The History of Beckton Gas Works

The gasworks at Beckton in the borough of Newham played a major role in East End industry for over 100 years. Its story also illustrates just how this once thriving industrial area has declined and changed its focus. Formerly the largest gasworks in Europe, Beckton gasworks was in use from 1870 to 1969 when it closed down.

Beckton Gas Works

The site buildings and structure now no longer exist, but the gasworks has left some legacy in the area in the form of the Beckton Alps.

The history of London’s Famous Gas Works

The East End was a hive of industry in the late 1800s. Its proximity to the Thames’s docklands areas and its position outside of central London made this an ideal location for a range of manufacturing and production industries, some of which were dangerous.

In 1870, the Gas Light and Coke Company, under the leadership of Simon Adams Beck, decided to open a gasworks in the area. The site and the surrounding area got the Beckton name from Simon Adams Beck himself. Although there was plenty of competition in the area, the Beckton Gas Works eventually became the main manufacturer of gas for London, at least north of the Thames.

Beckton Gas WorksThe Victorians had discovered a way to produce gas from coal and this was the main activity at Beckton.  Lots of industries also used the by-products of this process to manufacture other products such as coal-tar, dyes, disinfectants, ammonia and sulphuric acid.

The Gas Light and Coke Company, however, decided fairly early on that it would be more profitable to use their by-products themselves rather than simply sell them to other manufacturers. In 1879, the company set up the Beckton Products Works. This became the largest manufacturer of tar and ammonia by-products in the UK.

The site of the gasworks really was huge, covering over 500 acres. It had its own piers on the Thames and could store a quarter of a million tons of coal at once. The company brought coal into the plant for manufacture and also had a thriving business selling the by-products of gas production that it did not use itself. At one point, the gasworks ran 17 collier ships of its own and ran an internal railway on site. At its peak, the gasworks is thought to have employed 10,000 men.

In the late 1940s, nationalisation saw the gasworks pass into the hands of the North Thames Gas Board. Over time, the reserves of natural gas in the North Sea made many gasworks like Beckton relatively redundant and the plant was closed down in 1969, as it could not compete with natural gas prices. The site was ultimately managed, once it had closed down, by British Gas and Transco and was left in a derelict state for many years.

The Beckton Alps

Producing gas from coal left the company with large amounts of toxic waste. This could not be used for any other purpose and it all ended up being piled up on the site, creating an artificial range of hills. Locals started to call this the Beckton Alps and the name stuck. Although the hill was landscaped and made much smaller, it was still big enough to run as a dry ski slope for a period of time. This is now the highest point in the area and is designated as a site of importance for nature conservation. It is now the only real remaining evidence that the Beckton Gas Works stood on this spot.

The Beckton Gas Works in Films

The derelict state of the site made it an ideal location for filming and Beckton Gas Works has appeared in a surprising number of Hollywood movies. It is perhaps best known as becoming Vietnam in the Stanley Kubrick film “Full Metal Jacket”. Its derelict state was perfect for a war-ravaged landscape, although it has to be said that Kubrick’s dynamiting of areas within the site left it in a far worst state than when he started!

The gasworks has also appeared in the opening sequence of the James Bond movie, “For Your Eyes Only” and was used for London scenes in the film Nineteen Eighty Four. Oddly, the location was also used in the John Wayne film, “Brannigan”.

Beckton Gas Works in the present

The buildings of Beckton Gas Works no longer exist. As with many areas of the East End, it took many years to deal with the fall-out as industries moved away from the area and to manage regeneration after the Second World War. Beckton has seen a lot of redevelopment in the last few years as it is part of the Docklands project, although much of this development in the area is in private housing. The original site is now mainly home to retail and shopping parks.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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Posted in East End Locations

7 comments on “The History of Beckton Gas Works
  1. Jean Smith new Wallace says:

    My dad worked there for many years till he died at the age of only 43. Harry Wallace, married to Iris

  2. Paul Donovan says:

    Me & my mates used to play over the derelict gas works at about 13 -16 years. Then ride our motor cycles around the site when a bit older , gaining access by speeding down the sewer bank. A very eerie place evoking many historical feelings. We used to climb up coal chutes . 100 feet up. Scares me now , luckily didn’t cave in. 1 day it did & a mate fell through, luckily only at 8 ft. Never went up chutes again

  3. Debbie Storey says:

    It is said that my great grandfather – “John Thomas Bristow was a Fireman at the Chemical Works at Beckton, East Ham and was killed 13 Aug 1900 by Sulpherated Hydrogen gas poisoning, leaving his 6 month pregnant wife a widow with 7 other children.” I’m wondering if there is any documentation to substantiate this?

  4. Mr R.Philpott says:

    Ron Philpott worked there as a fireman for several years.
    I remember standing on the sewer bank to watch when the Retort doors were opened, what a sight! Ive looked all over for a colour pic but so far have not found one. It was such a sight that I cannot imagine that nobody took one if anybody knows of any please respond

  5. George Hampshire says:

    Hi David, Went to East Ham Tech in the late 50’s early 60’s and every Sept, the beginning of the new academic year, 50 to a 100 (maybe more) apprentices from Becton Gasworks would start, but within a few months it had reduced to 10’s. Not sure whether they were given the sack or just left. I also remember the smog in the Barking area, had to walk home many times, probably due to the gas works.

  6. david ireland says:

    my dad worked at becton gas works he was a instrument maker ther

    • Hello David, my biggest regret is being a bit too young to have seen the miles and miles of narrow gauge railway that was at the site. Hard to imagine that kind of industry in London any more. Now that progress has turned everything into clean steel and glass office blocks.

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