On 3 December 1962, a sulphur-laden fog brought traffic in London to a standstill and sent hospital admissions sky-rocketing throughout London. It lasted several days, but it was one of the last of the deathly smogs, affectionately known as ‘London Particulars’ or ‘pea-soupers’, because of their yellowish green colour. After years in which coal and coke fires had been the staple source of heat in most households, the days of burning coke, were almost over. From 1968, coal couldn’t be burnt in city areas.
By the 1960s, natural gas reserves in the North Sea and advancing technology were making town gas and its by-product, coke, obsolete. These days, we drill into natural gas reserves, and then pipe it out. It’s a very pure fuel and can be burnt with limited treatment. Before the 1960’s we didn’t use natural gas. Gas was produced by burning coal and capturing the waste gas. This was then refined into town gas.
It was much simpler, not to mention cleaner, to run natural gas through all-new high-pressure pipes than to continue converting coal into town gas. But this wasn’t the first time the old gas pipes were being pulled up.Women and children cleaning gas furnaces during WWI
18th century– The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution created high demand from both industry and households for better lighting and heating. Town gas was safer and more reliable than oil or candles, and so became the fuel of choice. British Gas was formed from one of the early producers, the Gas Light & Coke Company.
19th century – The Napoleonic Wars
As Napoleon’s army foundered in the Russian winter of 1812, the British government assumed that its role in the Napoleonic Wars was largely over. Vast quantities of weapons were melted down and turned into town gas pipes to meet the new demand for gas lighting. This turned out to be an unfortunate decision when Napoleon later escaped from captivity in Elba. The loss of guns didn’t prevent Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
20th century – WWI
By 1900, the ever-growing Gas Light & Coke network was producing more than 21 billion cubic feet of gas per year. But the start of the First World War pushed British industry into a new phase of military production. As the war raged on, guns, tanks and ships had to be built in greater numbers, and to new designs. To satisfy the need for raw materials, town gas pipes (made from melted-down guns 100 years earlier) were dug up, melted and turned into military equipment all over again.
Increased industrial production for the war effort boosted demand for gas. Combined with the need for air raid blackouts, which cut municipal and domestic needs, this meant that the gas network could divert much of the town gas from households and towns to industry.
The coal used to make town gas and coke was shipped from North East England to ports around the country, from where it was carried to the gasworks. Coal-carrying ships were prime targets for German U-boats and zeppelins aiming to damage both British industry, and the Allied war effort.
Manchester gas company, West’s Gas, took part in building the Anglo-American Mark VIII in 1918. The MK VIII was the first heavy tank to have a separate engine room, which made for superior fighting conditions.
The Post-War Period
By the time British Gas began digging up town gas piping for the mass conversion to natural gas supply in the 1960s, the network was over 150 years old. It had seen thousands of miles of expansion and been instrumental in the fighting of two World Wars.
It’s had a fascinating history, but we’ll see what the future holds for Britain’s gas network as the industries we serve deal with new challenges.