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'Regent's Canal gasholders should be turned into a museum, not taken apart' urges East End Waterway Group's founder Tom Ridge

PUBLISHED: 14:29 14 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:53 15 October 2019

Bethnal Green No 2 gasholder, captured on December 15 1973. Picture: Malcolm Tucker

Bethnal Green No 2 gasholder, captured on December 15 1973. Picture: Malcolm Tucker

The Gentle Author

Many towpath users will enjoy seeing the two Regent's Canal gasholders that form an iconic view from London Fields. But not many will know their days could be numbered. Emma Bartholomew finds out why local historian Tom Ridge is calling for their preservation

The Bethnal Green gasholders, reflected in the Regent's Canal. Picture: The Gentle AuthorThe Bethnal Green gasholders, reflected in the Regent's Canal. Picture: The Gentle Author

Regent's Canal gasholders should be turned into a museum, not taken apart If you walk north along the Regent's Canal from Broadway Market, you can't help but notice the two bleak but beautiful metal structures on the other side of the waterway.

The gasholders' existence has been threatened by a housing development - but Tom Ridge is on a mission to save them.

The first, called "No 2", dates back to 1866 and is - he says - the most classical surviving example of a "columnar" guide frame in the world.

The second, called "No 5", dates to 1889 and is the best surviving example of a "lattice girder" guide frame, built by the firm Samuel Cutler and Sons of Millwall.

The Bethnal Green gasholders. Picture: The Gentle AuthorThe Bethnal Green gasholders. Picture: The Gentle Author

"They are really special and together I think they constitute a monument to the London gas industry," he told the Gazette.

"I'm not saying it should be a museum but with such important structures there should be interpretation boards explaining how these things actually worked and why they were kept."

But St William Homes - a firm jointly owned by Berkeley Homes and National Grid Property Holdings - wants to build a block of flats on the site for private sale. It told the Gazette this week that no demolition will take place but did not rule out dismantling and re-erecting the structures, which Tom fears will ruin them.

"London was the birthplace of the gas industry and this was where all the best engineers worked and designed these structures," said Tom, 78, a former geography and history teacher, who founded the East End Waterway Group to save historic canal structures.

Bethnal Green No 2 gasholder taken by Malcolm Tucker in 1973Bethnal Green No 2 gasholder taken by Malcolm Tucker in 1973

The gasholders were built to store gas made at the Shoreditch Gas Works - where Haggerston Park is today.

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The factory was built in 1820 and had its own small gasholders to hold coal gas. But in the 1850s, with the industry's growth in London, more storage was needed for manufactured gas.

Coal was mined in the north east and brought down by a coal ship, called a collier. It was unloaded in the Regent's Canal Dock - now the Limehouse Basin - and transported on barges up the canal to at least four gas works, once the Regent's Canal opened in 1820. Coal was roasted in long ovens, and the gas given off was collected, purified, and piped to the gasholders for storage - perhaps along the canal bed. Gas was originally used for street lighting in the 1820s, but once the industry grew, gasholders supplied people's homes and factories via gas mains that ran under the streets. Gas transformed the lives of people who previously had to rely on candles and oil lamps which ran on whale oil, or paraffin, made from crude oil from Russia - both risky flammable fluids.

"When gas lighting was introduced there were naked gas jets to begin with, and people went for them in a big way although they did mess up their ceilings," said Tom. "They were like school Bunsen burners, except instead of a naked flame they had a mantel on top, which allowed the flame to become incandescent to give out more light than heat. It was an extraordinary industry and the weird thing is that the gas holders are being systematically swept from the London skyline."

By the end of the 19th century gas fires and cookers were introduced, but competition with electricity companies was fierce.

With the closure of the gas industry in London, the borough of Hackney inherited the gas works site. It was decontaminated and turned into Haggerston Park, retaining some of the gas works' walls which can still be seen today, and a narrow coal barge basin off the canal.

Some of English Heritage's reasons for not listing them were "ludicrous", according to Tom.

"They said there was no longer a gas works, but all gas works throughout the country have been demolished and only the gas holders were kept because they went on being used to store north sea gas. In this case the gas works was just up the canal and it's one of the few surviving gas works in London that still has some of its walls and the southern part of its coal basin preserved."

He added: "I'd be mortified if they were knocked down. I don't know what other word there might be. I've been trying to save the gasholders for 15 years.

"These two gasholders are incredibly important and there is nothing else like them anywhere else.

"They must be left so people can enjoy seeing the guide frames against the sky and reflected in the canal. Loads of people walk along the towpath and photograph the gasholders, and make paintings of them, but not enough people realise the harsh reality of the planning situation."

Tom has gathered 2,000 signatures on a petition calling on St William Homes to save the gasholders. See the petition at change.org/p/st-william-homes-petition-to-st-william-homes-to-save-the-bethnal-green-gasholders.

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