The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History

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Updated:  04 March 2012 

The Gaslight and Coke Company received the Royal Charter on April 30th 1812 and the first provincial town to have gas installed was Preston in Lancashire in 1817.  In that same year the residents of Plymouth held a public meeting to discuss the formation of a company to light the Town with gas.  It was concluded that it would be advisable to substitute gas for the existing oil lighting and a committee was formed.

An oil gas works was established in Exeter Street under an Act passed in the 4th year of the reign of King George IV, which received its Royal Assent on March 24th 1823.  This seems to have been operated by the Plymouth Oil Gas Company, of which Mr John Tingcombe and Mr John Johnson the Younger seem to have been the partners.   They are named in the draft contract drawn up in 1822 by the Commissioners for Paving, Lighting and Watching.

Devonport was first lit by gas in 1826, the gas being supplied by the Plymouth Coal Gas Works.  [1]

In 1826 the Commissioners entered into a contract for the lighting of public lamps at Plymouth with coal gas and oil for seven years from September 16th.  There were 175 coal gas lamps and 284 oil lamps in the Town and they were to be lit every night from September 16th through to April 16th 1827.   The other parties to the contract were Messrs William Bell, merchant, of Aldersgate Street in the City of London; William Fraction, wholesale grocer, of Leadenhall Street, London; Isaac Nicholson the Younger, merchant, of King's Arms Yard, London; George Richardson Porter, merchant, of Old Broad Street, London; and William Henry Porter, of Streatham, Surrey.  They constructed a coal gas works at Millbay, from which they are said to have supplied the Three Towns.

These gentlemen formed themselves into the United General Gas Company and were granted a Royal Charter on March 2nd 1831.  In their new guise they negotiated a new contract from September 1st 1833 and another when, when that expired, to run for seven years from September 1st 1840.    They charged the Commissioners 3 per lamp per annum, with 3 3s for any new lamps added to the system, rising to 4 10s per lamp if a new mains had to be laid.

These high charges and the monopoly held by the Company induced the inhabitants of Plymouth and Stonehouse to form their own company with a view to providing a cheaper supply.

On Wednesday July 31st 1844 a preliminary meeting was held at the premises of Messrs Whiteford and Bennett to discuss the formation of a Company to provide gas to the Town.  The chairman was Mr Thomas Gill, MP.  25,000 was to be raised in 10 shares.  It would require an Act of Parliament.

The Plymouth and Stonehouse Gas Light and Coke Company was established in 1844, with 25,000 raised in 10 shares, and confirmed by Act of Parliament the following year. 

Also in 1845 the Devonport Gas and Coke Company received its Act of Parliament.  Its chairman was Mr M W Jeffery, who replaced a Captain Sanders at short notice, while Mr Willing was clerk to the board and Mr Thomas A Hedley was their engineer and secretary.  During 1846 the Company laid mains for the supply of gas lighting to the Royal Dockyard, Gun Wharf and Steam Yard.  The lighting was switched on in the Dockyard on September 29th 1846 and in the Gun Wharf and Steam Yard in the November.  During the first half of 1847 work was underway to provide 'uniform and efficient lighting at Devonport Market.  The price of gas at that time was 5 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet and the Company declared that as at May 31st 1847 they had 763 consumers in the Borough.  Moreover, so Mr Hedley reported at the third annual general meeting in June 1847, 'very few of your original customers have been so unpatriotic as to return to the United General Gas Company'.  [2]

In 1848 the United General Gas Company were compelled to sell their Millbay works to the new Plymouth Company for 25,410.

A further Act in 1853 increased the capital of the Devonport Gas and Coke Company and extended its powers, amongst other things.

The Plymouth and Stonehouse Gas Light and Coke Company Ltd erected a gas works at Coxside and were in the process of carrying out improvements to it when, on the morning of Wednesday October 19th 1853, one of the valves in their new retort house was accidentally left open and the escaping gas became ignited.  A check valve was swiftly turned, however, and the fire was extinguished by the time the fire engine from the West Of England Fire and Life Assurance Company Ltd arrived.  No damage was done and it was expected that within the year the Company would be manufacturing the whole of their gas at Coxside.  [3]

Between 2 and 3 o'clock on the afternoon of Tuesday July 24th 1877 the residents of Morice Town were startled by the sound of an explosion at the Keyham Gas Works, which was engulfed in flames.  Luckily there were no workmen nearby at the time so there were no injuries, although garden produce was severely scorched and 'some unlucky pigs kept by one cottager had their backs badly burnt', so the Western Morning News reported.

It was thought that the explosion was caused by a piece of rock dislodged by some blasting that had taken place near the site the previous day had pierced the largest gasometer in the Works.  This had caused gas to escape and this had been blown by a south-westerly breeze towards the retort house, where it ignited.   The 50-foot diameter gasometer was completely wrecked.  Gas supplies were restored by that same evening.  No doubt the event was the talk of the neighbourhood for many weeks.

Just before the end of December 1884 a new telescopic gasholder was put into operation at the Plymouth Gas Works.  Measuring 124 feet in diameter and 56 feet in depth, it was then the largest gasometer west of Bristol.   The holder was supported by sixteen massive iron columns and 32 trellis wrought iron girders.  Over 600 tons of iron was used in the construction.  It was erected by Messrs Willey & Company, of Exeter, while the masonry work was done by Messrs Finch & Son, of Plymouth.

Mr John Willing served the Devonport Company as secretary for forty years until his retirement in June 1886.  The directors voted him an annuity of 150 and the chairman, Mr R C Smith, 'hoped he would live many years to enjoy the leisure he had so well earned'.  His successor was Mr John Williams.  [4]

In 1890 Mr John Thomas was the Secretary of the Plymouth Company, with Mr John T Browning as Engineer and the premises were at Gas House Lane, off Sutton Road, Coxside. At that time the charge to private consumers was 2s 3d per 1,000 cubic feet.  The Devonport Gas and Coke Company had their works at Keyham, where Mr John Williams was Secretary and Mr Robert Clark, the Manager.  An additional gas holder had recently been erected to hold 200,000 cubic feet of gas.

During the summer of 1894 the Plymouth Gas Works was extended and a new retort house was installed.  Up to that time a large number of skilled workmen were employed as stokers, which required not only strength but knowledge of the plant and its use.  The new retort house made use of machinery to carry out that task and when it was brought into operation thirty men were putout of work.  In addition, a large number of men who it would have been customary to employ during the winter months to cope with the increased workload were informed that their services would no longer be required.  All were members of the Gasworkers' and General Labourers' Union.  [5]

To aggravate the situation even more, the West Gas Improvement Company, who had carried out the work, had employed former sailors as labourers to install the equipment and they were not members of any Union.  They were paid between 1 2s and 1 4s for a 54-hour week.  When their work was completed they were offered positions as minders of the machinery.  While they were being trained they were placed on a 12-hour day but then they were moved to 8-hour shifts and paid the same as the stokers, namely five shillings per day with time and a half on Sundays.  [5]

Although the rates were Union rates, when the former sailors asked if they were expected to join the Union in order to qualify for the rates of pay they were told they could if they wished but it made no difference.  As a result none of the men did join the Union.  At first this caused no problems, until the laying off of hands started with the opening of the new retort house.  Shovels, large pieces of iron and other materials 'found their way most mysteriously into the coal-breakers' and other parts of the new machinery were tampered with.  [5]

On Sunday October 14th 1894 the large three-lift, telescopic gas holder was empty and the opportunity was taken to grease the pulley system.  But when Mr H Townsend, the resident engineer, went to examine the work at shortly before 10am on the Monday morning he found that stones had been wedged between two of the lifts, which could have wrecked the structure when it was put into operation.  The management offered a reward of 100 for information about the incident and two men were discharged.  [5]

At around 9.45pm on the evening of Thursday October 18th 1894 the gas pressure in the houses at Cattedown suddenly failed and the lights went out.  The same was repeated all over the eastern end of the Town, including Friary and North Road Stations.  Down at the gas works it was discovered that the pressure in the new retort house had failed and Mr Townsend was sent to investigate.  He found that this was caused by 'mischievous interference with the governor which regulates the supply of gas to the district affected'.  The governor was put right and the gas supply was restored.   [5]

It should be mentioned that at their first annual meeting on Thursday January 31st 1901, the St Budeaux Ratepayers' Association complained about the fact that they did not have access to gas.  They felt that their only hope of getting it lay in the success of Devonport Corporation's endeavour to buy out the gas company.

The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Devonport were enabled to purchase the undertaking of the Devonport Gas and Coke Company and to supply gas within the Borough by an Act of Parliament in 1901.  The legal transfer took place on January 1st 1902.  However, Devonport Corporation took its time in paying for the purchase and the Company was run under dual ownership until that happened in May 1902.  The amount paid over was 149,000, which included 39,000 representing the liabilities of the Company.

Very soon after the takeover a firm of consulting engineers examined the condition of the plant and immediately presented a comprehensive scheme for reconstruction of the works.  The total estimated cost of the work was 80,000 and this included the erection of two gas holders on a site in the St Levan valley that had already been purchased because there was no room for expansion at the existing works.

On Tuesday July 7th 1908 the chairman of the Gas Committee, Alderman W Hornbrook, laid the foundation stone of a new Retort House to replace one that was 'rotten to the core and positively dangerous for their men to work in.'

This building was expected to cost around 8,500 and the internal dimensions were 280 feet 9 inches long by 70 feet 6 inches wide by 26 feet 9 inches high.  The height to the apex of the roof was 50 feet.  It was built of dressed limestone and there was coal stores at both ends of the building, each capable of holding 2,000 tons of coal.  It was to be built by Mr A Andrews and Messrs Willey & Company were to install the equipment.  Also present at the ceremony were the Mayor of Devonport, Mr R Smerdon, and the gas engineer, Mr J W Buckley.  The Retort House was expected to enter service in September 1908.

Saint Budeaux got its gas supply from Devonport in 1902, the mains being carried across Weston Mill Creek by means of the London & South Western Railway viaduct.  [6]

Crownhill was connected to the Plymouth Company's mains network in 1904 and Plymstock in 1910.  [6a]

In 1921 the Plympton Gas Company was absorbed into Plymouth and once new high pressure mains had been installed their gasworks was closed down.  [6a]

On February 29th 1928 the Plymouth & Stonehouse Gas Light & Coke Company announced a price reduction in the cost of gas.  For domestic customers this would in future be 6.5 pence per Therm.  In Plympton, Plymstock and other "outlying districts" (mainly Compton and Pennycross) it would be 7.8 pence per Therm.  The price for business consumers, or 'Engine consumption' as they termed it, was 5.9 pence and 7.2 pence per Therm respectively.

Mr J H Ellis, former Town Clerk of Plymouth and for many years the Company's managing director, inaugurated a new 5,000,000 cubic feet gas holder at Coxside on Wednesday February 22nd 1933.  Great importance was placed on the fact that Messrs Broadhead Constructions Ltd, of Manchester, had built it entirely of British materials and using British labour.  The fabrication of the main material was was sub-contracted to Messrs Mechans Ltd, of Glasgow, and the excavation of limestone quarry spoil from the site was undertaken by Messrs J W Scott & Sons, of Bampton, Devon.  [6a]

The engineer in charge of the project was Mr R J H Clark and he was assisted by Mr A E Bullen.  The gas holder was formally handed over to the chairman and managing director of the Plymouth and Stonehouse Gas Light and Coke Company Ltd, Lieutenant-Colonel R L Norrington.  Naturally, a luncheon was held after the ceremony and much praise was passed Plymouth's way for its progress.  However, the words of the City's gas engineer, Mr F Blackburn, were tempered by his remark: 'I am very sorry that the street lighting in the Plymouth area is not what it should be.  However, if any of you come out to Devonport to-night you will see what street lighting really is'.  [6b]

At the base of the gas-holder was a huge steel tank, 212 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep, filled with 8.750,000 gallons of water.  Four telescopic sections, each smaller than the one below it and reinforced by spiral girder works, took the holder to a height of over 200 feet.   The inlet and outlet pipes, each three feet in diameter, were fitted to opposite sides of the holder and came up through the water in the base.  The spaces between the telescopic sections were filled with troughs of water to prevent gas escaping.  To ensure that the water did not freeze in cold weather anti-freeze was injected automatically.  The gas-holder was to be covered with three coats of paint.  [6a]

During 1947 the gas works at Saltash was closed down and the Town was thereafter supplied by Devonport.

In the midst of the post-war enthusiasm for nationalisation, the South South Western Gas Board was formed and took over the both gas works from Sunday May 1st 1949.

Complaints that the Keyham Gas Works had become more of a nuisance since the end of the Second World War were made to the Plymouth and South Devon Valuation Panel on Monday October 14th 1957.  Mrs F Jones of 52 Saint Levan Road and Miss L Skinner of number 66 both made representations to the Panel about the amount of dust and muck now coming from the Works and also about the nuisance caused by naval personnel visiting the mobile canteen in the Admiralty car park nearby.  The rateable value of their properties were both reduced by the Panel.    [7]

A view of the Devonport Gas Works at Keyham. Keyham Gas Works closed Wednesday April 30th 1958.  It had employed 120 men and the station manager was former Sutton Secondary School pupil Mr Peter G Richardson.  The works manager and engineer at the closure was Mr L P Price.   It was retained as a storage depot for coke but the many local housewives who had complained over the years about the soot and grime soiling their washing must have been quite pleased about the closure.  [8]

A mains link between Totnes and Ivybridge brought in to use on Thursday October 16th 1958 meant that gas could now be transferred from Exeter and Torquay to Plymouth.

A view of the Devonport Gas Works at Keyham.
  Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery.

On October 26th 1967 the Lord Mayor, Alderman Frank Chapman, opened a new Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) plant on a 24-acre site at Breakwater Quarry, Oreston.  Large tankers discharged cargoes of light petroleum distillate at Cattedown Wharves, which was then piped under the Cattewater to be enriched at the new works.  Likewise, Plymstock Station yard was converted into a discharge point for train loads of butane, which was also pumped to the Breakwater works.

This enabled the closure of the coal-fired gas works at Coxside on July 31st 1968 and closure of the last remaining coal carbonisation plant in the area, at Torpoint, on September 30th 1969.

Plymouth's final gas lamps -- mainly in the Barbican, Stoke and St Budeaux areas -- were replaced with electric ones during 1973.

Sources (incomplete):

[1]  Brindley, Robert, "The Plymouth, Stonehouse & Devonport Directory: Chronological Events", W Byers, Devonport, 1830.

[2]  "The Devonport Gas and Coke Company", (Report of 3rd annual meeting of shareholders), Plymouth & Devonport Weekly Journal, Devonport, July 1st 1847.

[3]  "The Gas Works at Coxside", Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal, Plymouth, October 20th 1853.

[4]  "Devonport Gas and Coke Company: Annual Meeting", Western Morning News, Plymouth, July 22nd 1886.

[5]  "Outrages at the Plymouth Gasworks: Attempts to Wreck Machinery and Plant", Western Morning News, Plymouth, October 20th 1894.

[6]  "1902 in the West: Devonport: Municipal Life and Work", Western Morning News, Plymouth, December 30th 1902.

[6a]  Gas Supply of Plymouth: New Holder in Use To-day", Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 22nd 1933.

[6b]  "City's Giant Gas-holder: Inauguration by Mr J H Ellis", Western Morning News, Plymouth, February 23rd 1933.

[7]  "'Gasworks more of a nuisance since war'", Western Morning News, Plymouth, October 15th 1957.

[8]  "Keyham Gasworks Closing in April", Western Evening Herald, Plymouth, December 16th 1957.

  Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK

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