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 extensive 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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30 comments on “The History of Beckton Gas Works
  1. Denyse Hale says:

    Hi does anyone know anything about an explosion at the gas works? My uncle Ted was apparently injured in it and the guy he was working with died but I can’t seem to find any information? Thanks

  2. gareth davies says:

    Great insight into an industry that I didn’t know existed. I recently found out my great grandfather worked in the Beckton gas works (Edward davies) after leaving South Wales, circa 1944 my family never heard from him after that. If anyone has information or knows of any employee records I would be grateful if you could point me in the right direction.

    Thanks

    • Wendy Linge says:

      My father, David Ritchie, served his time as an apprentice fitter and turner with the gas works. This would have been about 1932. He then continued to work throughout the war years as it was a reserved occupation. He worked during the day and did Home Guard duties at night. He left there in 1952 and moved to Wiltshire. My grandfather Amos Defroand was gatekeeper there for 25yrs, I have the gold watch to prove it. My father grew up in Winsor Terrace as both his parents were employees of the then Governor of the company, Sir David Milne Watson. I remember the railway ran along the back of the houses in Winsor Terrace.

  3. John Hayward says:

    As Martin says, one of the terraces of houses is still there(Winsor Terrace) though most have been demolished. At the end of the terrace the works entrance gates are still there. I stumbled upon all this on one of my perambulations, and looked it up on my return home.
    On Google Earth you can see two remaining gasometers, and the outlines of several others that have been removed, as well as the remains of the jetties on the river to which coal would have been delivered by coastal colliers.
    To the north and west is Beckton Sewage Works – the largest sewage works in Europe, treating sewage mixed with rainwater from Bazalgette’s Northern Outfall Sewer (beneath ‘The Greenway’) and the new Lee Tunnel.

  4. Miranda Worby says:

    A very interesting read!
    My great-grandfather was a stoker at the gas works for many years, wonderful to get a little insight into it all.

  5. Mohmud Mohamed says:

    I worked for British Gas in the 1980/1990s and we had US Ambassador’s visit to the Becton Gas Works, I think it was as result of filming tbe Full Metal Jacket. However we gave him gift which was framed photograph of one of the gas holders which was commissioned on the same year as General Custer lost his life.

    • Hello, I watched Full Metal Jacket the other evening, part of me was sad that the location was blown up before I had a chance to visit. As a kid in East London I was normally in Valentines Park!

  6. Paul Spraggins says:

    My Gt. Grandfather tipped the waste and helped form the Beckton Alps. Should you need further information contact me. Somewhere I have a photo of him driving his train.

  7. Brian Waite says:

    I was born in Andover, Hampshire in 1944 and emigrated to Canada in 1947. I took a gap year in 1966 and after many adventures and much travel found myself in London. I needed to replenish my funds and ended up getting a job at the Beckton Gas Works. My title was Fifth Hand in the Valve Room. The regulars there took me under their wing and were friendly and helpful as I learned the basics of the operation and the particulars of my job which was to walk the site every hour and count the panels and then rivets on the gas tanks and thereby calculate the volume of gas available. A chap from another part of the site would phone me with this gathered information to add to mine. His East End accent was a challenge for me to understand at first by I eventually got the hang of it.

    The windows in the building where our office was located were still bowed inwards from having been blasted during WWII.

    I have fond memories of the experience.

    • Thank you for this wonderful story. I was a commercial aircraft engineer in much later times, so industrial engineering on this scale has always appealed to me. Must have been a very interesting place to have worked at.

      • Brian Waite says:

        Hi again Malcolm,

        You would conclude from my timeline that I am a child of the sixties (and seventies) and that is so and I do reflect fondly now on my days of activism among the generation that “tried to change the world and make it a better place”.

        I advise of that background in adding to the conversation here about the Beckton Gasworks. I’ve been reading some history of London’s labour movement and what should appear? – it’s a description of the seminal role played by the gas workers in organizing for the eight hour day and the inspiration they provided to the dock workers whose lives were even more miserable than their own. This was around the late 1880s and early 1890s, although the gas workers had undertaken militant action more than a decade earlier in the fight against the utterly deplorable working conditions in the “satanic mills” of industrialized Great Britain.

        Hats off to these men who helped shape Britain’s trade union history.

  8. Tony Rees says:

    As a child growing up in East Ham Beckton Gasworks was just there, we did not think any more about it and, I suppose, just imagined it would last forever. It was part of the bleak landscape we would view from the top deck of the 101 bus on our way to North Woolwich to ride on the free ferry. My friend Terry’s dad worked in the sulphuric acid plant so there was a missed opportunity for a guided tour! The internal railway was standard gauge by the way, and had around 50 tiny 0-4-0T engines that could negotiate the tight bends.

    I’ve recently been taking an interest in the gasworks, reaching that age I guess, and it’s surprising how little information there is about Beckton and gasworks in general. A huge industry gone and almost forgotten.

    • Hello Tony, wouldn’t it have been great to get a guided tour! I do recall just about the “Beckton Alps” and a lot of industry in that area. We lived in Ilford and travelled to Abbey Wood most weekends via the ferry.

      • Tony Rees says:

        Hi Malcolm, it would seem Beckton Gasworks did arrange tours as there’s a lovely photo in Beckton Railways and Locomotives by Dave Marden of visitors being shunted around the high level section of the railway in a couple of coal wagons. Some of the party have jumped ship and are wandering off down the tracks! This book has many excellent photos, mostly of locos obviously, and I’ve found addition information in London’s East End Railways by D Brennand and Branch lines Around North Woolwich by J E Connor. Railway Bylines also did a short series on the Beckton branch.

        By coincidence many years later I worked on the redevelopment of the terrace of houses in Savage Gardens. Unfortunately it was decide to demolish the terrace even though it was of some historic interest. Savage Gardens gained an unfortunate reputation as a comfort stop for visiting sailors and just avoided being renamed. This was the era of the Docklands Development Corporation and they were desperate to encourage private finance into the area. Now I suppose, like King’s Cross where I’ve lived for the last 30 years, a colourful past is either irrelevant or forgotten.

        • Hello Tony,
          I’ll have to pick up a copy of those books. We’re losing so much industry to housing estates. I do wonder in many years to come what we will talk about on history forums.

          My Great Grandmother lived for many many years in Kings Cross, Tonbridge House (Tonbridge Street) and Seymour House (Tavistock Road) so I know the area pretty well from numerous trips to see her.

    • Ken Dobson says:

      From the 1953 ‘s I worked as a stoker in No 5 retort house and any other we were allocated to, I have pictures of the stokers in action from “D” shift. I over the years progressed through the plants ending my days in the reforming plant having been through the oil gas the the carb water gas , the coke ovens ( driving the Wellman pusher and the Guide as required ) I am afraid that health and safety would not allow us to do the things we did then as part of NORMAL work
      If you would like the pictures I could Email them to you I left the reforming plant 1967 to come to Australia and now being 86 yrs am taking things easy.
      regards Ken

  9. Ron porter says:

    I served apprenticeship at beckton from 1956 to 1969 my dad got gold watch 40 plus he’s name albert porterhe worked in canteen wet bar with nobby ellingford till redundant my name Ron porter played in football team Johnny was manager with boys then john stokes and Vic Clark I think I have a few monthly hard books ntgb

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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?

    • Annette Knight says:

      I have been researching the Bristow family for a friend who is a great niece of John Thomas Bristow. I too was looking for evidence of this tragedy. Found the following in the British Newspaper archive (Barking, E.Ham & Ilford Advertiser, 18th Aug 1900):

      ‘TRAGIC FATALITY AT BECKTON GAS WORKS.
      MEN OVERCOME BY NOXIOUS FUMES.
      There was a very tragic fatality at Beckton early on Monday morning. A man named John Bristow, about 40 years of age, who lived in Harpour Road, Barking, and is described as a Tower man at the Gasworks, went on the night shift on Sunday. He should have been relieved at six o’clock on Monday morning, but when his successor, named Davies, entered the chamber, he could not find Bristow. A search was made, and eventually he was found lying close to the black fires. Davies went out and called for assistance. In a very short time he and five other men entered the fatal chamber, and all were overcome by the gas fumes. Others also came in, and eventually all the men were got out. It was then found that Bristow appeared to be dead. Dr. Guess, the resident doctor, with several members of the Ambulance Brigade, did their utmost to restore animation, but failed, and the body was removed on the ambulance to the East Ham Mortuary by Pc Robinson and others. Several of the men who heroically went to the rescue were overcome by the gas and were in a dangerous condition for a long time. Fortunately none of them succumbed, and, so far, they are making satisfactory progress. Mr. Coroner Ambrose held the inquest on the body of Bristow at East Ham on Thursday, and the Jury returned a verdict of Accidental Death. The men who so heroically attempted to rescue him from the fatal chamber are reported to be doing well. Deceased leaves a widow and seven children, for whom much sympathy is felt.’

      Hope this answers your questions about this event.

      • Debbie Storey says:

        Hi Annette Knight.
        Thank you so much for this, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it! I am on Ancestry and was wondering if you were as well. If so, we could hook up there and collaborate on the family! Let me know.
        Again thanks so so much.
        Debbie Storey

        • Annette Knight says:

          Hi Debbie
          Really pleased I was able to help.
          Sorry I didn’t answer before.
          Yes I am on Ancestry as ajdennis20. Looked for you but couldn’t find you.
          Annette

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

      • Martin says:

        Hi my name is Martin taylor and I live in the old gas work houses. I have been interested in the gas works if u could send picture’s of Windsor terrace houses if u have any thank u.

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