Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Gas Holder Stuff - the East Greenwich Gasholder. by Stewart Ash

Gas Holder Stuff

The South Metropolitan Gas Works (1883-1948)

In 1883, the Morden CollegeTrustees, then being drawn from the Aldermen of the City of London, had a shift in policy and they sold to the South Metropolitan Gas Works, the freehold of two parcels of land comprising almost 13 acres for £27,000. 

One was in the middle of the peninsula and the other was to the northwest, close to Blakely’s Ordnance factory.  The northern area had a river frontage and was mainly wasteland.  The central area had grass-lands, two market gardens (covering 8 acres), 17 cottages, a row of unfinished buildings and a stable yard.  This was the first land the Trustees had sold since the Wricklemarsh Estate in 1708.  This decision to sell was to have a lasting impact on the development of the peninsula and on industrial relations for all the companies operating on it.

The gas works was built under the direction of its chairman, Sir George Livesey (1834-1908).  Before construction could begin, many tons of clinker and heavy rubble were dumped onto the land in order to stabilise the marshy ground.  The gas works eventually occupied most of the east and centre of the peninsula, stretching for around 1.2 miles (2km) from Blackwall Point, southeast towards New Charlton, and covering some 240acres (0.97km2). 

The site had two very large gas holders.  The first, built in 1886-88, had a capacity of 8,600,000 cubic feet (240,000m3) and was the world's first 'four lift' (moving section) holder.  The second, built in 1890, had six lifts and was the largest in the world at 12,200,000 cubic feet (350,000m3).  This holder was damaged by an IRA bomb in January 1979 and finally demolished in 1986.

George Livesey was a complicated man who had followed his father Thomas Livesey (1807-71) into the company in 1848.  He was appointed General Manager, then Chief Engineer, before becoming Chairman of the Board in 1885.  Livesey prided himself on his company’s relationship with its workforce and the working conditions that were provided for them.  However, in 1889 he chose to go to war with the newly formed National Union of Gas Workers.

The Silvertown Explosion

The Greenwich Peninsula survived relatively unscathed during the First World War, with the notable exception of the damage caused by the Silvertown Explosion.
Inside No.,2 holder after the explosion

This disaster occurred at a munitions factory in Silvertown that was manufacturing explosives for the World War I military effort.  The blast occurred at 6.52pm on Friday, 19 January 1917, and was caused by the ignition of approximately 50 tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT).  73 people were killed and more than 400 injured; in addition, it caused substantial damage to properties in the surrounding area.  Reports at the time indicated that the explosion blew the glass out of windows in the Savoy Hotel,and almost overturned a taxi in Pall Mall.  The fires could be seen in Maidstone and Guildford, and the blast was heard up to 100 miles (160km) away, including Sandringham in Norfolk and at a number of places along the Sussex coast.

The TNT plant was destroyed instantly, as were many nearby buildings, including the Silvertown Fire Station.  Much of the TNT was in railway goods wagons, awaiting transport.  Debris was thrown for miles around, with red-hot chunks of rubble causing fires.  Many thousands of pounds worth of goods was destroyed in nearby warehouses.  The blast range was later estimated by the Port of London Authority to have spanned 17 acres (7 hectares).  Up to 70,000 properties were damaged, with 900 near to the centre of the blast being beyond salvage.  Estimates of the cost of the damage ranged from £250,000 to £2.5million.

On the Greenwich Peninsula, there was some damage to the buildings on the Wilkie & Soames site, but the worst damage was reserved for the Gas Works.  The gas in the No.2 Gasholder was ignited and it was wrecked completely. No.1 Gasholder was also very seriously damaged.  This caused a massive fireball, which rose thousands of feet into the air. In addition, a large number of slates were torn from the roofs of the buildings and many windows were broken.

Those present in the offices of the works on the eastern side of the site stated that:

The report was terrific, the floor appeared to heave and the building rocked.  This was followed by a blinding glare seen through the Venetian sun-blinds, and lasting several seconds, during which it seemed to be as light as day outside. The glare ceased, and the north-eastern sky was suffused with the glow of a tremendous fire.’
The gas holders were repaired and put back into operation as a priority, because gas was still the dominant form of domestic, and more importantly, industrial lighting; it was essential to maintain this for the war effort.

Nationalisation and Closure

A major change to industry on the peninsula was brought about by the 1948 Gas Act, under which the Labour Government nationalised all the gas companies in the British Isles and South Metropolitan became part of the South Eastern Gas Board.  The Gas Works continued to dominate the peninsula until the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea. Then the site became redundant, finally ceasing production in 1976.  The site then lay derelict until the 1990s when redevelopment began.

Stewart Ash


M said...

The Silvertown explosion and the holder - there was a generation in Greenwich who all swore they had seen a flaming bolt - a scaffolding pole or similar - fly across the river and pierce the gasholder. The truth - rather more prosaically - is that it seems to have been ruptured by the shock wave. An friend - elderly in the 1970s - told me that as a small boy they had heard the explosion and seen the fireball of gas explode in the air above Greenwich. He said to is mother 'Mummy, is it the end of the world'?' and she said 'Yes'.

Unknown said...

Part of the site remained operational for South Eastern Gas operations beyond 1976 with an office near the 2 gas holders. I worked at the site in the early to mid 80s and worked on the recommissioning of the holders after the IRA bombing in 1979. The site was manned 24/7 until the mid 80s when the operation of the gas holders was automated.