Thursday, 22 June 2017


Biggest gas holder in Europe - an exceptional structure built to revolutionary principles - listing now refused - and scheduled for demolition - ideas for reuse apparently not considered

For a list of converted and reused gas holders round the world see gas holders reused


There are more links at the bottom of the page to relevant sites -including links to how they use gasholder sites in other countries and some artworks

To start - the historical background to the holder and why it is important


The gas industry in South London, beginning around 1820, had developed as a chaos of small competing private companies. Regulation was imposed on them by governments from the 1870s – partly following parliamentary lobbying by George Livesey.  This resulted in the area being dominated by Livesey’s South Metropolitan Company from the Old Kent Road. East Greenwich works was built in the 1880s as the out-of-town mega works which the government wanted to be built but it was also a show place for Livesey’s ideals and standards. Only perfection was good enough for South Met.!
(More about Livesey below)


The simplest description of a gas holder is to imagine it as a  cup sitting turned upside down in a saucer which holds a pool of water. The cup is built in a tier of sections which can lift and fall according to the internal pressure

The East Greenwich holder is one of a series designed by George Livesey which he began at Old Kent Road at what was originally the main works of the South Metropolitan Company and where he developed his ideas.  Of this series few remain.

The holder with its companion which was demolished in 1986,
Together they then made up the largest amount of safe gas storage

No13 Gasholder at Old Kent Road has now been listed.  Built in 1879-81 it’s frame was the first built on George Livesey's revolutionary cylindrical shell principle which treats it as a single huge cylinder. There are many other revolutionary aspects to the design and materials and while the structure appears to be simple it is in fact very complex and very different from the older, often highly decorative, holders most of which are now being demolished.

Construction at East Greenwich was affected by the marshy subsoil which resulted in a shallower tank – the part of the holder which is normally underground aas and holds water to provide a gas tight seal.   Problems with the sub soil were discovered during excavation in September 1884 and the depth of the tank had to be reduced with 13 feet of it raised in an embankment and this raises its height.

The holder also needed a greater numbers of lifts – the tiered and telescoped sections inside the frame - to raise the volume of gas which it could hold.  Thus it is far taller than would normally be expected. It has four of these ‘lifts’ and is the first holder ever built to this size. It rises to about 180 feet and holds 8.2 million cubic feet of gas.

The great height of construction was made possible by new materials and it effected a great saving in cost which had a huge subsequent effect. Part of Livesey's success derived from his many improvements in design making it more efficient and lighter.  Costs of storage were also less in terms of landuse and labour - and workers could be encouraged to go to church on Sundays even though Sunday dinners had to be cooked.

A press advertisement from the 1930s
illustrates South Met's considerable
brio - and their pride in their holders
The holder is free of all extraneous decoration and it thus sets a new bench-mark for gasholder design of which it is a refinement in size and sophistication and an exploitation of the beauty of pure structural form. Ideas then being embodied in industrial and domestic design as the modern movement.

Around 1980, parts of the bell and guide frame-on one side were fire damaged in an IRA bomb attack, but they were reinstated


Some years ago English Heritage commissioned a report on London holders. The consultant recommended Old Kent Road No.13 for listing – and did not recommend EG No.1. or any others. Very recently this report has been revisited and as a result OKR13 has been listed and EG1 consigned for demolition. Others listed have been the Kings Cross holders and that at Vauxhall – basically because they have been seen on TV and are ‘loved’, whatever that means


Livesey was an extraordinary man, brought up in the Old Kent Road gasworks where he began work at the age of 14.  He is best known for his opposition to trade unions and his dreadful fight with the Gas Workers Union in 1889.   This reputation however masks a much more complicated career – and the very original line he took on most things, frequently to strong opposition.  In the 1870s he promoted to government the idea of a sliding scale in gas company financing – only allowing private gas companies to distribute profits to shareholders if their gas prices went down. He extended this idea to the workplace in a scheme where a bonus to workers was paid linked to gas prices. This became his co-partnership scheme whereby in the 1890s some members of the Board were elected by shop floor workers and a building society set up to help them buy their homes.  He also instituted many revolutionary technical and managerial changes in the works – of which these huge holders are only one example.
He was also a major figure in the London Temperance movement, for which he was knighted


How gas holder sites are used in other parts of the world - an article about some of them
There are numerous web sites about reuse of holders round the world - too many of me to list here - suggest a google search!!
Dublin is particularly interesting

more to come

Note about winners at a Royal Academy Exhibition (which seem to have some connection to the Council's consultants)

Ideas for gas holders in London

Livesey's statue by Pomeroy - hopefully
and disgracefully still rotting in the
back of the closed Library which he
donated to the people of Southwark

Forgotten spaces competion winners (the same lot)

Facebook page for National Association for Industrial Archaeology - follow links for  correspondence

Facebook page of the Gas holder appreciation society 

Web site of the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society - follow internal links for articles

Talk by George Livesey himself on how he approached the design of gasholders

Page on my Peninsula History web site about holders on the Greenwich Peninsula

Biographical article on George Livesey - I wrote this in 1989 and it is a bit out of date

Just in case you wondered - the Gas Workers strike in parts one and two - I wrote this in - ooer - 1975 or something.

A local campaign on the Bell Green Holders

Pininterest site on holder reuse

Finally - by chance - on Friday 30th June I am doing a talk to Lewisham Local History Society on Gas in Greenwich (lots of scandals!!!)  Methodist Hall, Albion Road. 7.30


1 comment:

M said...

Brian says:
While you quote in your write up - No's 1 & 2 provided the largest volume of storeage, please remember that the Astoria Gas Works in New York had two 15mcf holders - an extra 10 mcf than Greenwich.