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Thursday, January 28, 1999 Published at 14:02 GMT


Condemned: The great gasometer

Gasometers: Appreciate them while you can

They hail from a by-gone age; one of belching factory chimneys, pea-souper fogs and, dare you recall, mass manufacturing industry.

Gasometers, those huge, round storage tanks that rise and fall with a concertina action, look somewhat out of place in today's more sanitised urban landscape.

So it comes as no surprise that relatively soon they will be gone.

[ image:  ]
Transco, the pineline arm of the former British Gas monolith, has announced plans to dismantle virtually all its 550 gasometers across over the next 10 years. Only a handful will remain and then only because they are listed buildings.

The demolition programme starts later this year with 78 gas holders - the updated name - due to be demolished by the end of 1999.

Advances in pipepline technology and smoothing out demand mean there is no longer any need for the massive storage cylinders.

Their passing is unlikely to provoke howls of protest - most urban dwellers will be glad to see the back of these graceless, imposing structures. Think of gasometers and you can't help but conjure up images of grey skies and drizzle.

Easy on the eye?

But Trevor Pickford, curator at the Leicester Gas Museum, wants us to stop and appreciate these ubiquitous vestiges of industrial Britain before it's too late.

[ image: Beauty in the eye of an industrial historian]
Beauty in the eye of an industrial historian
"I think people will miss them. The most common question I'm asked here is do we still use the gas holders," says Mr Pickford.

Gasometers, a British invention, first appeared 180 years ago and quickly caught on as an effective means of storing large amounts of gas at low pressure.

The most recent gasometers, built 16 years ago, abide by the same, basic mechanics - as gas is fed in from a pipeline it pushes up each of the individual storage chambers one-by-one, to accommodate the exact amount. The more gas, the bigger the holder - hence the name.

The rim of each chamber is sealed by water and with no room for air inside, the holder prevents gas from igniting.

Gas historian Brian Sturt says in their pre-War, pre-nationalisation heyday, gasometers were everywhere.

"There were over 1,000 gas companies before nationalisation. Just about every town had its own gas works and the gasometer was the central focus," says Mr Sturt.

[ image: Decommissioning will save thousands in maintainance costs]
Decommissioning will save thousands in maintainance costs
Natural gas was still a thing of the future, and instead households and industry relied on town gas, which resulted from carbonising coal.

While holders were never conventionally beautiful, in the early days at least, they exhibited a fair degree of decoration.

"They were cast iron at the start but steel sections came later, in the 1880s. The ones still standing at St Pancras and Bromley-by-Bow in London carry a Grecian-type finish," he says.

"The style was dropped because it required a lot of maintenance."

Giant flower tubs

More recent attempts have been made to soften their presence.

Gasometers in Harrow, Middlesex, and Bromley, Kent, were painted in an effort to blend it with the local surroundings. A holder in Harrogate was painted with fuchsias for a Britain in Bloom contest and wishes have been granted on the odd occasion to hang "happy birthday" banners

But Mr Sturt still doubts the public will mourn their disappearance.

"They're not the sort of thing you can get nostalgic about. Years ago they used to smell badly and some were covered in tar to preserve the iron work," he says.

[ image: Condemned: The famous Oval gasometer]
Condemned: The famous Oval gasometer
However, there is one gasometer which can arose great passions among the wider public. The giant storage tank that abuts the Oval cricket pitch in south London has become an international sporting landmark.

Surprisingly, it is not covered by a preservation order and Transco says it too will eventually be dismantled.

Transco will save the thousands of pounds it costs per year to maintain each holder. Advances in technology means the gas stored in a 6m cubic foot gasometer can, under high pressure, be contained in 200ft of pipeline, says Mr Pickford.

Cheaper, cleaner, more efficient maybe ... but could you ever lament an underground pipeline?

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