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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The St.Pancras Works and its famous holders

the prominent, and listed, gasholders which everyone could see as their train pulls out of Kings Cross and/or St.Pancras Stations have gone. "A fine example of gas making practice.' Until 1869 this was the largest works in London with every facility available to the modern gasworks of the Victorian period.

The works was opened by Sir William Congreve himself on 16th June 1823. This was to be followed by dinner at the nearby Albion Tavern but since the Albion had some problems that day they went to the Freemason’s Tavern instead. Before the dinner however was the ceremony with ‘the acclamation of the multitude of spectators attracted by the fineness of the weather.. the trowel and apparatus employed for the occasion were presented to William Congreve’.

The architect for the works, present at the ceremony, was Francis Edwards, the company architect. It was typical of the pretensions of the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company that they should employ an architect - other companies just pushed their works up as it happened.

The works was probably designed by Samuel Clegg - the Works Minutes exist but it is not easy to distinguish between orders for St.Pancras and those for Shoreditch, they do however show George Holsworthy Palmer taking a multiplicity of direct instructions from the Committee.

Once open and in business in 1824, 'Pancras Station' became the headquarters works of the company. The first superintendent being John Vivian - who was also in overall charge of the company’s other works. He was followed by John Kirkham, appointed in 1830 and who remained at the works for many years. It was said however that the works ‘reached their greatest perfection’ in the 1860s and 1870s under John Methven and his successor, John Clark.

The area surrounding the works became less and less salubrious as time went on - to which John Kirkham’s workplace pigsty must have added something. Dust shoots, chemical works, and in time railways and their goods depot came to the area.

By 1860 the works had six retort houses and covered eleven acres it was claimed by the Imperial, to be the largest and the best gas works in the country - if not the world!

The original site was that portion south of Goods Way (once known as Wharf Road and ran only as far as what is now Camley Street) and north of Battle Bridge Road (once Suffolk Street). To the east of the works the railway was built and beyond that ran York Way. From here ran an entrance into the works along a road known as Congreve Street. A gas holder still stood on this site in the 1990s and some outline of the shape of the works could still be seen. There was an entrance off Battlebridge Road with gateposts and remains of a gatehouse and other buildings.

Before the construction of Goods Way, from what is now Camley Street, the northern boundary was formed by the canal. A basin was built off the canal into the works and a large unloading pier was built across it. Careful investigation will reveal some remains of this inlet which can be seen in the canal walls and in the local road layout. In 1846 part of the area of Congreve Street was compulsorily purchased by the Great Northern Railway company, necessitating a detour into the basin to be necessary, and in due course a connection from the railway was made for rail borne coal deliveries. However, as each new rail extension into the area was planned so the Canal Company made an improved offer to the Gas Company to persuade them to retain coal cartage with them.

'Pancras Station' Gas Works site in the early 1870s. By this time the railways had begun to make a strong encroachment on the site – and the extension area for the now listed holders is in place. Railways to the left come from St.Pancras Station, and to the right from Kings Cross. North is the canal and the area of the Kings Cross Railway Goods Depot. The dramatic holders which made the site so distinctive in fact date from fairly late on in the site’s history. They were ordered in 1860 and built gradually over the next seven years. Tanks were constructed by Aird with structural ironwork by Westward and Wright. They were telescoped in 1880. Their closeness and the ‘triplet’ effect is merely a device to save space on a very limited site - something which was discussed at length at the time. The Imperial Company’s records give a great deal of detail about the construction of the holders - including the difficulties in finding rivetters prepared to work at the height required to finish them.

One of the holders has not been in use since bomb damage in World War II and the visible framework is purely decorative. As early as 1862 they had drawn comments from locals - in particular a Mr. John Butler of 13 Spanns Buildings Agar Town, saying that ‘he would like to know to whom he is to look for compensation for the injury done to his house by the erection of those frightful things opposite’. He was followed by a Sam Sawyer, grocer and Chandler of 10 Spanns Buildings, who said ‘his business has been injured by the erection of the new gasholder’. Not everyone it seems was an admirer. Spanns Buildings would soon be under the railway lines.

In due course, the biggest and most modern gas works in the world became old and cramped. Under demolition it was thought that there was ‘no room to swing cat anywhere, and the wonder is that so much gas was produced’. The old equipment, so modern in its day, continued to be used. ‘Until the end it remained a fine example of gas making practice as developed by that company ..... in 1904 the only modern equipment was the coal unloading cranes’. Wet lime purification of gas continued here for longer than anywhere else - perhaps again because of the shortage of space.

The works was closed for gas making in 1904 and finally in 1907 but it was until very recently, still in use as a holder station controlled from Staines. The famous holders were built on a later extension to the main site after 1860 and have been much admired.

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