The Gas Industry began in Britain at the end of the 18th century when William Murdoch lit his house with manufactured gas in 1792. There is much written on the early days of the industry – The History and Operation of Gasworks in Britain (CLAIRE) gives a good informative summary. What we would recognise as the first gas company was the ‘Gas Light and Coke Company’ founded in 1812 with its gasworks in Westminster. Berkshire was quick to follow and below we see the various gas companies who operated in the County in order of foundation. As with most Victorian industry the companies were privately funded and operated within a small geographical area mostly focussed around a large town to ensure a sufficient consumer base.
Eighteen early gas companies have so far been identified across Berkshire (we have used the current County boundaries and those in operation prior to the Local Government Act 1972). For some there is significant detail and for others very little information. This article will be updated as more information is discovered. If you know more about this industry in Berkshire please contact us on contact@BIAG.org.uk
A bibliography of references and sources is included at the end of the article.
Reading Gas 1817
In 1819 Reading became one of the first provincial towns to supply coal gas through the foundation of the Reading Gas Light Company. This made it a pioneer as it was only seven years after the first gas undertaking in the world, the Chartered Gas Light and Coke, started supplying gas in Westminster.
The Windsor and Eton Express in 1818 reported that subscriptions towards the £10,000 (equivalent to around £860,000 in 2020) needed for the Reading Gas Light Company to erect buildings, purchase and lay-down of pipes, and establish a complete apparatus for lighting the whole of the town with gas was proceeding well. Subscribers purchased shares at £10 each with an anticipated return of 5% per annum. One share entitled one vote at Company meetings on a sliding scale a maximum of five votes regardless of how many shares were owned.
By 1817 The Reading Mercury mentions that the Company had supplied a lamp ‘which throws a brilliant light on the Bear Inn and part of Seven Bridges’ and that many persons of respectability having expressed their wishes to have the Market Place of Reading and the street immediately adjacent lighted by gas’. By late 1818 there are sufficient funds to commence the gas works and The Reading Mercury reports that ‘seven gentlemen residing in the Borough of Reading, or its immediate vicinity, and are members of this Association and who are subscribers thereto to the amount of ten shares at the least, be appointed to act as Trustees in managing the funds of the Company.’
As can be seen from the comments above at this time gas was seen as a provider of lighting, and much less as the heating source we now consider it to be. From the late 1700s the Paving Commissioners had required that lighting be provided by each house hanging a light out front at night between Michaelmas (29th September) and Lady Day (25th March). By 1811, as a result of criticism, 218 wick-based lamps were introduced; a number which had grown to 235 by late 1817. The arrival of the Reading Gas Light Company changed street lighting in Reading forever and by 1819 the town’s main streets were provided with gas lighting to both illuminate and to increase safety. The Reading Mercury from 1819 reported that ‘Yesterday (November 5th) being the anniversary of Gun Powder Plot, the bells rang out as usual at the Parish Churches, and in the evening the gas lights, which have been some time preparing in this town, were lighted up for the very first time. Everything answered well, and conferred honour on all the parties concerned’.
Early gas lighting in Reading
On 21st May 1819 the first stone of the gas works was laid by Alderman Annesley. To celebrate there was a dinner at the Upper Ship Inn in Reading. The gasworks was located in central Reading on the north bank of the River Kennet between Bridge Street and London Street in Reading, in what is now the Oracle shopping centre.
Reading gasworks - 1870 map and lithograph print
For many people producing ‘Town Gas’ is a long-distant memory having been replaced by the much cleaner ‘Sea Gas’ in the 1960s and 70s. The production of gas was a dirty business as can be seen from an 1829 report on the Gas Light and Coke Company which described “Extreme lassitude and depression of spirits, frightful nightmare, dreams, nausea and sickness in the morning, loss of appetite, inaptitude for business, a filthy stench, as if some indescribable nastiness were being constantly inhaled. In the morning (for it is during the night that the exhalations are most active) the air is often evidently saturated with impurity, and even the curtains and hangings in bedchambers are described as being, in some states of the wind, covered with a filthy gaseous slime.” The memories from a resident who lived in London Road, Reading was that, if she had a bad cold, she was taken to the gas works and made to breathe in the fumes from the coal-tar vat.
Gas production - loading coal
In order to understand the Reading gasworks site we need to understand the making of Town Gas. It required coal to be placed in a sealed vessel called a retort – there would normally be a number of retorts in the Retort House. The coal was heated in an oxygen-free environment where, instead of combusting, the volatile components were driven off leaving a relatively pure form of carbon called coke as a residue. The hot products leaving the Retort were cooled in the condenser; most of the tar & oil compounds were trapped as coal tar. The gas was then washed in the scrubbers to remove soluble products such as ammonia and phenol (ammoniacal liquor), then enter the purifier to remove sulphur and cyanide products.
Schematic of town gas production
This treated product is then stored in the gas holder. The earliest Boulton and Watt gas holders were wood-lined single-lift containers, but quite soon telescoping holders with external fixed frame, visible at a fixed height at all times were developed. These holders are basically a gas-filled floating vessel on a circular water reservoir, with the water providing a gas-tight seal. Besides storing the gas, the weight of the gas holder lift (cap) controlled the pressure of the gas in the mains, and provided back pressure for the gas-making plant.
How gas holder work
By the 1830s the public’s view of the Reading Gas Light Company had become jaded. It is speculated that this is due to poor management or envy at the profits being made, but as there is little information on the intervening period between the set up and this juncture it is hard to verify. In 1832 and 1833 complaints were made about the poor street lighting and some attributed coach accidents to this situation. Then in 1835 there is a report that the charge for gas had to be significantly reduced from 15s to 12s 6d per 1000 cubic feet after the Company’s profits were accidentally disclosed. At the same time The Reading Mercury reports that notice was given to parliament to allow the Company to extend its gas lighting to the parishes of St Mary, St Lawrence and St Giles in Reading, and to Whitley, Sonning, Earley, Tilehurst and Caversham.
The Berkshire Chronicle on 2nd January 1836 published a prospectus for a new gas company in Reading. The reason for requiring a new company is stated as the large increase in the population of the town and the notorious mismanagement of the present gasworks. They go on to say that as the current gasworks is in the very centre of the town, the removal of waste materials and the contamination of the waters through leakage, along with the intolerable smell, are reducing the value of neighbouring properties and endangering the health of individuals. They also cite as a failing of the Reading Gas Light Company that the penetration of gas into private accommodation is poor as in many towns in England at this time homes had gas light and were also using gas for heating and cooking. This new company is also hoping to take on the supply of gas to the expected depot of the Great Western Railway. The management of the Reading Gas Light Company fought back against the accusations, and in February 1836 the Berkshire Chronicle reported that they encouraged the public to review their annual accounts showing that the surplus profits had been put back in to the company and offer increased share allotment to allow those who suggest improvements to join the company to see them implemented.
The new company – The Reading Union Gas Company – was inaugurated in late November 1835. This saw the commencement of a fierce competition between the Companies which lead to a reduction in gas prices to both the individual consumers and the Reading Corporation for town lighting. The Reading Union Gas Company entered in to three-year contract to light the public lamps at a reduction of £1 3s 4d per lamp per annum as compared to its rival. This resulted in a saving to the public of £800 per annum (equivalent to nearly £92,000 in 2020). It is said, but not verified, that the companies signed up customers but then connected them to the rival’s gas pipes in the streets, thus getting the returns without the outlay.
This rivalry proved to be an issue for the companies, if not the public who ‘to the delight of very many of the townspeople who had no shares in the corners, the price of gas was brought down to a price which in those days was a novelty of cheapness’ according to J B Jones. With Reading not being large enough to sustain two companies in their destructive endeavours, on 30th June 1862, the two gas companies, Reading Gas Light Company and Reading Union Gas Company were amalgamated by Act of Parliament into the Reading Gas Company. Mr J Okey Taylor became the first Chairman, having been the Chairman of the Reading Union Gas Company. He continued to be Chairman for another 48 years which was in to his 80th year.
At the beginning gas was manufactured on the old Reading Gas Light Company’s site in Bridge Street and at the Union Gas Company’s premises by the Kennet and Avon Canal, which was where the old governor house now stands on Gas Works Road. However, under the 1880 Reading Gas Act the Company gained the right to increase their capital and they purchased new land in east Reading known as King’s Mead. This land was subject to winter floods so the gas works area had to be raised which was above the flood line. Its location is now only given away by the presence of Gas Works Road, the Gas Bridge and the single gas holder shell. Under the same act much of their old gas works area was transferred to Huntley & Palmers. Work stated in 1881 and the site was bought in to use by 1888.
1875 Ordnance Survey Map
1920 - Aerial view of Reading Union Gas Works
The site covered about 13 acres, bounded on the south by the canal and north by the railway, with a siding feeding in to the site and to the retort house where the coal is heated to generate the gas. In the spring of 1888 the works, which had been designed by Edward Baker, were commissioned.
1900 Ordnance Survey Map
The site comprised the retort house that had two retort stacks each with eleven sets of eight D-shaped brick retorts. Coal was delivered directly to the retort house by the railway trucks, which after being weighed, was tipped on end in to coal breakers by steam machinery. The coal was then ‘broken’ and lifted in to overhead storage hoppers.
Reading Gas Company was one of the first to introduce machinery in to this process and, prior to this, men had to fill and push four lots of 5cwt coal in to each retort 5 times in every 24 hours using long hand rakes. The mechanisation, as well as speeding the process, allowed double the coal weight to be loaded thus reducing the number of loadings to 3 every 24 hours. The mechanisation reduced costs, but also reduced the manpower required. Much of the machinery and the coal conveyor were driven by electricity generated by two on-site gas engines.
The gas produced in the retort house was transported to the three water tube condensers through a 20” main, then on to the exhauster house. It was then processed in 3 washers and 2 tower scrubbers to cleanse out the unwanted impurities using lime and iron oxide. The cleaned gas passed to the meter house, which had two meters able to handle 60,000 c. ft. (cubic feet) each.
At this time there were three gas holders on the site, with a total of over 2 m c. ft. The one now remaining on the site is a later edition from 1916 – it is the outside skeleton of No. 5 Holder which alone had a capacity 5m c. ft. When No. 5 was in operation it had a sister holder, No. 6, with the same capacity and a smaller holder No. 4 which sat on what is now the Bel and Dragon restaurant with a capacity of 2 m c. ft. For a while the original gas holder in Bridge Street was retained with its capacity of 150 k c. ft.
Reading gas works 1912
The governor house had three governors that acted to reduce gas pressure and regulate the volumes of gas entering the mains. They managed the gas supply for the town and western district, the eastern district and the Caversham district respectively. This original governor house is not the building we now see on Gas Works Road, which wasn’t built until 1903.
Prior to 1890 the Company’s focus was on gas production and sales, but in this year they built a showroom on the works site to display cooking and heating appliances that were for hire. As the sales of appliances grew the Company’s management, who had originally operated on site and then at 22 Market Place, moved to 7 Kings Street in 1896. They finally opened a showroom and office situated on the corner of Friar Street and Cross Street in the town centre in 1905, designed by G W Webb. This site is now occupied by the estate agent Haslams.
The Reading Mercury in early 1900 reported that the Reading Gas Company wanted to extend their gas mains to Tilehurst. The cost of providing 30 lamps would be £149 5s for the pipes, taps, regulators and erection, then an ongoing cost of £64 per annum. The lighting was to operate from 1st September through to the following June each year.
1901 saw an additional gas holder (No. 3) erected with a capacity of 1.1 m c. ft. On the construction the engineers encountered a lot of water ingress which was suspected to come from springs feeding the River Thames and requiring significant pumping to complete the work. 1905 saw an oil gas plant built that could produce 550,000 c. ft. of gas per day. This plant had its own exhauster, gas holder, purifier and metering. The Company also started to manufacture sulphate of ammonia at 55 tons per day, from the by-products of the gas production. This product was used as a fertiliser and 100 tons were sold locally per annum (potentially to Sutton’s, the seedsman) and 300 tons exported. Lime from the gas purification process was also sold for use by local farmers, while the waste products of coke, breeze, ashes and tar are sold on to local businesses. Coke and breeze (a type of coke) was used as fuel, ashes were used as a fertiliser and tar had many uses. These sales helped to reduce the cost of gas production, or to increase the shareholder profits.
The Company continued to expand its public facing sales introducing in 1902 a maintenance scheme for incandescent mantels in domestic premises. The incandescent mantel was invented in 1886 and was a replacement for the old flat-flame burners. The maintenance charge was 3s per burner per annum. The scheme was very productive and by 1906 the company were servicing 11,000 burners and had reduced the maintenance cost to 1s.
Also in 1902 the company started supplying gas to small domestic properties using pre-payment meters. While this method attracted a higher cost for the gas it had the benefit of the company installing the meter, piping and lighting brackets and also including a stove free of charge. Take up was very popular.
In 1903 a new governor house was built on Gas Works Road, closer to town and across the Kennet. The new governor house was built to support the growing number of distribution gas mains that the company now had. The construction also included a workingmen’s club which still has a sign over the door saying it was erected in 1903 under the auspices of the Chairman, J Okey Taylor. The other name cited is Douglas Helps, who was the chief engineer and later wrote the retrospective of the Reading Gas Company in 1912. The club, after an extension in 1912, had a reading room on the ground floor that held local and London daily papers and periodicals. The mess room on the second floor included a large cooking range, plus there was a shower and slipper baths, wash basins and lavatories – these facilities had constant hot water, which for the time was quite rare. There was also a games room with an air-rifle range. When the new governor house was completed the old one was dismantled; it was the last of the original plant on the King’s Road works to go.
Governor House site - Gas Works Road, Reading
With the governor house now residing across the canal the Company built the ‘gas bridge’ which we can now see on Gas Works Road which goes across the Kennet and Avon Canal. As part of the design by Edward Blake the metal bridge has two 24” mains integrated into it; these can be seen on the outside of the metal girders at road level.
Bridge on Gas Works Road, Reading
1903 also saw the Company’s mains to Tilehurst extended. In 1907 mains were built out to Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood, and then later out to Tilehurst Station, Shinfield and School Green. While the Company had a legal right to charge a higher price for gas to consumers outside of the Borough it actually maintained a consistent rate across its distribution area.
Prior to 1904 Reading streets were lit by flat flame burners which gradually lost brightness and by midnight were very dim. Reading Corporation challenged the Reading Gas Company and the Reading Electric Supply Company to come up with improvements. Both ran lighting experiments in King’s Road in July and October 1903. Reading Corporation chose incandescent gas lamps to light the whole Borough. In October 1904 The Berkshire Chronicle reported as part of the Reading municipal elections that since July 1904, when there were 1,274 flat-flamed burner street lamps in the Borough, this number had risen to 1,800 incandescent lamps. It is stated that every court, alley and cul-de-sac in Church, Redland and East Wards have at least one public lamp. Reading is described as ‘one of the best lighted towns in the Provinces’.
Financially the Company had increased production by over 1200% in the 47 years to 1912 reaching 614,116,000 c. ft. of gas sold. The cost of 1,000 c. ft. gas had fallen from 5s to 2s 4d. Customer numbers were recorded from 1881, and in the following 30 years the numbers rose from 2,883 to 17,281 and to support them 108 miles of gas mains had been laid. By 1912 the Company were hiring out 13,487 cooking stoves and 2,628 gas fires, and this is in addition to those that had been purchased outright. The Company was also proud of not charging for the rental of meters unlike many provincial gas companies.
We see from an event for returning soldiers from World War I in January 1920 that of the 310 men who were employed by the Company in July 1914 162 joined up, of these 15 were lost. Douglas Helps, the chief engineer, thanked the workforce who through the previous five or six years of stress and strain had helped to maintain the gas supply.
A report in the Reading Observer in May 1921 paints an interesting picture of the gas supply situation. Seemingly the Reading Gas Company had issued a threat to cut off households who do not reduce their gas supply. This situation is brought about by the 1921 miners’ strike reducing coal supplies.
An 1886 report by the public accountant, Donald Kennedy, states that “the gas supplied by the Reading Gas Company is not first rate, its illuminating power being under average for England, Scotland and Ireland. It will be noticed too, that the gas supplied by local authorities is, on average, a much better article than that supplied by Companies”. The report also looks at the finances of the Company and notes that its working expenditure is proportionally greater than most of the other private and public gas companies comparing it to Scottish gasworks that produce gas giving on average 80% more light at only ½d more per 1,000 c. ft. The report also criticises gains made against the price of coal and concludes that, if economically managed, the Company could save its consumers at least £6,000 per year and compared against the best managed gasworks around £41,808 per annum. This report starts a process that would move gas works towards public management.
In the 1920s and 1930s the Reading Gas Company took over a number of local gas providers in Berkshire, including the Pangbourne Gas Light and Coke Company in 1924. A report of the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Reading Gas Company in the Reading Observer in March 1924 noted that the Extraordinary General Meeting following on approved the plan to purchase the Pangbourne undertaking and take the application to the Board of Trade. The AGM also heard that gas sales had been the largest in the Company’s history at over 73 m c. ft. and there had been a reduction in the price of gas charged by 22% in the previous two years; some of this change would have been a reflection of the hike in gas prices caused by the 1921 miners’ strike. By now the Company had on hire more than 19,000 cookers and over 8,000 gas fires.
With the 1948 Gas Act, Clement Atlee’s government nationalised the gas industry bringing 1,064 privately-owned and municipal gas companies in to 12 gas boards. The Reading Gas Company became part of the Southern Gas Board with the Reading gasworks being the second largest in the region. By 1973 it was part of the British Gas Corporation. In this period a site was developed on the south side of the River Thames just past where it merges with the Kennet and Avon Canal. This site used to contain two gas holders, but these were removed in the 1990s. The new site is still linked to the Reading gasworks site on King’s Mead by the ‘gas bridge’ across the canal. In 1966 the Southern Gas Board invested more than £1 million in new plant to produce 30 m c. ft. per day from naphtha gas brought in by rail from the Esso refinery at Fawley and methane by pipeline from Canvey Island – no longer was the Reading site a local operation. Also in late 1960s the original site in Kings Mead was starting to be demolished and now all that remains is a single gas holder, the bridge and the governor house and social club.
Reading’s iconic gas holder is currently scheduled to be replaced by new homes, the last of many schemes that have been put forward. Unfortunately the holder isn’t unique or old enough to be of significant heritage value and be listed unlike Fulham’s gas holder no 2 (1829) nor is the land worth enough to justify the re-use that has happened in the King’s Cross development. Recent suggestions from Reading Civic Society are to turn it into ‘England’s biggest work of art’ before it is demolished and the Newtown Gas Tower group are planning a series of events to celebrate the holder before it goes. Similarly, the governor house has had a number of proposals to turn it into residential accommodation but none have reached a conclusion. The University of Reading’s architecture department in 2020 set their 2nd year undergraduates a project to create a virtual design for ‘The Brickworks – a Centre for Ceramics’ in the governor house. This project is theoretical and doesn’t involve the current owners of the building but it will highlight the potential for the building to have a new life. The choice of project topic was to reflect Reading’s brick and ceramic heritage.
Newbury Gas 1825
In September 1825 a contract was signed with Joseph Headley of London to light the Borough of Newbury with gas for 21 years and to erect, on a site procured by the Borough, a gasometer, supporting machinery and piping to support the public lamps. On 25th September the land was provided and the gasworks erected.
When the lease expired in 1846 the Borough did not renew with Mr Headley and instead operated the works themselves for a short time, but failed to realise a profit. This situation resulted in a litigation suit taken to the Court of Chancery.
On 29th December 1847 a contract was signed with Messrs Benny, Johnson and Seagrim to sell the gasworks to them for £4,100 and supply contract for 20 years beginning in 1848. On 3rd February 1848 the company of The Borough of Newbury Gas Light and Coke Company was registered.
On 1st August 1864 the original owners assign their interests to Messrs John Mason, Joseph Hickman and James Jackson as trustees of the Company, with Mr Mason becoming Chair. The Company secured a supply contract for a further 14 years. The powers of the Newbury Borough extended to the adjoining hamlet of Speenhamland and rather than build its own gasworks this hamlet was served by the Newbury Gas Light and Coke Company.
There is an indenture founding the Newbury and Speenhamland Gas and Coke Company in 1826, but there is little more about the Company; it may be that this was a holding company associated with the Newbury Gas Light and Coke Company as we do find some AGM meetings being called in this company’s name. This Company was dissolved on 1st May 1850 as notified in the Reading Mercury of 4th May of that year.
The first gasworks in Newbury was built in the 1820s on a site on Kings Road West (then known as Gas House Lane). Newbury and the adjoining hamlet of Speenhamland got their first street lighting on 29th December 1825, with the Waterside Chapel being the first public building in Newbury to get gas light in 1827.
1880 Ordnance Survey Map
In 1867, with the increased demand for gas, the Company wanted to secure a lease extension before enlarging the gasworks, but Newbury Borough wanted to take the management of the gasworks into its own hands. The take-over didn’t happen at this time but the Company was subject to compulsory purchased by the Newbury Corporation on 30th September 1878 for £10,438. It was not without opposition from a number of local property owners. The Newbury Gas Light and Coke Company was dissolved in July 1879. The manager, Mr O’Farrell, continued in place from the original Company to the Corporation. Two years later they purchased a new site at the other end of Kings Road West to the original site, on the corner with Boundary Road. They then developed a gasworks on this new site in 1880-81. 1893 sees an invitation to tender for a retort house and coal stores at the gasworks.
In 1925 the engineer and work manager for the site, W R Davey, reported that the 1880 gasworks had been in poor repair and were reconstructed in the early 1900s. In 1925 the first vertical retort plant at the site was inaugurated in 1925 with an even larger one being built in 1947 next to the old one to cope with the increasing demand. At the same time a new gas holder, with a capacity of 750,000 c. ft. was built on newly purchased land between Hambridge Road and the racecourse. This new holder almost doubled the capacity that had been available from the two existing holders.
1948 saw the demolition of the 120 foot tall chimney from the site. It had been visible across Newbury but a local newspaper was of the opinion that ‘there will be no regrets at its disappearance’. The chimney had been in place for 25 years and apparently had never worked satisfactorily. The Newbury Weekly News said ‘To gas engineers who went through the town by train, Newbury was the place with the gasworks that had a chimney secured by guy ropes’.
With nationalisation, the Southern Gas Board took over operations in 1948 and further developed the gasworks. Then in May 1959 it announced that future gas supplies would come via the national grid and that the Kings Road gasworks would close in July of that year. The Kings Road works was sold by public auction at the Chequers Hotel in October 1959. Following the sale the site was used for various local businesses, most notably the Sterling Cable Company, and it retained this name becoming the Sterling Industrial Estate.
The remaining buildings of Newbury’s former gas works were finally reduced to a pile of rubble in May 2017. The vertical retort house is reported to have been the last one of its kind still standing in England.
Windsor Gas 1827
Windsor Royal Gas Light Company was founded in 1827 to supply Windsor Castle and the surrounding districts – the area known as new Windsor because the village of Old Windsor was already supplied by The Gas Light and Coke Company (the first British gas company, founded in London in 1812). It raised an initial capital of £8,000 through shares. The Berkshire Chronicle of 17th March 1827 notes that the share allocation is nearly all taken and that the plan for the gas holder ‘will be laid before his Majesty for his approval’ but that the chosen site is not yet determined. The site chosen is not known, but by the publishing of the 1881 Ordnance Survey map the gasworks is situated next to the railway station.
1881 Ordnance Survey Map
In 1829, the Dean and Canons of Windsor reached agreement with the Windsor Royal Gas Light Company to install gas lighting in the College, namely in the Dean’s Cloister, Canons’ Cloister, Denton’s Commons and the Horseshoe Cloister. Two years earlier at a meeting of the newly formed gas company in November 1827, a shareholder mentioned that “it was the intention of the Dean and Canons of Windsor to light the Cathedral and Cloisters with gas”. The Windsor and Eton Express reporter who attended the shareholders’ meeting was enthusiastic about the introduction of resin gas lighting to the Royal Borough, with the sanction of King George IV. The Company was working with the ‘improved plan of Mr Daniel’s patent to generate gas from resin’.
The Windsor Royal Gas Light Company was incorporated as a limited joint stock company in 1857.
Later history on the Company is hard to find. In 1929 there is a report in The Scotsman of 5th January 1929 relating how the manager and director of the Company, Herbert Buckley, had died as a result of an explosion that had occurred at the gasworks about a month previous. The explosion has injured four men who were apparently experimenting with new plant and blew off the roof of the governor house.
Abingdon Gas 1827/8
A report in the Oxford Journal of 15th February 1840 records the 12th occurrence of the AGM for the Abingdon Gas Light and Coke Company giving it an inauguration date of 1827/8. In the Oxford Chronicle of 29th April 1837 there is a note from the committee of the Abingdon Gas Company recommending that the current gas holder is either enlarged or a new one built to meet the current consumption rates. The meeting decided on enlargement by converting the gas holder in to a telescopic or sliding format which would almost double the capacity. At the aforementioned 12th AGM it is clear that the Company have not had a successful 3-year period but the finances have recovered ‘from their embarrassed state’ and a dividend of 6% was declared with the promise of reduction in the cost of gas.
In May 1868 the Company is starting to erect a new gas holder at their gasworks in Thames Street, Abingdon; the Company as still at this site in 1870. At the 1885 AGM it is noted that the town now has 50 gas cooking stoves, three gas engines and a large number of gas fires.
1910 Ordnance Survey Map
At a meeting in September 1885 the Company’s chair, Alderman Tomkins, proposed the purchase of a plot of land between the Vineyard and Abingdon railway for the new gasworks and offices due to the Thames Street site being very inadequate for the supply of gas to the town in winter. The proposal was approved. The site was completed in September 1887 at a cost of £10,000 and the first gas was produced on 10th September. At this time the Company begins to be called the Abingdon Gas Company, but still operates under its original name. The new site has a gas holder of 82,000 c. ft., far superior to the Thames Street holder which has a capacity of 32,000 c. ft., and importantly has a siding allowing coal to be taken directly to site from the railway. The Thames Street site is put up for sale in September 1888.
In 1932 Company is bought up by the Oxford District Gas Company.
Wallingford Gas 1830s
The Oxford Chronicle reported on 10th Jan 1835 on the first gas lights in the town of Wallingford. “It is intended to erect an obelisk in the Market Place on which two or three large lamps will be placed. “These, together with the public lamps and private burners, will have the effect of adding much to the beauty of this pretty little place.” The gas was supplied by the newly built gasworks of the Wallingford Gas Light and Coke Company which was located on the west bank of the River Thames just north of Wallingford Bridge, a site convenient for coal delivery and for the disposal of effluent.
1883 Ordnance Survey Map
The works had a tall chimney, which towered above the bridge. Gas lamps were soon installed in important buildings in the town, including the town hall and St Mary’s church in the Market Place. St Mary’s church’s superintendent, Mr Potts, took charge of the new church lamps during services, turning the valve up and down to create appropriately dramatic effects, such as dimming to a low light for the sermon but giving ‘a flood of living light’ when the organ struck up at the end.
By the mid-1860s with the disposal of the site’s coal tar effluent in to the river causing pollution and with the railway now able to transport coal to Wallingford it was decided to build a new gasworks adjoining the station on Station Road. In April 1875 there are tenders being placed for a gas holder, retort house, lime and coal stores and meter houses along with a cottage. When construction was already in progress high flood water from the river caused part of the original gasworks to collapse, leaving the town without gas for several weeks before the new works could be completed. The ruins of the old riverside works were finally cleared away in February 1883, to be replaced in 1891 by the much more attractive Town Landing Stage and Boathouse, which survive today.
1912 Ordnance Survey Map
Faringdon Gas 1835
The first gas lamps were lit in Faringdon on 21st March 1836 by the Faringdon Gas Light Company. This followed a meeting on 1st December 1835 when it was agreed that each shareholder would subscribe 5 shillings per share towards the cost of street lamps and their erection. The report notes that there was insufficient time to light the whole town and that some defects had caused gas escapes but to no serious consequence. There were to be seven gas lamps in Gloucester Street, four in Marlborough Street, five in Corn Market and Market Place, five in Church Street and five in Bull Street, now London Street. A lamplighter had to manually light the lamps each evening and turn them off at 10pm until an automatic system was installed. It was also proposed that the main gas pipe would be extended up to what is now known as Sudbury House.
The gasworks was located on Gashouse Lane, now Canada Lane, next to the burial ground. The coal was shipped using the Berks and Wilts Canal and then landed at Longcot Wharf for onward transportation to Faringdon.
In 1935 the North Wilts Herald has an advert claiming a ‘Reign of Gas from 1843 – 1935’ for Swindon, and as part of that there is the statement ‘colonies recently captured – Chiseldon, Highworth, Wootton Bassett and Faringdon’. Two years later the AGM of the Swindon United Gas Company reports that it had benefited from increased consumer numbers through now supplying gas to the Faringdon Gas Company. 1940 saw the Faringdon Gas Light and Coke Company Ltd still operating, but having to increase the price of gas. Actual production of gas in Faringdon stopped in the 1940s.
Maidenhead Gas 1835
The Maidenhead Gas Light & Coke Company began in 1835 with the gasworks built by W B Stears on the east bank of the River Thames just above Maidenhead Bridge on Mill Road, which is now called Mill Lane. The coal was delivered by barge and this continued until 1940 when it was replaced by lorries who brought the coal from Taplow railway station.
The Maidenhead Gas Light & Coke Company’s name survived until 1876, when it became the Maidenhead Gas Company by statute.
In 1898 the Company added new plant to make carburetted water gas (CWG), which improved the gas quality by injecting light petroleum oils into the gas given off by the incandescent coking bed. In 1903 a new retort house was built, doubling the works’ output. The output in 1900 was 63 million c. ft. and this grew to 100 million c. ft. in 1910, 169 million c. ft. in 1922, and finally 250 million c. ft. in 1949, the last year of regular gas production at Mill Lane. At this point the CWG plant was kept mothballed, ready for winter emergencies, until 1954.
1897 Ordnance Survey Map
The Company took over the failed Burnham United Gas Lighting and Coke Company in 1904, and itself amalgamated with The Uxbridge, Maidenhead and District Gas Company, which served most of the rural territory in Buckingham extending in to Middlesex and Berkshire, in 1924. The South Eastern Gas Corporation was formed in 1932 specifically to acquire concerns across the region, and assimilated the Company in 1936. The gasworks were connected to Slough in 1947. At nationalisation, it came under the North Thames Gas Board in 1949, which decommissioned the gasworks.
Little now remains of the site, which is the Taplow Riverside housing estate, but the brick boundary wall can still be seen in Mill Lane at the bridge end of the site.
Hungerford Gas 1845
June 1845 sees a meeting of the provisional committee for the purpose of establishing a gas and coke company in Hungerford, citing the canal and the potential arrival of the railway as a boon for transporting the necessary coal supplies. The Hungerford Gas and Coke Company holds its first AGM in June 1846 having been registered on 18th October. By the end of 1847 the company is applying for tenders to supply up to 20 public lamps to supply the town.
The gasworks were situated in Charnham Street and comprised a retort house, lime and coke sheds, a purifying shed, a foul lime house with privy adjoining, a gasometer and tank, and a cottage. It was built by Thomas Atkins of Bicester, Gas Engineer and Contractor. The gasworks were operational by 1850, and maybe even earlier in 1848; The Deed of Settlement is dated 23 Aug 1849.
1886 Ordnance Survey Map
Hungerford Gasworks early 1900s
The Hungerford Gas and Coke Company Limited was wound up at an Extraordinary General Meeting on 24th August 1901. The Charnham Street gasworks ceased operation in 1950 and supply to the town was then provided by Swindon United Gas Company. The two gasometers were demolished in the 1990s.
Wantage Gas 1847
The Town Commissioners of Wantage took some time to consider the use of gas as an alternative to oil for lighting the town’s streets. One of the commissioners suggested gas in 1845, but at the time his colleagues decided that they could not afford such a venture. However, two years later the commissioners did decide to light Wantage by means of gas and the gas company was allowed to start laying the necessary pipes. A representative of the company said that the cost to supply each lamp would be £2 per year. The commissioners were to be responsible for the fittings for the lamps. The bill for the gas came to £86.10s.0d for many years, but after a time the cost began to gradually increase. In 1869, for instance, there were eleven private lamps at £3 each per annum and fifty-four public lamps at £2.5s.0d each, making a total of £154.10s.0d.
When the Great Western Railway was built from London to Bristol in the late 1830s it passed through the Vale of White Horse and left Wantage isolated over two miles from the line. As a result, coal for the gasworks reached the town by way of the Wantage branch of the Wilts and Berks Canal for more than thirty years. However, Wantage Tramway was opened from Wantage Road Station to a terminus in Mill Street in 1875 and when its goods service was firmly established it started to carry coal for the gasworks. In addition, the by-products of gas manufacture were carried from the town on the tramway. The venture proved profitable to both enterprises and the gas company was soon provided with its own siding to facilitate ease of loading and unloading.
1889 Ordnance Survey Map
The capital account shows that the company borrowed £7,000 between 1879 and 1884 to improve the gasworks and had repaid nearly £4,470 by 1904. The balance sheet indicates that the company owed just under £750 on unpaid accounts, but its customers owed nearly £830 on uncollected accounts and the company turned in a healthy gross profit of £556 according to the profit and loss account. The concern continued in business through World War One, the Depression, and into World War Two, and presumably it made a reasonable profit most of the time. However, by the end of the second war much of the company’s machinery was in need of repair and, due to general shortages, replacements were difficult to obtain.
In 1945 the Oxford Gas Company offered to purchase the Wantage works with the intention of closing it down and supplying gas by pipeline from Oxford. At about the same time the Wantage Tramway Company was contemplating closure because of the sorry state of its rolling stock; undoubtedly the likely loss of some £400 revenue from the gasworks had considerable influence on its final decision. There is no doubt that the two concerns were very dependent on each other. The tramway closed down in December 1945, and the gasworks was eventually purchased by the Oxford Gas Company; closure of the Wantage Gas Company was inevitable.
The space that was once occupied by the retorts and gas-holders is now a car park but the manager’s house is still inhabited and the building which was the company office now serves as a cafe.
Pangbourne Gas 1861
The Pangbourne Gas Light and Coke Company was inaugurated in 24th December 1861 to supply gas to the parishes of Pangbourne, Purley, Whitchurch, Sulham, Tidmarsh and Englefield. In January 1862 the Berkshire Chronicle reported the first call to shareholders of the Company at a public meeting to approve the introduction of public lighting to the village and the development of a gas works adjacent to the railway station. It seems to have not been the most enthusiastic audience with the comment ‘strange to say, the leading inhabitants of the villages of Pangbourne and Whitchurch appear to be totally indifferent to so great a modern improvement’. Local indifference notwithstanding the Company’s second AGM in March 1864, reported in the Berkshire Chronicle, showed a 3% dividend. By the 1866 AGM the dividends were at 5%.
September 1862 saw the opening of the Pangbourne gasworks built and designed by G Bower. The land had been purchased from the Great Western Railway Company. The works comprised a retort house with three retorts, coal and coke stores, a purifying house, lime stores, metering and governor houses and a 25’ diameter gas holder. Gas lighting was already being supplied to Pangbourne, but the gasworks included gas mains to Whitchurch. By this date it is claimed that almost all cottages and houses in Pangbourne have gas lighting as does Englefield House. At the celebratory dinner held at The George Hotel Mr Bower gave a long speech on the history and benefits of gas. Whitchurch had a gas supply by around 1870 and gas street lamps by around 1901. While the gas supply area was broad it appears that the Company only really supplied to Pangbourne and Whitchurch. However, demand was enough that in 1880 the Company tendered for the provision of a brick tank and additional gas holder to contain 5,000 c. ft. at the Pangbourne site by the railway. In 1903 it announced a reduction in the price of gas by 5 shillings per 1000c. ft.
1912 Ordnance Survey Map
In March 1924 the Reading Gas Company took over Pangbourne Gas Light and Coke Company. That summer a 12” steel main was laid along the Oxford Road to connect Reading to Pangbourne, which was further extended through the 1920s and 1930s to supply residences in Purley including Purley Lodge, the Rectory and properties on Glebe Road and Westbury Lane. Now being part of the Reading Gas Company it was nationalised in 1948.
Twyford Gas 1861/63
At the 1863 AGM of the Twyford Gas Company it is described as being in its infancy, but it already had a gasworks which it had already agreed to lease to the British and Foreign Gas Generating Apparatus Company of London against a guaranteed return of 5% for the forthcoming 2 years. The meeting also recommended extending gas lighting to Wargrave. The Company was officially called the Twyford Consumers’ Gas Company.
The Reading Mercury of 11th March 1871 has a notice claiming that the sale of the Twyford gasworks had been unavoidably postponed under the section for ‘in liquidation’. For this point there are a series of legal notices and summons against the Company running to 1873, but it is not clear what the issue was.
In January 1885 questions are raised around the ability of the Company to supply the gas needed to support the lighting that the village wanted. It is stated that the Company can supply the gas for 38 lamps for the six winter months from sunset to 10 o’clock at 27 shillings per lamp or from sunset to 12 o’clock for 31 shillings per lamp. They also offered to light and clean the lamps for 6s per week. The high cost of gas to the village was defended as caused by the smallness of the consumption. Opposition was provided by supporters of oil lamps, who viewed them as giving better light and being safer, however the meeting approved the proposal to continue with gas as provided by the Twyford Gas Company.
Still operating in 1895 the Company is proposing to lay gas mains to Wargrave, but the council are not willing to approve until they see evidence that the inhabitants need the gas. By early 1896 the mains are being laid to the village. November 1899 see the Company unable to supply enough gas to light the lamps in Twyford; they claimed the outage was due to a new retort being commissioned at the gasworks and the work running late. In 1904 there are more complaints about the quality of the lighting, but this time related to the light given out.
1899 Ordnance Survey Map
A County Court case in January 1916 alleges serious accounting faults against the Company. Mr Sidney West, who had been the local secretary and local general manager for the Twyford Consumers’ Gas Company alleges that the Company’s affairs had been in a bad way between 1886 and 1902 with dilapidated gasworks and failed supplies.
Bracknell Gas 1862/63
The earliest mention found of the Bracknell Gas Company is from the Morning Advertiser of 9th June 1863, which is a court case followed by a notice presenting the Company’s second AGM to be held on 24th May 1864; this would give them an establishment date of 1862-63. In 1882 there are tenders placed to enlarge the gasworks to include a new retort house, purifying house, meter and governor house.
In October 1883 notification is given of the winding-up of the Bracknell Gas Company Limited.
Thatcham Gas 1863
The Thatcham Gas Light and Coke Company Ltd. was incorporated in 1863. An 1863 newspaper report of a prospectus for the Company comments on a plan to raise £1,200 capital through 240 shares at £5 each to build a gasworks, which on completion would be leased to the British and Foreign Gas Company for between three and five years. The Company planned to provide gas for lighting, cooking and heating. The meeting was addressed by Mr Crockford, who was the lessee of Bracknell Gas Works, who spoke on the successful introduction of gas supplies in to Bracknell, Pangbourne and Twyford. The committee, which was set up at this meeting, was focussed on raising the necessary funds, establishing the number of lights required for the town and planning for gas mains in Church Lane, Back Lane and westward on the Bath Road as far as Newtown.
By March 1864 the Company directors had approved the tender from the British and Foreign Gas Generating Company of £850 and planned to immediately commence building the gasworks: also appointing Mr Hague of Newbury as the superintendent to progress these works. By February 1867 the site was built and was leased to Messrs Wheeler and Hunt for 3 years against their guarantee of providing 5% per annum return to the shareholders. The gasworks were located on Station Road just a short distance from where it meets Broadway.
1900 Ordnance Survey Map
The Company is still holding an AGM in 1899, but this is the latest information found and it is believed to have been dissolved between 1933 – 1948.
Theale Gas 1864
On 28th March 1864 the first stone was laid for the gasworks of the Theale Gas and Coke Company, and the report that W H Blatch was the Company Chair. The AGM of 1879 see the Company declaring a 10% dividend and putting monies toward paying off their mortgage.
1899 Ordnance Survey Map
The Company was dissolved during 1911 as reported in the Journal of Gas Lighting, Water Supply and Sanitary Improvements 1912.
Bagshot Gas 1865
The Bagshot gasworks were built around 1865 by the Bagshot Gas and Coke Company Ltd. The company was wound up in 1877 and the gasworks sold to Richard Kemp for £600. The Surrey Heath Museum holds details of the sale of the gasworks in 1900 to the Ascot Gas Company for £2750, at this time the price of gas they charged was 5 shillings per 1000 c. ft., except to Bagshot Park who only paid 4s 6d.
1899 Ordnance Survey Map
Slough Gas 1866
The Slough Gas and Coke Company was registered on 13th June 1866. It served a small 21 square mile territory within the larger area served by the Uxbridge Gas Company. It served Slough, Langley, Stoke Poges, Datchet and Farnham Royal. The Company remained a small undertaking until it was transformed by the development of the Slough Trading Estate after the First World War.
1923 Ordnance Survey Map
The North Thames Gas Board was established on 1st May 1949, under the Gas Act 1948 which nationalised the gas industry, and the Company was taken over. By this time it had 14,500 customers.
Lambourn Gas 1867
The Lambourn Gas, Coke and Lime Company Limited was incorporated in 1867, at a time when Lambourn had no railway before 1898 nor waterway navigable by commercial transport so coal and other raw materials would have been transported by horse and cart. In later years we have evidence of coal arriving at Lambourn Station with the comment that ‘This was a small concern, with neither wagons of their own nor an office. Instead, they stored their paperwork in a corner of the goods shed’. A report in the Swindon Advertiser of 27th May 1867 notes that ‘the Lambourne Gas Company has been registered and at the last meeting of directors it was resolved that work should begin at once under the direction of Mr Stevenson, Wantage’. In a Police Committee report in October 1867 the Chief Constable reports that ‘the town of Lambourn is now lighted with gas and at his recommendation the police station will also be lighted with it’. Later that year the inspectors for the Lighting and Watching Act for the town are tendering for 10 cast-iron street lamps and 4 to 7 wrought-iron street brackets with lamps.
On 25th January 1868 we see the Company report capital of £1,200 (around £136,000 in 2020) comprising 240 shares at £5 each. The gasworks and piping was completed and the previous week the first public lamps had been lit. The newspaper quotes ‘on the first evening of lighting up, the lamp-lighter was followed on his rounds by crowds of astonished villagers, some of whom remained near each lamp as if transfixed with astonishment at the novel sight’. Then in 1870, the system was being extended, with 422 yards of mains and 173 yards of service pipe.
1937 Ordnance Survey Map
By 1875 we see profits declining to the point where no dividend is issued. The situation is blamed on the quality of coal supplied which yielded a much lower quantity of gas per ton than expected. The company resolve to only use coal from the collieries in Somerset going forward. Whether this coal was the answer, we find by 1885 the Company declaring a dividend of 3% and an increase in gas production to over 77,000 c. ft.
The London Gazette records that the company was wound up on 20th August 1912. It was wound up voluntarily under the Companies (Consolidation) Act, 1908, and Alfred Howard Charcot, a Lambourn jeweller, was appointed liquidator – an unusual choice as liquidators are usually either solicitors or accountants.
It is hard to find much evidence of the ongoing supply of gas in Lambourn. An article in the North Wilts Herald on 15th April 1932 refers to a MR F W Newton of Hull, the proprietor of the Lambourn Gas Company, but only in reference to a disputed account with the Parish Council. The Company is again mentioned in 1936 with even less detail.
Ascot Gas 1882
The Ascot Gas Company was formed as a statutory company in 1882, to supply Ascot with gas. The gasworks were located on Bagshot Road in Sunninghill and became operational in 1883. That year the Company, described in the Berkshire Chronicle as the ‘Ascot Gas and Water Company’ extended their gas mains to Sunningdale and Bracknell. In 1890 we see the Company laying gas mains to supply Fernhill and Winkfield.
1912 Ordnance Survey Map
In 1901 it changed its name to the Ascot and District Gas Company after purchasing the Bagshot Gas and Coke Compnay Ltd. in Guildford Road, closing it down two years later and supplying gas via mains from Sunninghill. In 1906 the company gained powers to supply electricity and became the Ascot and District Gas and Electricity Company.
It came under the control of the South Eastern Gas Corporation in 1936 and on nationalisation in 1949 the company vested with the North Thames Gas Board.
Bibliography and Sources:
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- D/EWK/B2/4/116 various. Plans for alterations and additions to offices Gas Works Road, Reading 1890-1932
- D/EWK/B2/4/235 various. Plans for cottages, Kennet’s Mouth, Earley, for the Reading Gas Company 1931-1932
- D/EX1130/1/11. Reading Union Gas Company Act 1836
- D/EX1593 (1-6) Reading Gas Company Plans. 1881-1964
- D/SG8-1/1. Remaking of a footpath and roadway at Reading gasworks, Kings Road, 1899
- D/SG8-1/2. Building a new office at the west end of the present offices at Reading gas works, 1900
- D/SG8-1/3. Building an extension to the workmen’s club premises at Reading gas works, 1912
- D/SG8-1/4. Making alterations and additions to the offices at Reading Gas Works, 1927
- D/SG8-1/5. Building foundations of a new has holder and steel tank at Reading gas works, 1929
- D/SG8-1/6. Building foundations of a new gas holder (no.5) at Reading gas works, 1929
- D/SG8-1/7. Building foundations of a bridge over the river Kennet at Reading gas works, 1929
- D/SG8-1/8. Making alterations to the gas showroom in Friar Street, 1933
- D/SG8-1/9. Building foundations of water treatment plant at Reading Gas Works, 1953
- D/SG8-1/10. Building calorimeters, water pumps etc., at Reading gas works, 1957 (Southern Gas Board)
- D/SG8-1/11. Making alterations and additions to the gas showrooms and offices in Friar Street, 1959-1960
- D/SG8-2/1-3. Plans relating to the Reading Gas Company. 1953
- D/SG8-2/1-4. Ground plan of Reading gas works showing gas mains and proposed new plant. 1951
- D/SG8-4/10-26. Register of accidents and accident report forms relating Reading gas works. 1959-65
- D/SG8-4/27-28. Notebooks with notes and sketches relating to gasholders at the Reading gas works
- Q/RUM-131. Reading Gas: Kings Road Station. 1869
- Q/RUM-162. Reading Gas Company. 1880
- Q/RUM-293. Reading Gas (re: Pangbourne Gas Undertaking ) 1924
- Q/RUM-294. Reading Gas Bill (acquisition of land in Earley). 1927
- Q/RUO3/56. An Act for consolidating the capital of the Reading Gas Company for enabling that Company to raise additional capital and for other purposes. (2 Edw. 7. c. xiv)
- Q/RUO8/74. Draft Special Order proposed to be made by the Board of Trade under Section 10 of the Gas Regulation Act 1920 (10 & 11 Geo. V c. 28) on the application of the Reading Gas Company. 1924
- R/FB8/2 (1-4) Reading Gas Company Ledgers. 1904-1949