of industrial waste), some concrete foundation pads, a few disused gasholders and the remnants of the two jetties. The northern part of the site is now a shopping centre.
Resident engineer: George Careless Trewby
Contractor: John Aird & Son
Research: ECPK
bibliography
"Obituary: George Careless Trewby, 1842-1910" in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Vol.184, pp.356-357, London, January 1911
"System of Unloading and Storing Coals at the Beckton Station of the Gaslight and Coke Company" by G.C. Trewby, in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Vol.69, pp.318-319, London, January 1882
"Obituary: Frederick John Evans, 1818-1880" in Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Vol.63, pp.311-313, London, January 1881
www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
www.newhamstory.com
www.portcities.org.uk
reference sources   CEH LondDNB
Location

Beckton Gas Works