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Powering the City

Why were power stations and gasworks built in East London?
Producing gas
East Greenwich Gasworks
Beckton Gasworks
Electricity generation
Greenwich Power Station
Deptford Power Station
Gasworks and power station workers
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Producing gas

From coal to coke

Loading coke at no. 2 pier.
View full size imageLoading coke at number two pier, Beckton, c. 1960. © NMM
Colliers from northern Britain would unload their cargoes at the gasworks. At the same time, other vessels would be loaded with the waste coke to be taken away.

Coke was mainly used in blast furnaces that produced iron. The Beckton works would have been a key supplier of coke to London industry. This photograph shows a collier being loaded with coke at Beckton.

Gas production

Beckton Gas Works.
View full size imageBeckton gasworks, August 1970. © NMM
After being unloaded, the coal was carried by railway wagons to the works. There it was heated to a very high temperature in large, airtight, cast iron or clay cylinders known as retorts.

As the gases from the coal were extracted, they were carried away by wide tubes, then cooled and washed with water. The gas was then cleaned by being exposed to lime in closed purifiers.

Storing the gas

Beckton Gas works gasometer.
View full size imageBeckton gasworks gasometer. © NMM
Sheet iron gasholders, or gasometers, such as the examples shown here at Beckton and East Greenwich, were used to store the gas. The gas was then driven by the weight of these holders through cast iron pipes to factories, street lamps and homes throughout the capital.

The East Greenwich gasometer is still there today. It can be seen by the thousands of commuters who use the A102(M), Blackwall Tunnel Approach, and the Docklands Light Railway.

It was built by George Livesey's South Metropolitan Gas Company to store town gas at their East Greenwich works. The holder was constructed by Samuel Cutler, whose engineering firm was based on the Isle of Dogs.

Record holders

Cutler and Livesey, the chief designer, faced a difficult task in constructing the holder in marshy conditions. It was built between 1886 and 1888 and was - briefly - the largest in the world, with a capacity of 225,000 cubic metres (8 million cubic feet). It was soon overtaken by its larger (but now demolished) partner, which held 340,000 cubic metres (12 million cubic feet) of gas.

East Greenwich Gas Holder.
View full size imageEast Greenwich gasholders. © NMM

The surviving gasometer was the first four-lift gasholder. The tank, beneath the holder, is 76 m (250 feet) in diameter. The iron frame is 58 m (190 feet) high - with the highest point more than 61 m (200 feet) above ground level. The frame was made from rolled steel sections.

This photograph shows the original holder alongside its larger partner in the foreground.

Valuable by-products

Beckton Gas works.
View full size imageChemical production at Beckton gasworks. © NMM
Heating coal in large retorts produced coke, a vital product in iron production. The gas producing process also left a tarry mixture of chemicals.

This residue did not go to waste at Beckton. By 1876 the nearby company Burt, Boulton and Haywood were distilling more than 50 million litres (12 million gallons) of coal tar each year to manufacture chemicals that could then be turned into disinfectant, insecticide and dyes.

Beckton Gas Works.
View full size imageLorries of the Gas, Light and Coke Company. © NMM

This picture is of the Gas, Light and Coke Company's fleet of lorries at Beckton. These were used to deliver the chemicals that were prepared from the by-products of gas production.

Sulphur from the gasworks was, for example, the raw material for local manufacturers of sulphuric acid. This in turn was needed by other nearby companies producing products such as fertilizers.



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