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The Gasometers Of Bethnal Green

October 3, 2014
by the gentle author

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.

Click here for the petitions to preserve the Bethnal Green & Poplar Gasometers

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

21 Responses leave one →
  1. October 3, 2014

    Yes, it would be a pity to destroy these monuments from the Victorian industrial history, they are so much a part of their surroundings. Valerie

  2. October 3, 2014

    Yes indeed, beautiful and strange – and there’s a HUGE opportunity to be grabbed here by enlightened councillors

  3. October 3, 2014

    There should be annual awards for enlightened council planning departments. To give them a reason to aim for boldness and to celebrate those that do. Who might be a good group to take that on? It’s a bit of a broader remit than Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings. Any suggestions?

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    October 3, 2014

    Err … “Gasholders”, please, as they do not Meter” (measure) anything … (!)

    However, I am very familiar with the Bethnal Green ones, from numberless Walthamstow – Liverpool St journeys & also getting off at Cambridge Heath & walking to the “Dove” & Hackney market.
    I do hope they survive as, “ornaments” shall we say?
    It ought to be possible.

  5. Jean Gaffin permalink
    October 3, 2014

    Whilst enjoying the piece about gasometers, with the usual beautiful photographs, it brought back an unpleasant childhood memory. Despite rationing I was a fat child, war started when I was 3, and my nickname at junior school was “gasometer”. We called it teasing and I hated it – perhaps we might call it bullying now.

  6. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    October 3, 2014

    Only in ENGLAND will you find such enthusiasm from the authorities for obliterating every reference to the achievements of our industrial past.

  7. October 3, 2014

    They always have been fascinating for me… Let them stay!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  8. October 3, 2014

    They’re so lovely and fascinating to look at… I do hope they will be saved. I have admired them on the train from Walthamstow to Liverpool St so many times and I have spent days exploring them from every angle and taking photographs. They even found their way to the book I’m writing now, it would be nice if future readers still could go and see them for themselves.

  9. Chris Ashby permalink
    October 3, 2014

    Willingly signed and am hopeful of success!
    Best wishes,
    Chris A.

  10. October 3, 2014

    I don’t want to image a walk on the canal without the gasometer. Why not include them in a adaptive reuse proposal for the new green space. There are many successful examples of such industrial heritage preservation endeavors…

  11. Linda permalink
    October 3, 2014

    Hi–we just got back to Canada from London — saw one of these in Bromley, near where my great-grandmother lived. (Canon Rd.)
    We didn’t know what it was.

    Now we do! Thanks for the article–and let’s hope someone very creative comes up with a way to save these beautiful structures, including the one in Bromley.

  12. Peter Holford permalink
    October 3, 2014

    There is a similar problem with the cotton mills in the area where I now live. They are essentially what gives the place its sense of identity but the locals have a negative view of them and are delighted when they are demolished. I suppose if you live in a house which is overshadowed by one such building it must be great to suddenly get more light. Like the gasometers, many mills are of no architectural merit and they should be demolished. Some are increasingly being listed but they require new uses to ensure their maintenance and survival. And I think that’s the problem with the gasometers – they are decorative but can they have an additional function? In the present philistine, political environment where money is scarce even for essentials it will be an uphill struggle to save them. But we continue to strive for a civil society that values its heritage.

  13. Victoria permalink
    October 3, 2014

    These are wonderful reminders of our industrial heritage and so distinctive. I have seen these incorporated into other parks abroad successfully. If Battersea power station can be preserved than surely so can these. Thank you GO for ever bringing to the attention of a wider audience wonderful reminders of our past that are in danger of being destroyed.

  14. aubrey permalink
    October 3, 2014

    I would guess that the circumferential ring beams are probably wrought iron as are the lattice type columns: whereas the solid columns are made of cast iron. These C I columns are meant to sustain compression stresses only and wrought iron although not as robust in compression are more able to withstand bending stresses. These structures are icons of Victorian engineering and it a pity to see them all disappear. Perhaps some of them can be preserved even if it would mean relocation.

  15. Gary Arber permalink
    October 3, 2014

    In the war a large gasholder at Romford gasworks was shot up by a German Fockewulf 190 fighter. There were a large number of jets of burning gas all over the top, an employee named Stewart went on top with buckets of wet clay and smacked a handfull of clay over each burning jet, putting them out. I did not hear of him being given a medal
    Gary

  16. Wondercat permalink
    October 3, 2014

    Dresden has transformed one of its gasometers into a marvellous venue for art. The panorama — Panometer — of Asisi, displaying the baroque city, is a grand accomplishment (http://www.asisi.de/index.php?id=7#asisi_index_id_70). How sad were London not to meet this standard!

  17. Neville Turner permalink
    October 3, 2014

    These Gasometers were always strange and to me an early science fiction vision against the evening sky line in and around the canals of east London they excercised my imagination as to how they funtioned,they are indeed icons of a Victorian past some should be preserved as part of our historical heritage,they could be part of any parkland redevlopement.

  18. Jay Everett permalink
    October 4, 2014

    I have lived in Bethnal Green for most of my 7o year life to date, and even now live within walking or cycling distance of these two towers. When I was young, the Gas works was still in operation and I can recall being quite fascinated by the constant change in the heights of the two storage containers which would rise and fall as they were filled and drained on a regular basis. I recall also the narrowboats and barges fetching and carrying their loads to and from the works on a regular basis, and the area was quite a local hive of industry around that time. Waterborne canal traffic was still fairly active in my early teens and watching the various loads of coal and coke, timber, and I think large reels of what seemed to be paper, transported to who knows where, and for who knows what purpose, around the country on the open topped 70 footers chuntering their way along with dignified but purposeful progress. Most of the powered boats were powered by relatively low horsepower diesel engines that made the very distinctive sort of ‘chuff- chuff- chuff sound, that can still be heard on some of the preserved working boats that operate around the system, and on some of the expensive privately owned holiday or live aboard narrowboats that are now quite common. Although I have not found anyone else around with similar memories, I am sure I have a genuine recollection of a number of horse drawn boats still working at the time also, and seem to recall actually patting or feeding hay to some of the horses as they waited for boats to come through locks in a number of places.

    These two towers have dominated the local skyline for so long, it will undoubtedly be quite strange when they finally disappear, which sadly I guess they must. Whilst it is right that we should endeavour to preserve and protect significant items from our industrial past in order to provide future generations with some tangible evidence of their history, cannot of course keep everything simply because it is old. These (and other similar gas towers), definitely had a stark beauty of their own when they were surrounded by industrial buildings and machinery of the same era. If they are left simply hovering, or casting a menacing shadow over parkland or new housing developments, they will become an ugly, unsightly vision in the local scenery, and all the more so if they are left to rot to a point where they are declared unsafe. Better that they should be dismantled and donated to one of the Living Industrial Museums, and/or some parts of them subsequently re-assembled in a sympathetic artwork in a suitable and appropriate location.

  19. Roger Carr permalink
    October 4, 2014

    I visited one in Germany where an architect had installed a very modern viewing gallery on the top level, so that you could walk around and admire the views . . . a sort of horizontal London eye. There was also a small cafe and tables . . . we sat out for an hour at least, the air was wonderful. I’ve quite forgotten which city it was in!

  20. Andrea Kirkby permalink
    October 8, 2014

    These gasholders occupy land that could be more profitably used for housing.

    So do many hospitals, parks, libraries, and other public amenities. Not to mention churches…

    We are getting close to knocking down the whole of London to build luxury flats (with the accompanying 10% of ghetto ‘affordable’ housing). I look at the riverside now and can hardly recognise the London I used to work in; it’s beginning to look like a bad copy of Seattle.

    We need to save icons like these gasholders. We need to save a sense of place for ordinary people. Not stately homes, not Titians, but just a few of those old buildings and monuments that give London a character, that make you sure you’re in London, and not some ersatz glass-and-chrome capital of Mammon.

  21. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 28, 2014

    I have always loved Gasometers!What a pity that more & more are being demolished.Victorian engineering was wonderful!I love it!

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