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A Walk To View The Gasometers

December 1, 2016
by the gentle author

When we get such bright winter days it becomes an imperative to take a walk and enjoy the benefit of the sunlight, especially now we have arrived at the season of the year when a clear sky becomes a precious commodity. So I decided to walk up to Bethnal Green and admire the majestic pair of gasometers, planted regally side by side like a king and queen surveying the Regent’s Canal from aloft.

Ever since I learnt that these nineteenth century gasometers had been granted a ‘certificate of immunity against listing’ by Historic England, which guarantees they will never receive any legal protection from destruction, it has been in my mind to undertake a walk to view them properly in advance of the day when they may be gone.

My path took me up the Queensbridge Rd, past the thick old brick walls bordering Haggerston Park that were once part of the Shoreditch Gas Works which formerly occupied this site, built by the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company in 1823. The Bethnal Green gasometers were constructed to contain the gas that was produced here, fired by coal delivered by canal.

In the Queensbridge Rd, I came upon The Acorn which has recently closed and is now scheduled for redevelopment unless the current bid for ‘asset of community value’ status can save it. This traditional East End pub which opened before 1869 must once have served the workers from the Imperial Gas Light & Coke Company across the road.

Approaching along the canal towpath, George Trewby’s gasometer of 1888-9 dominates the skyline, more than twice the height of its more intricate senior companion designed by Joseph Clarke in 1866. Crossing Cat & Mutton Bridge, which is named after the nearby pub founded in 1732, I walked down Wharf Place and into Darwen Place determining to make as close a circuit of the gasometers as the streets would permit me.

Flanked by new housing on either side of Darwen Place, the gasometers make a spectacularly theatrical backdrop to a street that would otherwise lack drama. Dignified like standing stones yet soaring like cathedrals, these intricate structures insist you raise your eyes heavenward, framing the sky as if it were an epic painting contrived for our edification.

Each storey of Joseph Clarke’s structure has columns ascending from Doric to Corinthian, indicating the influence of classical antiquity and revealing the architect’s chosen precedent as the Coliseum, which – if you think about it – bears a striking resemblance to a gasometer.

As I walked through the surrounding streets, circumnavigating the gasometers, I realised that the unapproachable nature of these citadels contributes to their magic. You keep walking and they always remain in the distance, always just out of reach yet looming overhead and dwarfing their surroundings.

At the south-easterly corner of my circular ramble I arrived at Grove Passage, an old field track cutting through the grid of the streets and by-passing a crumbling brick tower worthy of Piranesi. This is London’s last undeveloped bomb site, thanks to its location islanded on all sides by other properties.

From here I walked through The Oval, which is a light industrial state these days but takes its name from the ancient duckpond at its centre – now filled in and crowded with tightly-packed irregularly-parked vehicles. In spite of the utilitarian nature of this landscape, the relationship between the past is clear in this place and this imparts a strange charisma to the location, an atmosphere enhanced by the other-wordly gasometers.

Now that I have walked their entire perimeter, I can confirm that the gasometers are most advantageously regarded from mid-way along the tow path between Mare St and Broadway Market. From here, the silhouette of George Trewby’s soaring structure may be be viewed against the sun and also as a reflection into the canal, thus doubling the dramatic effect of these intriguing sky cages that capture space and inspire exhilaration in the beholder.

We can only hope that whoever develops this site recognises the virtue in retaining these magnificent towers and integrating them into their scheme, adding value and distinction to their architecture, and drama and delight to the landscape.

Opened before 1869, The Acorn in the Queensbridge Rd has recently closed although applicants for Asset of Community ValueStatus hope to save it.

The view from Darwen Place

Decorative ironwork and classical columns ascending from Doric to Corinthian like the Coliseum

The view from Marian Place

The view from Emma St

Grove Passage leading from Emma St to Mare St, with London’s last bombsite on the right

The view from the Oval

Offices of Empress Coaches in Corbridge Crescent

The view from Corbridge St

The view from Regent’s Canal towpath

George Trewby’s gasometer of 1888 viewed from Cat of Mutton bridge over Regent’s Canal

You may also like to read

The Gasometers of Bethnal Green

At Empress Coaches

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Alison Ashfield permalink
    December 1, 2016

    A lovely piece. Rather poignant that the gasometers have been essentially ‘immunised’ against listing, though. Such a strange thing to do. I worked in Broadway Market for nearly four years in the early 1990s and their outlines were a constant part of the skyscape. Unnoticed really, but the area was such a forgotten backwater then. On my first day at work, I was reduced to eating a rather nasty ‘Pot Noodle’ for lunch – I had not realised that there were so few places to buy anything to eat on Broadway Market in October 1992. Spoiled by years of working in the City of London, where cafés cheerfully call from almost every corner and the choice seemed endless. ‘Beppé’s’ was a favourite – huge, generously filled rolls produced with enormous speed and hilarity. I was particularly intrigued that the last undeveloped bomb-site still hides in the area alongside the Regent’s Canal, not so far from the Cat and Mutton bridge.

  2. December 1, 2016

    Wonderful views, thanks for sharing. Valerie

  3. Juliet permalink
    December 1, 2016

    Thank you.

  4. Greg Tingey permalink
    December 1, 2016

    Those Gas-Holders ( They do not meter or measure anything) may never be demolished, because the adjacent part of the site is very heavily polluted with tar/oil/sulphurous chemicals that removal & making good would be very, very expensive.
    What could be done is to make a small park around them.
    But that will require a pro-active local authority & some imagination.

  5. B E J Smith permalink
    December 1, 2016

    The offices of Empress Coaches in Corbridge Street appeared briefly in the fairly recent film incarnation on ‘Tinker Tailor….’ as the exterior of the ‘safe house’ in the climax of the film.

  6. John Epstein permalink
    December 1, 2016

    Dear Gentle Author

    Alas, I am removed from London for the time being, back in my hometown of Houston, Texas, but your daily posts of walks I myself have taken, or can add to my to-see list for my next visit, keep me from feeling entirely exiled. And it’s always your special spirit and vision that I identify with my own love of London.

    I never saw gasometers until I came to London, but fell in love with them. I still don’t understand exactly what they are! And that mysterious combination of architecture and technology is what I love, and what you capture so well in your current piece.

    I hope you have a good winter season ahead, and look forward to your report from Southwark Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

    Thanks for your life and work.


  7. December 1, 2016

    Thank you for this interesting piece : my great grandparents lived in a house on sheep lane, and these must have been a huge presence in their skies of Hackney, too!

  8. December 1, 2016

    Thank you GA

    These could be imaginatively developed take a look at kings cross where the gasometers have made unique homes to live in and gardens to relax within.

    The structure looks crisp and strong an imaginative architect and enlightened developer could make something truly wonderful from these majestic King and Queen structures…

  9. December 1, 2016

    I agree with Greg Tingey’s comments he has a good solution. If you made a small public park around the gasometer structures the ground should be tested for industrial contamination. The Soil Association are the experts on soils. They did have the same problem in Bristol on the old gasworks site. See the web for ‘Green future for old Bristol gasworks’ a big casebook here. John- PS The Bethnal Green structures could be further enhanced with mobile displays in the wind. General Public must show an interest in this site or they will lose it.

  10. December 1, 2016

    Love these gasometers. An exhibition of paintings and prints and photographs of these iconic structures should be set up as it’s been an inspiration to so many. Can anything be done to save them from destruction?

  11. December 1, 2016

    Fabulous photos, which capture the architectural purity of these structures.

  12. Annie S permalink
    December 1, 2016

    I really hope they are kept, I love that area, it’s just so interesting and the gasometers are part of it all.

  13. Rhonda Alperin permalink
    December 1, 2016

    American & Britcom fanatic, I first heard ‘gasometer’ in an episode of RISING DAMP eons back. Indeed these weren’t destined for protection as they occupy large areas ideal for corporate greed. But how wonderful if green spaces with park benches could be developed around a few of these noble behemoths. Imagine ivy twined around the second level…..hanging baskets of colorful flowers….a circular observation platform from which people could view the city…swings for children….bench swings for adults. No need to worry about sturdiness of the framework! Perhaps such would be a profitable tourist attraction. Alas, we all know what an insurance nightmare swings and platforms would present. But one can dream….

  14. Anne permalink
    December 1, 2016

    Shame on Historic England.

  15. MsMischief permalink
    December 1, 2016

    There was a group of really fine gasholders at King’s Cross, and one could look across the great railway track north and see the sunset through these noble structures. Now they have removed them, and replaced the with some of the ugliest architecture ever erected, which blocks out the sky. No more sunsets, and no nobility of form, either.
    I think certificates of immunity should be given to structures like this to render them IMMUNE TO DEVELOPMENT, not to remove all protection. Whoever devised a system of preventing protection, and calling it this?
    I am ashamed of the fragility of protection available for fine historic Victorian structures like these, and of English Heritage’s shameful part in it.

  16. December 1, 2016

    Wonderful mystical constructions, which should be kept for the future!

    Love & Peace

  17. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 2, 2016

    I have always loved gasometers!Its such a shame that these arent listed,I hope,as you say they are included in any future development.Too much of the past is being swept away by greedy ignorant developrs.That looked a nice little pub too!I hope they save that as well!

  18. Martin Palmer permalink
    December 2, 2016

    Many thanks for this one, Gentle Author. I am sure it was not your intention to write a piece on the best part of my daily walk to school from Haggerston to Victoria Park, but you did.

    Every day for five years I carried my homework back and forth along that section of the Regent’s canal. Back then, it was a far quieter, almost desolate place, and we could not get on to the tow-path without climbing the iron railings. And, of course, there were no boats moored along the canal. What a nice surprise that was, this past spring, when I walked this route for the first time in forty years.

    If my memory serves me well, there was what looked like a little drained tributary canal coming off of Regent’s into Haggerston Park. And there were deserted warehouses, long gone now, were as kids we would hunt for pigeons eggs. I well remember the cathedral-like interiors: pigeons cooing high up in the rafters, and pigeon poop everywhere.

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