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Powering the City

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Why were power stations and gasworks built in East London?

Industrial waterway

Aerial view of Beckton Gasworks.
View full size imageAerial view of Beckton gasworks. © NMM
Throughout the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century, the Thames became an important industrial waterway. Not only was London Britain's largest port, it was also a major manufacturing centre.

Among the more important Thames-side industries were gas production and electricity generation. The rise and fall of these two industries reflect the changing fortunes of commerce and industry on the river.

King coal

Colliers unloading in the Thames
View full size imageColliers unloading in the Thames. © NMM
By the end of the 19th century London needed a cheap and reliable gas and electricity supply. Gas and electricity were both produced from coal and used to power industry and transport, as well as lighting streets, factories and homes.

Many of the first gasworks and power stations were built in the eastern part of London where land was freely available and where steam colliers carrying cheap coal from the north of England could easily come up the Thames.

Dirty business

Early sketch of Deptford Power Station
View full size imageDeptford power station in 1890. © NMM
Producing gas and electricity from coal was a dirty, smelly business. It was based in the East End so that the smoke and fumes were carried away from the rest of London by the prevailing winds.

The Metropolitan Building Act of 1844 imposed restrictions on noxious trades in London. This meant that many industrial companies had to move to the East End.

Labour savers

Beckton Gasworks
View full size imageCranes and the jetty at Beckton gasworks. © NMM
The colliers unloaded the coal at the new riverside gasworks and power stations using modern hydraulic cranes in place of men with baskets. This saved both money and time.

This image shows the jetty at Beckton gasworks, which was 360 metres (about 1100 feet) long. The cranes were used to fill trolleys with coal that were then conveyed along the jetty to the works.




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