I did a blog on North Sea Gas some time ago, but this one is about town gas, the earlier kind of gas. Unlike natural gas it did not rely on a national grid of pipes. Virtually every town in the country had its own railway, which brought coal to the local gasworks where it was turned into gas and coke. The coke was sold for burning in boilers as a smokeless fuel, and the gas was used for lighting, gas fires and hot water geysers. Within the home much of the pipework was made of lead, although the gas mains were made of iron.
During the fifties a jolly little character informed us of the joys of British Gas; the many local gasworks, both municipal and privately owned, had been nationalised after the Second World War. This character I refer to was called Mr Therm; although I enjoyed reading the weekly comic strip in the Eagle, the advertising was wasted on me because there was no gas supply within four miles of our house. Quite why the advert appeared in a boys’ comic I do not understand, because even if there had been gas in our house, I would not have been in a position to buy my mother a gas cooker; nor would any of my fellow readers have been able to do so for their mums.
The change over from town gas to natural gas took place in the years around 1970. Ten years earlier there had been no hint that the long reign of town gas was soon to come to an end. The Gas Light and Coke Company was incorporated in London in 1812, pioneering the gas industry. The coal produced a mixture of combustible substances including hydrogen, carbon monoxide and ethylene, as well as a number of incombustible gasses like ammonia and sulphides which needed removing. Methane, the principal constituent of natural gas, was being suggested as an alternative fuel by 1959, but there was no local source. It came from deep underground, but unlike town gas needed little additional processing. I well remember the newspaper headlines that trumpeted the discovery of natural gas by experimental drilling rigs in the North Sea, in 1965.
Over the next few years the entire nature of the gas supply changed from a process industry to an extractive one. The little gasworks that had supplied towns up and down the country were all closed, together with the big ones in the cities. The country was instead criss-crossed with a network of gas mains. The terminal that brought the gas ashore from the North Sea was built at Bacton on the north east corner of Norfolk. Gas fitters had to visit every house with a gas supply, as the pressure of the new supply was different. We had no gas at home, but we had gas at the property in Norwich where my father’s business was located. The total appliances amounted to one gas ring, but we too had to be adjusted by a gas fitter. The changeover to decimal currency occurred at about the same time, but this required no adjustment to the gas meter; in future the shillings which you inserted were called 5p. The coins remained the same.
The smell of town gas was produced naturally I think, as a by-product of coal. The carbon monoxide itself has no smell. Methane had no smell either, and one had to be artificially introduced. The changeover also produced problems for those considering suicide; previously gas had been toxic, but methane was harmless unless it excluded all oxygen from the room. The term ‘to stick your head in a gas oven’ lost its relevance. You would still be alive after hours of breathing in the gas, though you might perish if it exploded. The change from town gas must also have caused problems for the school lab assistants, who would routinely use the gas from an unlit Bunsen burner to poison the rabbits needed for pupils to dissect.
There is a museum in the old gasworks at Fakenham, which provides an interesting exhibition on the history of gas. These small gasworks were springing up in market towns everywhere in the nineteenth century; Holt has its gas works on the loke which led to the Spout Hills. The engineer behind the gasworks in Southwold (opened 1848) is said to have produced a gasometer which became the prototype for a universal feature of the supply of town gas. A gasometer remained at the bottom of Gas Hill in Norwich for many years after the changeover to natural gas. I suppose the storage could even out the pressure of natural gas as it had in the days of the gasworks, but the gasometer has been empty now for many years. I could not even tell you if it still there.