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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

Executive Summary 

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. 

Background 

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.  

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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.  

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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.

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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. 

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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.

New Guidance 

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. 

Value 

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.  

Outcomes 

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.  

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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