The Manufactured Gas Industry – A National Assessment by WSP
Shortlisted for Brownfield Awards Category 11: Best Public Sector/Not For Profit Lead Project
The Manufactured Gas Industry – A National Assessment
Our unique project for Historic England has brought about real environmental and social benefits across England in how former gasworks, an important form of Brownfield site, are investigated, assessed and redeveloped. The resulting publication has benefitted a wide range of stakeholders from environmental consultants, to Local Authority archaeologists. Along with other resources provided by Historic England and National Grid, it also provides an opportunity for schools and nearby residents to learn more about their local history. The publication provides a wealth of free and easily accessible resources to the Brownfield community in a single project. We have delivered:
A detailed history of the gas industry, from its roots to the present day;
A detailed history of the gas industry, from its roots to the present day;
A description of the processes, plant and structures used on former gasworks sites;
A unique national inventory of former gas sites accessible online; and
Valuable reference guides on the manufacturers of gas plant and bibliography of the extensive literature on the subject.
This cost-effective project has made a real impact by working closely with key stakeholders enabling the entire national portfolio of former gas sites to be identified and assessed. As with other Historic England publications this project is of International importance, as it is considered to form a definitive and key re source on the subject.
Given the legacy of industrialisation in the UK, Industrial Heritage is an important aspect of managing and redeveloping Brownfield Land. Understanding the value of any industrial heritage asset from the outset is vital. This value may exist in the form of redundant physical assets such as structures and buildings or invisible assets such as importance in social history.
Research carried out by Historic England (bottom of page), shows the benefit that historic sites can bring to a local community when incorporated in regeneration projects.
The environmental state of a site and the cost of retaining heritage assets can be a justification against their inclusion in a redevelopment project, especially if the site lacks any formal heritage protection. Redevelopment has the potential to damage heritage assets, but can also reveal previously hidden historic elements and enhance our understanding and the value of a site.
Whilst some industries clustered within specific regions, gasworks are found in geographically diverse settings ranging from cities to small country estates or remote mills. Gasworks form prime examples of Brownfield sites.
Obtaining information about former gaswork sites can be difficult. Generally the information is absent from Historic Environmental Records lists, being held in a small number of national archives for which access can be difficult. A ready reference text where this information has been distilled into a concise authoritative form had always been considered a valuable resource.
Historic England commissioned Russell Thomas of WSP to produce such a report on the Manufactured Gas Industry with the aims of “Understanding the scale and importance of the Heritage Assets associated with the Gas Industry in England, Placing the English Gas Industry in a context across a regional, national and international background.”. It was essential that the new report was authored by an industry expert, to ensure that it was both definitive and would meet the expectations of all stakeholders (heritage organisations, consultants, local authorities and gas companies).
The three key elements of the project delivered are described in the following sections.
1) History of the Industry
To understand the scale and importance of the surviving industrial heritage assets associated with the English gas industry, they had to be placed in context across a regional, national and or international background. To achieve this, we had to first understand the history of the gas industry and what role the English gas industry had in the creation of the gas industry globally.
Volume 1 of the report, has resolved this issue, documenting the history of the manufactured gas industry in England. This built upon a previous Monuments Protection Plan report and “The History and Operation of Gasworks in Britain”, written previously by Russell Thomas and published by CL:AIRE.
This phase of the project required extensive research of hundreds of different documents over a period of three years, to collate, review and condense the information into a single chronological history of the industry.
The 132-page report (front cover shown to the right) provides a fully referenced and detailed description of how the gas industry developed from its earliest scientific roots to the present day.
The report describes how gas was first utilised in factories to improve productivity, before its later use to provide public lighting to fight crime and the creation of a public gas industry in London. It covers the wide ranging cultural and social impacts of the industry from domestic use in lighting and cooking to the formation of the first union for non-skilled workers.
The different scales of the industry are highlighted, from the massive city gasworks to small works on private country estates, as is the profound impact that gasworks had on the urban and rural landscape. The role of the gas industry in the formation of the early chemical industry and the employment of women during two world wars are also described. The transitions to oil based gas manufacture and then reliance on natural gas during the 1960s and 1970s are placed in context. With the move to the current position today, where redundant gasholders are undergoing a programme of demolition.
The report clearly identifies how the manufactured gas industry first developed in England and how it grew to become one of England’s most important industries, gradually spreading across the world. This gives it preeminent position and highlights the international significance of the heritage of the gas Industry in England.
2) Understanding Former Gasworks
To enable gasworks to be recorded in archaeological surveys, a comprehensive description of the structures, buildings and the types of plant which they housed is important.
As was found with documenting the history, this information has not been readily accessible, which has hindered those undertaking surveys on former gasworks, especially on complex sites which may have evolved over many decades. Recognising this knowledge gap, a subsequent phase of the project was undertaken. Volume 2 of the Report records the development of the different types of gas making plant and processes used during its 170 years of operation.
The evolution of the different processes and associated plant is described chronologically, the key principles of each technology are illustrated where available. Important aspects are the evolution in design of gasholders, retort houses and coal stores and below ground features such as flues or tanks, all features which may still be found on sites today, even where above ground buildings no longer survive.
A description is provided of the gas reforming plant used in the 1960’s and 1970’s, where gas was manufactured from oil and refinery by products, a subject little covered elsewhere. This 246-page report is illustrated with 224 figures, many of which would be hard for the reader to obtain otherwise.
The report includes plant which was developed overseas and used in England (e.g. Chamber Ovens). With the inclusion of both foreign and British gas making plant (which was exported across the world), the report also has considerable value to those working on gasworks projects internationally.
3) Understanding the Extent of the Gas Industry in England
The first two volumes of the report have placed the industry in context, both for the historical development and the evolution of the types of plant used. The final aspect of the project and the most daunting has been the creation of the Gazetteer of all the known manufactured gas sites in England (front cover shown to the right).
For such an extensive industry as the gas industry, achieving this was problematic, as the only national dataset covered the small number of gas heritage assets already protected. Some additional records were available on county Historic Environment Records, but these were sparse. To overcome this the project collated the records compiled by the author with those available through the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers History Panel, those of the National Grid Gas Archive and those records shared by other gas historians.
From these records and further research a condensed history of each site has been produced. This information was collated into a table, for each site, the location (address and grid reference) was identified using maps. The mapping exercise was assisted by Drew Hardy of Groundsure who cross checked the data and, in the process, identified some further new sites, which were then investigated. Each site was then explored to identify whether any elements of the former gasworks survived. With the grid reference information it is possible to view the data in GIS format, as shown in the following plot.
The report has identified over 3600 sites associated with gas manufacture, highlighting the large number of private gasworks which accounted for more than 50% of the portfolio of sites in the country, the diversity of the sites is shown in the following pie chart.
The work has identified previously forgotten but surviving former gasworks across the country at all scales, some of which are significant
examples of their type. This has allowed the importance of those surviving sites to be understood in a national context.
The distribution of public (red) and private (yellow) Gasworks in selected Midlands counties
Additional Reference Material
The final two volumes of the report provide a useful ready reference. Volume 4 covers a list of manufacturers of gas plant, which is useful
if items of heritage value are found and it is considered that they should be donated to a museum. Volume 5 contains an extensive bibliography of gas engineering literature.
A précis of the report been produced by Historic England to form a “Introduction to Heritage Assets” on the manufactured gas industry.
The findings of the report have also helped guide Historic England in the creation of new guidance called “Gasworks and Redundant Gasholders - Guidelines for their Evaluation and Recording”, the front cover of which is shown to the right.
The guidelines are designed to inform an understanding of the significance of the gasworks sites, whilst ensuring adequate records (both above and below-ground) are made where evidence is likely to be damaged or destroyed.
This information may in some circumstances guide decisions regarding the possible retention or inclusion of historic fabric and site layout within a future redevelopment. Such an approach is also of relevance for buildings and structures, including gasholders that are to be conserved.
The project was delivered for £28,600, only possible due to the understanding of the importance of the work by the author and WSP, who gave significant additional time for free, allowing such a comprehensive report to be published within the budget.
The project which was published by Historic England in December 2020 has filled a pre existing knowledge gap for those who deal with gasworks, placing large amounts of information freely available into the public domain, helping everyone from environmental consultants, through developers to archaeologists, to understand the sites they are working on.
The sites identified are now being incorporated in regional Historic Environment Records, making the information more accessible, and putting a spotlight on the few surviving gasworks sites and placed them in the context of regional, national and international significance. Sites which may have otherwise been overlooked have been given visibility.
The international importance of the report has been confirmed by feedback from those working in the field in Europe, USA and Australia.
The work has already drawn praise. Matthew Pearce of National Grid Property commenting “The work done by Russell and Historic England has produced a seminal work which will underpin the understanding of our fascinating gas heritage for generations to come.”. Richard Watts, Senior Historic Environment Officer, Lincolnshire commented “The reports you have produced will be very helpful indeed in adding to that information, and recording the significance of these sites more generally. May I congratulate you on the completion of such a comprehensive and excellent piece of research!”
The report can be found here.
The Complete Manufactured Gas Industry Publications are listed below:
Volume 1 History
Volume 2 Gasworks
Volume 3 Gazetteer
Volume 4 List of Manufacturers of Gas Plant 🞇 Volume 5 Bibliography
Gasworks and Gasholders : Introductions to Heritage Assets
Gasworks and Redundant Gasholders : Guidelines for their Evaluation and Recording