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.
The 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.