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The Great Berkhamstead Gas Light and Coke Company
Tony Statham,
reproduced by kind permission of the author.

We are all familiar with the phrase “fossil fuels” applied to oil, gas and coal and know that most of our utility needs are met from these commodities.  Recent price rises in all these items have been very much in the news over the past year and even with the subsequent fall in the oil price, remain a topic of everyday conversation.  Most of us probably take fossil fuels for granted and I am sure few people consider the origins of their electricity when they flick a switch to power up a computer, electric kettle or all their other domestic appliances.  Gas is perhaps a little more “hands on” as the user has to ignite the material unless it is used in a heating boiler where this is typically done automatically.  However, most gas customers again assume that the pipe laid to their house or premises somehow arrives by magic without too much concern for its origin.

While coal, per se, has been known as a fuel for thousands of years, as early as the 17th century, scientists were discovering that a “wild spirit” escaped from wood or coal if these were heated.  The Flemish scientist, Jan Baptista van Helmont (1577-1644) thought this substance “differed little from the chaos of the ancients” and named it gas in his Origins of Medicine (c. 1609).  Several others experimented with the “Spirit of the Coal” and in England, William Murdoch (later Murdock) (1754-1839) and a partner of James Watt, is reputed to have heated coal in his mother’s teapot to produce gas.  He developed new ways of making, purifying and storing gas and by 1792 had installed gas lighting in his house at Redruth.  Further installations followed in various premises and other demonstrations and installations were established in France and the United States.  It is however generally recognised that the first commercial gas works was that built by the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company in Great Peter Street in 1812 laying wooden pipes to illuminate Westminster Bridge the following year.  The all too familiar practice of digging up streets to lay gas piping required legislation and to some extent this hindered the development of street lighting and gas for domestic use.

Nevertheless, by the 1850s every small to medium sized town and city had a gas plant to provide for street lighting.  In the 1860s (and the remainder of the 19th century) several other advances were made in the production and use of gas.  Perhaps one of the most important was the introduction of the gas mantle, a somewhat fragile impregnated mesh, which allowed the gaslight to burn with a much brighter and more even flame.  An ordinary gas flame is similar in illumination to a single candle whereas the application of a mantle produces something akin to a 100-watt electric light bulb.  This development naturally had a dramatic effect on industry and domestic life enabling night-shift work to expand, encourage more people to read and write and render public streets and spaces safer after dark.  Towards the end of 19th century, the invention of the gas meter played an important role in selling “town gas” to domestic and commercial customers for lighting and subsequently heating and cooking appliances.

The Great Berkhamstead Gas Light and Coke Company built the first gas works in Berkhamsted in 1849 at the lower end of The Wilderness, effectively where the Water Lane car park extends behind Tesco; the manager of the works lived in Adelbert House, which remains today on the corner of Mill Street.  At this time the Parish Vestry oversaw the development of public health, relief for the poor and other services in the town.  However, the funds to build the gas works were raised by public subscription and the company started with a capital of £2000 comprising 400 shares of £5 each.  This was sufficient to establish the works (£1800), the initial service pipes (£3-13-1ld) and install street lighting.  The Vestry consequently only had to pay for the gas itself and any maintenance came from the rates.

The first Trustees of the company were R. A. Smith Dorrien (of Haresfoot) and Mr T. P. Halsey MP (of Berkhamsted Hall).  The first chairman was the Hon. Col. J. Finch (of Berkhamsted Place) and the directors included J. E. Lane of Lane’s Nurseries.  The first year of operations yielded an income of £242-12-2d from the sale of gas while by-products such as coke and tar yielded £35-19-10d.  The company’s records show that the cost of coal in the first year was £67-0-6d and that a surplus in excess of £150 allowed a dividend of 5% to be paid.  It is recorded with a note of disappointment that the Town Inspectors failed to pay their first gas bill (£74-5-0d) for public lighting.  However the directors were sufficiently optimistic to reduce the price of gas after the first year from 8/4d to 7/6d per 1000 cu. ft.  This level of generosity proved so popular in increasing the customer base that the price ultimately fell to just 4/9d per 1000 cu. ft. by 1882.  Ultimately, the persistent increase in coal prices put a stop to this practice and the company records suggest that the gas price stabilised at around 5/- per 1000 cu. ft.

The generation of “coal gas” as it was sometimes known, naturally depended on a regular supply of coal and at the inception of the works, this fuel was brought by canal boat although the railway had reached Berkhamsted by 1837.  However it was not long before rail freight became a more viable alternative and soon coal was being delivered by rail with the return wagons taking tar and other by-products from the gasworks, back to London.

The annual reports and minutes of company meetings from 1849 to 1905, which are held in the Museum Store, provide detailed accounts of the various maintenance and expansion works that were deemed appropriate as the supply of gas extended to the boundaries of the town.  The original three iron retorts were expanded to five in 1852 and then replaced by brick ovens in 1855.  This year also witnessed the cancellation of supply contracts to the town inspectors and the station in favour of meters being installed.  This apparently allowed the town to reduce street lighting by some 25%.  In 1856, additional land was purchased for a second gasholder and in 1857 the height of the chimney to the “furnace” was raised “to carry off the vapour from the purifiers and thereby remove a nuisance which was threatening the very existence of the works”.  A new six-inch main was laid to the High Street in 1858 (replacing a three-inch one) and new pipes were laid to Manor Street and Ravens Lane.  By 1860, over one million cubic feet of gas were being generated and in 1861, Thomas Curtis took over the chairmanship of the company.

Throughout this period the financial profile of the company grew substantially, new shares were issued, profits were raised and the dividends were increased.  The new capital and higher levels of income allowed continued expansion of the works and the network of service pipes, and in 1868 a second site in Water Lane was acquired to erect another gasholder.  In 1873 it was decided to change the company’s bankers who had been Messrs Butcher and Co. in Tring to the more convenient London and County Bank in Berkhamsted High Street.

In 1886 additional land between the works and the River Bulbourne (owned by Earl Brownlow) was earmarked for future expansion.  However in 1892 the Sanitary Authority had instituted proceedings for an “alleged nuisance” from the works and by 1903 the governors of the neighbouring Grammar School expressed a strong desire for the removal of the works altogether.  This is perhaps not so surprising given the relatively anti-social environment of a gas producing plant in the centre of a market town.  Apart from the disadvantages of coal-dust and the manufacturing plant itself, various waste products inevitably would have contaminated the site.  To be fair, the area around the Wilderness at the end of 19th century was not especially salubrious but the gasworks would certainly have been an added blight on the town centre.  Lord Brownlow again provided a solution by offering a totally new site off Billet Lane.

The new site lay between the canal and the railway and is now the River Park Industrial Estate (see map).  This offered the advantage of being able to deliver coal by either canal barge (the adjacent canal lock, no. 51, still boasts a sign “Gas 1”) or by railway wagon.  However, as it was presumably impractical to off-load coal directly at the gasworks, a dedicated feeder line (a horse-drawn tramway) was built at the end of the railway goods yard, to the west of today’s station car park.  As this lay to the north of the main railway line (at that stage The London Midland and Scottish Railway), the tramway utilised an existing pedestrian subway tunnel to reach the gasworks on the south side, a total distance of approximately 400 yards.  The tunnel still exists today but is sealed with a metal gate.

Coal was unloaded from the main railway wagons into a small bunker and thence into the skips on the tramway, which had a gauge of 18½ inches.  According to Contact magazine (date unknown, but probably early 1950s), the German engineering firm Krupps of Essen made the tramway rails.  The skips apparently held about six hundredweight of coal (approximately 305 kilos) and in the earlier years, a load consisted of four skips.

A letter written to H. C. Casserley by the Eastern Gas Board in 1955 confirmed “Horse traction has always been employed.  ‘Kitty’ a fine mare, did the job for many years, then came Billy and following him our present mare ‘Ruby’.  While in 1906 ‘Kitty’ handled a maximum coal requirement of 10 tons, ‘Ruby’ now deals with a maximum of 50 tons”.  Apparently this was a daily figure and Ruby was able to pull five skips, thus about 1½ tons per journey.  H. C. Casserley’s article in the Railway Bylines magazine of April 2005 stated that by “the 1930s more than 5000 tons of coal was conveyed by the tramway each year”.

The Contact magazine article also identifies the two staff operating the tramway at that time who were nicknamed “Old Bert” and “Young Bert”.  Old Bert in reality was Herbert Alfred Hartup, originally a cowhand who became a stoker.  Married with five children, his name persisted in one son following his footsteps by helping out at the Watford gasworks.  Young Bert was Bertram Hannel and was not related to Old Bert.

Ultimately “horse traction” was overtaken by mechanised transport.  The gasworks ceased production in 1955 and was finally closed in August 1959.  The two gasholders (or gasometers) continued to be used for storage for some years and the tramway tracks were mostly removed in the 1970s; a short section still lies in the subway tunnel.

So, what happened next?  To start with, coal gas continued to be supplied to Berkhamsted but from the gasworks at Boxmoor where the gasholders still persist.  The composition of gas varies according to the type of coal used and the temperature at which the heating process or carbonisation takes place.  A typical breakdown might be: Hydrogen 50%, Methane 35%, Carbon Monoxide 10% and Ethylene 5%; only the latter produces a luminous flame but as explained above, this can be greatly enhanced with the use of a mantle.  Depending on the quality of coal used, the process of making gas generated by-products such as coke, coal tar, ammonia and sulphur all of which had their own end-uses.  Coke provides a smokeless fuel but can also be used to generate other types of gas and in metallurgical manufacturing where a higher temperature is required.  Coal tar can be distilled to produce tar for road surfaces, benzene (a solvent or motor fuel), creosote (wood preservative) and phenol/carbolic acid (used in the manufacture of plastics and disinfectants); sulphur is used principally for the production of sulphuric acid and ammonia is the foundation for various fertilisers.

The Gas and Coal Act of 1948 created a nationalised industry throughout the UK and in the 1960s, natural gas was discovered under the bed of the North Sea and a new national distribution network of some 3000 miles was established.  Apart from being a readily available supply of indigenous energy, natural gas has the advantages of being non-toxic and requires little processing.  Town gas contained extremely poisonous carbon monoxide and both accidental poisoning and suicide by gas were commonplace.  Poisoning from natural gas is possible if incomplete combustion occurs and carbon dioxide accidentally leaks into living accommodation.  Both town and natural gas are odourless and thus a foul-smelling substance (mercaptan) is added to allow detection if gas leaks occur.

All gas equipment in the whole of the UK was converted to burn natural gas instead of town or coal gas at a cost of some £100 million between 1967 and 1977.  This included writing off all the coal gas plants and affected some 13 million domestic customers, 400, 000 commercial users and 60,000 industrial customers.  The town gas industry died in 1987 when the last plant was closed in Northern Ireland.  It is interesting to speculate that with natural gas now being a world commodity and subject to the vagaries of international trade, supplies may be subject to disruption or even disconnection.  The possibility of supplies also being depleted might suggest the possibility of a return to the manufacture of coal gas in the future especially where substantial reserves of coal remain available.


The minutes and accounts for The Great Berkhamsted Gas Light and Coke company 1849 to 1905 — held for the Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society in the Dacorum Heritage Museum Store
Encyclopaedia Britannica - DVD2000
A Short History of Berkhamsted — P. C. Birtchnell
Contact magazine
Railway Bylines magazine (April 2005) H. C. Casserley
Photographs — R. M. Casserley and H. C. Casserley
The London Encyclopaedia — edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (1983 revised 1992)


First published by the Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society in
The Chronicle Vol.VI. March 2009