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Not Brentford

Brentford Gas Works

The Gas Works were a real presence in Brentford, remembered for their smell and domination of the skyline. Many people have got in touch about working there, get-togethers, accidents and collecting coke for the home fire.

The works did not feature in postcards but some photos have been shared and there are several references in Memories - see links below.

Most information about the gas works on this site is from the last 60 years, so the following from David Shailes is very welcome, describing the origins of Brentford's gas industry in 1820, changes over 160 years and finally closure and demolition. This piece is a legacy of David's research for Local History Month, 2022.

This photo was taken in the mid 1950s from the tow path south of the Thames.

View across the Thames to Brentford Gas Works

Beginnings, 1820

George & John Barlow of London, won a contract in 1820 to provide gas lighting of the London to Bath Road - Kensington to Hounslow Heath - and acquired land in Brentford with a Thames frontage and established a gas works here. The first gas works providing the public with gas had been established in Westminster in 1812 by the Gas Light & Coke Company. So, the gas works at Brentford was an early example.

Unfortunately, the Barlows, whilst they had obtained permission to build the gas works, had overlooked the need to obtain permission to install the light fittings on the road itself. The solution involved the establishment of a local limited company called Brentford Gas Company. The chairman was none other than Booth who owned the nearby distillery and the brewery. It wasn't until 1840 that the Gas Co had rid itself of the Barlow's involvement.

It had expanded and provided gas to customers in Richmond, Notting Hill, North Fulham, Shepherd's Bush, Ealing, Acton, Heston & St Margarets. Following Booth's retirement in 1840 the board decided to bring in outside experts from the gas industry and the business was restructured. This restructure saw the company working more closely with the Gas Light & Coke Company, but they remained independent until the two businesses merged in 1926.

Its original site was bordered in the West by The Royal Brewery and the East by some houses & shops. It stood directly opposite St George's church. Coal gas was a lucrative business to be in, it was largely unregulated until 1847 and saw capitalism at its worst, with cartel like operations; two gas companies ganging up to put a new competitor out of business, price fixing, theft of a competitor's gas, by connecting new customers to a competitor's network rather than their own. There is no direct evidence that the Brentford Gas Co did any of these things, but it seems unlikely that they did not.

Initially, gas was provided for lighting only and the supply was turned on at dusk & off at dawn. Bills were charged on the number of lighting fixtures a customer bills were issued quarterly. Whilst a gas meter was invented in 1817, it was not until the 1870's that the "penny" in the slot gas meter was introduced. Once it was the poor could now benefit from the new gas technology. The gas companies allowed expensive appliances like Ovens to be rented, which made them available to the poor. As a result the Brentford saw the number of customers double between 1897 and 1899. With so many potential customers, the need to produce gas more cheaply and in bigger quantities became quickly apparent.


Expansion, 1870s

So how was this achieved in Brentford? The company expanded their works eastwards and across the High Street to the North side in 1876/9. This was when the gas holders started to be built here. This involved the removal of bodies from St George's cemetery, which were reburied at South Ealing. The church became increasingly surrounded by the gas works.

The company realising the restrictive nature of its Brentford site then sought to build a brand new works on a much larger site in Southall and they received permission via an Act of Parliament dated 1868.

The working conditions for the stokers originally were appalling, which gave rise to "militancy" and strikes are recorded. In the early years they worked a 12 hour shift 7 days a week being given one day off a month! The employers in their defence said that whilst the stokers were at work for 12 hours they only physically worked for half of that. This was because the Retorts (that made the gas) were charged and left to make gas, before being emptied.

Gas engineers eventually made the Stoker role redundant, by inventing a vertical retort that was charged by gravity with coal from a conveyor.

The gas works were blamed for the loss of fish in general from the Thames at Brentford and occasionally for incidents involving dead fish floating on the surface. Laterly, they were sensitive to the bad publicity and not every incident was their fault, but they and other Brentford industries based on or near the Thames undoubtably were the cause. It wasn't until 1884 that Brentford Local board stopped discharging raw sewage into the Thames.

The conversion process of producing gas from coal, produces initially "waste" materials that are by & large toxic. Uses for these were soon discovered and the gas industry was responsible for the establishment of the Chemical industry. For the Brentford company any of this work was undertaken at their Southall works, where they had space.

One of the first pieces of legislation was concerning the quality of gas. After production the gas needed to be cleaned in "purifirers", these produced that "smell" associated with the gas works that is remembered by Brentford residents. Initially lime was used and would be recycled by resting it in the open and latterly iron oxide was used.

The purifirers at Brentford in the final works were both sides of the High street.

Before the First world war the Brentford company attempted to get permission to build a new works on the Thames at Dukes Meadow in Chiswick. This attempt was defeated and saw Dukes Meadow becoming a public open space.


Post WW1

After the war the Brentford company realised it needed to modernise its works, if the company were to benefit from the expansion of housing into the green spaces West of London. It is believed that this is one of the reasons it merged with the Gas Light & Coke Co in 1926. Something which needed government approval. At the time of the merger the Brentford company was providing gas services in Staines/Egham/Sunbury from 1915, Harrow & Stanmore 1924 and Richmond in 1925.

The Gas Light & Coke company was one of Great Britain's largest companies and was the largest Gas company. As soon as the merger was completed they set about rebuilding the Brentford Works which started in 1929 and lasted until 1935.

It was this works that gave Brentford conveyor belts a 100 foot in the air and the appearance of being an "northern" industrial town, not a suburb of London.

Here is a note of the gas produced at Brentford, the increase is quite remarkable:

YearCubic feet produced

The Thames was how coal arrived at the work and some coke and waste materials were removed. Unfortunately, the seagoing colliers that brought the coal from the pits in the North East of England could not reach Brentford and the coal had to be transferred to barges. Both the Brentford and the Gas Light and Coke companies owned their own colliers and fleet of barges. The Brentford co also had its own lighterage company called Hope Lighterage Co.

In Brentford coal was stored at Soaphouse Dock and on the old Montgomrey's site (Heidleberg).

It was the transhipment issue and lack of space that lead to a decision in 1954 which would lead to the Brentford Work's closure. A new plant that converted oil into gas was sited at Southall and when the cost of producing gas from coal compared to oil was double, Brentford was earmarked for closure, which happened in September 1963.

Nationalisation and closure

There is one final part to this story in that a Labour government, after the privations of the war, nationalised Britain's core industries, gas being one of them. This happened in 1949 and the Brentford Gas works became part of the North Thames Gas Board. The North Thames Gas Board was the only board that was easily established as the Gas Light & Coke Company dominated its area, whereas the other eleven gas boards had to assimilate over 1,000 previous independent gas companies into 11 cohesive units.

The works on the southside were demolished in 1965 and the council acquired the site. Offices, the Watermans Art Centre and a park were established here. The gas holders were rationalised, but the 235 feet tall MAN waterless holder remained until 1988. In February the roof was demolished by explosives, making it collapse inside and the sides were removed in section by a crane, the work being completed by the Autumn. This ended Brentford's 160 year's of association with the gas industry.


Links and sources

There are many references to the gas works on this site, below is a small selection. Try a search for 'gas' on the home page to view more.

Photo from early to mid-1950s.

Photo from the mid-1950s, a larger version of the view above.

Gas works' site, 1841 tithe map.

View from Distillery Road, 1970s.

Photo of Emily Rebecca Goddard working for the Brentford Gaslight & Coke Company ca 1900.

1960s film: 'Where and what is paradise' - views of Brentford including footage from the gasometer by St George's Church.

Contract for supply of coal, 1828, the earliest reference to 'Brentford Gaslight' in the British Newspaper Archive, 2023.

Memories includes those of Harry Langley: Another job was to visit the Gas works to bring home a large bag of coke (read more), similarly Jean Dunsdon: I lived very close to the gas works, my brothers would go on Saturdays to collect coke (read more).

Page published August 2023