When I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s it was common on any journey to
be confronted by a huge cylindrical edifice looming up out of the distance.
It was so massive that anyone born after 1960 would - if it were possible
for them to see it - be forgiven for thinking
that aliens had landed! It was called a 'gasometer', pronounced with the
stress on the 'om' (like in 'Tom'). There were lots of gasometers around. They stored gas
- actually 'coal gas', see the inset below.
Medium-sized working, gasometer expanded with coal gas from a gasworks, England, in the first part of the 20th century. Such photos are rare – unlike
those of the demolished shells such as the one lower down the page – and I am grateful to John Cronin of the
Hoylake Junction website for permission to reproduce it.
Gasometers, coal gas and gas sorks
A gasometer was a cylindrical metal storage tank for gas
located at what was called a 'gasworks' - a factory to produce gas from coal. All
London gasworks had to be near a railway line as the coal
had to be transported from the northern coal mines.
I was taken on a school trip to the
gasworks at the bottom of Angel Road Edmonton. I must have been
about 12 years of age at the time. Because the gas works burnt coal to release the gas,
the result was known as 'coal gas' or 'town gas'. It could not be produced on
demand, so had to be stored to meet the demand at peak times. Hence the need
The massive metal storage tank of the gasometer had
smaller cylindrical tanks fitted inside, rather like the sections of a
telescope. As the gas was pumped in, these tanks expanded,
rising into the sky and rotating slightly in the process. Rubber gaskets sealed
With demand for gas during the day, mainly from
industry, the gasometer visibly slowly decreased in height. At night the
main usage was for street lights. Before electric lights gas was also
used for lighting in
homes, pubs and theatres. Some houses had
gas fires, but
were the norm.
Most districts had gasworks. They never stopped
production, 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Gasometers must have been the largest metal
structures ever erected in any town or city. Only a picture can give a
indication of their massive size.
My mother mentioned nothing about gasometers in her written recollections
of her childhood in the early 1900s, but they must have existed because
records date some of them to the late 1800s. They certainly featured in my own childhood
in Edgware, north London where the local gasometer was close to Canons Park Tube station, at the
cross-roads of Whitchurch Lane, Marsh Lane, Honeypot Lane and Wemborough
Road, in what are now the grounds of Whitchurch Middle School.
natural gas, North Sea gas and the demise of gasometers
During a German air raid in
World War Two, a bomb went through the top of one of the gasometers in the gasworks along Angel Road,
Edmonton, about a mile due east of us. As you can imagine, the flames shot several hundreds of feet up into the air. Quite a sight!
In the early 1960s 'natural gas', also known as 'North Sea gas', replaced
coal gas. So gasometers and their associated gas works became redundant. Over
time they were largely taken down and sold for scrap. The shells of a few
remain, like one in Camberley which I photographed recently and which was
small for its type. The metal
struts give some idea of how large it must have been when it was inflated. Much
larger gasometers, though, were common sights.
A recent photo of the shell of a relatively small old gasometer near
Farnham. The remaining metal struts give an indication of how large it
would have been when fully inflated..The man in front provides scale.
One of the widely publicised advantages of natural gas was that it wasn't
poisonous like coal gas - although of course incomplete combustion did produce
the poisonous carbon monoxide. Before the advent of natural gas 'putting one's
head in the gas oven' (without lighting the gas) seemed to be the most common
Many of the household appliances using coal gas had to be converted to use natural gas. Many a family in our street
complained that the oven conversions didn't work properly and they were
supplied with new ovens free. That wasn't in my mother's nature, and she
always complained that her oven didn't work as well after conversion.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.