East Greenwich holder - demolition
The East Greenwich gas holder is being demolished. It was the largest holder in the world when it was built with revolutionary engineering. It remains a dramatic feature in the landscape and an icon for the area. But despite great public support to keep it or adapt it to another use - it’s going. Like all the other holders where local people asked for demolition to be halted and another solution found, the procedure is remorseless and unforgiving. They are all going
The East Greenwich holder is the second in the series which Malcolm Tucker has described as the Livesey holders. It was built for the South Metropolitan Gas Company as part of their new modern gasworks on the Greenwich Peninsula in the 1880s. South Metropolitan had originally been based in the Old Kent Road as a relatively small company dating from the late 1820s. In 1839 Thomas Livesey had been appointed as manager and he was determined to make the then insignificant South Metropolitan Company ‘take the lead’ in the London gas industry. He died in 1871 and was replaced by his eldest son. George Livesey, clever and unconventional, was to become the dominant figure in the late 19th century gas industry with an involvement in almost every possible issue, often against the wishes of his Board. This included changing the basis of profit and price management in the industry as well as labour relations and much technology. He was also a national figure in the temperance movement.
George Livesey had been responsible for a series of gas holders at the Old Kent Road from 1865, each one embodying new ideas. There was considerable interest in the trade press and among other engineers on the development of gas holder design in this period. In 1881 gasholder No13 was put into use. This had been designed by Livesey on what Malcolm Tucker has described as the ‘revolutionary cylindrical shell principle’. It was of an unprecedented 5.5m cu ft. in capacity with three lifts making it 160 foot high. It is also very plain with no applied decoration and. this was, in part, the result of recommendations made to Livesey by the American Major Dresser that structures should represent what they were and not carry historic design references. That foreshadows ideas for industrial buildings in the modern movement and has been described by Malcolm, as a ‘new benchmark for gas holder design’. Its construction costs were extraordinarily low at £8.10s per 1000 cwt. It
was also built in the knowledge that gas consumption was
increasing by about 10% a year thus providing the necessary storage. This
holder is now listed and will be preserved in situ in the Old Kent Road.
From the 1870s governments were keen to see small inner-city gas works replaced by a large efficient out of town works. In this period Livesey had negotiated takeovers of most other South London gas companies and it was then decided to build a large modern works on what is now known as Greenwich Peninsula, then Greenwich Marsh. The Marsh had been rapidly industrialising since around 1800, mainly on Riverside sites concentrated on the West Bank. South Met acquired roughly the northernmost third of the peninsula an area then known as Blackwall Point. It was originally planned to have five holders in the south east corner of the site but
eventually construction began on one on the pattern of No.13
Old Kent Road with the majority of work on it to be done by George’s younger
brother, Frank. Early on problems were encountered.
Water from the Marsh flooded into excavations for the tank ‘causing widespread
mischief all around’. As a result the
holder was built slightly raised, the rim of tank being 4 m above ground level,
surrounded by an earth mound. It was
described as an ‘iron Mountain against the sky’ and was the largest gas holder
in the world
A Second larger holder
adjacent to it with a more revolutionary structure which caused great
excitement in the professional press of the day. Itsuffered a major accident in
the Silvertown explosion in 1917 and was eventually demolished in the 1980s to
little publicity or interest of anyone except myself. Together the two holders have been described
as constituting the largest concentration of gas storage ever.
The original number one holder remained on site increasingly isolated as industry around it closed. The gasworks itself closed in the 1970s. The holder is said to have been damaged both in the 1917 explosion and again in the Second World War but most particularly in 1979 when an IRA bomb
it was exploded alongside. Three bays were damaged on its western side
but were repaired and the holder remained in use. The associated gasworks had by 1976 stopped
making gas but activity connected with the associated chemical and other works
continued for some years. The gas holder itself appears to have been eventually
There had been at least one attempt to get the holder listed in the 1990s and the processes surrounding this and later attempts have been explored through Freedom of Information requests by members of the campaign group. In 2000 Malcolm Tucker was commissioned by what was then English Heritage to do a study of gas holders in London. East Greenwich was not included in his sample survey but there is a short chapter about it. This study has in many ways provides a benchmark for holders in the London area
News began to spread of holders worldwide which, rather than being demolished, were given other uses, some extremely imaginative. A conference was held in London in 2014 where gas holders were discussed and it became clear that demolitions would follow relatively quickly. OFGEM had provided money and an instruction that all gas holders, except those listed by English Heritage, were to come down in the interests of consumer price control. Work was already underway setting up processes for demolition by site owners. In Greenwich a small group was formed to try and do what we could do to either get listing for the holder or in some way ensure that it could be used in one of the many ways undertaken elsewhere. Greenwich council appeared neutral on the subject but issued a planning brief for the area surrounding the site of the holder. this noted that” heritage assets and environment (should be) are conserved and enhanced”
We then learnt that the owners had applied for a Certificate of Immunity against listing
order. This was
granted and, with the demolition of gas holders being permitted development
under planning legislation, meant that the local Council could not refuse
planning consent to the demolition of the holder and could only comment on the
management of such demolition. The council was also required to remove the
hazardous substances order. The first application for management of demolition
was submitted in Christmas week in 2017 and refused; the second application was
submitted shortly before the 2018 council elections in a period when councilors are not
allowed to take decisions and it was then agreed on officers’ action. We also learnt that Transport for London’s
Silvertown Tunnel project would pass close by and that Southern Gas Networks
were under some pressure because of this.
The campaign group
set up a
petition online which quickly achieved 1545 signatures. An associated paper petition
was taken door-to-door where most residents were eager to sign. Clearly, also,
the urban explorers have been to the top of the holder and their website
contains several dramatic pictures.
The holder received a great deal of attention with articles in local papers and blogs. We have had a series of meetings with the owners, Southern Gas Networks, along with Greenwich Planners and some councillors. These were all very friendly and as a result we have had two site visits. A detailed survey has been carried out by AOC Archaeology Group and this will be followed up as demolition proceeds. SGN have agreed to commission an artwork associated with the holder and it is also possible that booklet will accompany it.
We are also aware of the context of other local holders. There have been campaigns north of the river all of which accept that this unsuccessful - except possibly the Bethnal Green holder which is apparently now in other ownership. In south London our neighbours at Bell Green got their two holders locally listed by Lewisham Council but that did not prevent demolition which is now on going. The holder in Bromley by Tesco has gone and we understand St Mary‘s Cray will follow soon.
I think future generations will be appalled that these dramatic local structures will all be gone with little attempt at adaptive reuse.