The Gasometers Of Bethnal Green
Behold the mighty gasometer looming against the sky!
Just as Rome has the Coliseum, New York has the Empire State Building, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Cairo has the Pyramids – in Bethnal Green, we have the awe-inspiring pair of gasometers towering over the canal. Like the Coliseum, they possess an elegant curvaceous geometry, like the Empire State, they punctuate the skyline with their familiar silhouette, like the Eiffel Tower, they remind us of the engineering achievements of the nineteenth century and, like the Pyramids, there is a lesser (1866) and a greater one (1889) of differing ages.
In common with all these famous landmarks, the gasometers are also an integral part of the distinctive identity of their place – offering intricate three-dimensional patterns against the sky that frame our ever-changing northern cloudscapes to spectacular effect. Yet look beyond the epic romance of their towering presence and you discover their history is intimately bound up with the creation of the urban landscape they inhabit.
In the eighteen-fifties, the site of the gasometers was established as a holding station for the Shoreditch Gasworks nearby, built by the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company in 1823 on land that is now Haggerston Park, capitalising upon the facility to deliver coal by barge along the Regent’s Canal which opened in 1820. Today, only the original retaining walls of the gas works, which traverse and enfold the park, remain as evidence of this particular vanished industry.
The smaller of the pair of gasometers, possessing the decorative ironwork, was completed in December 1866, designed by Joseph Clark, chief engineer at the gasworks, and constructed by Westwood & Wright’s of Dudley. It has sixteen classical columns, ascending from the Doric to the Corinthian in style.
The larger gasometer is twice the height, towering over its little brother, at one-hundred-and-forty-six feet. This was designed by George Trewby, chief engineer of the Gas Light & Coke Company, which had taken over its predecessor to become the largest gas company in the world. Built in 1888 and 1889, it is constructed of elegant tapering iron lattice-work columns. Two hundred feet in diameter, the structure descends fifty feet below ground – demonstrating a classical equilibrium of design in which the height is equal to the diameter.
Nestling side by side, the old pair compliment each other nicely. Poised on the canal bank, they are the industrial equivalent of that popular variety double act, Little & Large. They are fine examples of the two main types of nineteenth century gasometer and the only surviving pair of gasometers in London, which was the birthplace of the gas industry.
When I learnt that both gasometers are to be decommissioned and the site is to become a park at the centre of a housing scheme, it was obvious that this presents the ideal opportunity to preserve these gasometers and enliven the newly-created green space with their dramatic sculptural forms. Disappointingly, the National Grid seeks to demolish both structures and sacrifice any possibility of a future life for these magnificent towers which have been integral part of the cityscape in Bethnal Green for generations.
Similarly in Poplar, a handsome gasometer of 1876-8 faces demolition when it could also be integrated into a new park. Designed by Robert Jones and his son Harry, of the Commercial Gas Company, and constructed by Samuel Cutler & Sons of Milwall, it is a graceful structure with many claims to significance in the history of engineering and industrial design. It has one of the earliest concrete gas-holder tanks in the world, while the lower girders with their unique box-lattice form are the only surviving examples of this design.
At this moment, we might needlessly lose these beloved old gasometers that have been part of the fabric of the East End for well over a century and which – fortuitously situated beside water – permit such endlessly fascinating and beautiful reflections.
The larger Bethnal Green gasometer was built 1888-9, designed by George Trewby
The smaller Bethnal Green gasometer was completed in 1866, designed by Joseph Clark
Decorative iron work designed Joseph Clark
Tiers of classical columns upon the smaller gasometer in Bethnal Green
Tapered lattice work columns of the larger gasometer in Bethnal Green, designed by George Trewby
Poplar Gasometer, designed by Robert & Harry Jones in 1876 and built by Samuel Cutler & Sons
The elegantly structure of the Poplar gasometer with its unique box-lattice girders
Poplar gasometer upon the bank of the River Lea
The Bethnal Green gasometers viewed from Mare St
Photographs 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11 copyright © Malcolm Tucker