Beckton Gas Works, East London

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 Legacy

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 Works

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.

Beckton Gasworks Location

87 thoughts on “The History of Beckton Gas Works”

  1. Bernie Maguire

    My Grandfather Charles Herbert McMahon worked at the Products Works Beckton for 42 years until made redundant in 1968/1969 and has left a short written account.

    1. Hello Bernie, not sure if you’ll see this in time but I am writing a short article about this and would love to read your grandfather’s account if possible?

      Could you possibly give me an email at – jaredphanco@gmail.com if you see this and wouldn’t mind sharing this with me, Cheers!

  2. I only discovered this amasing place this year, and sadly found the ‘accidental’ hole in the fence had been sealed up again last week (thanks Thames Water). The Environment Agency have no records of this site at all (amasing considering it is their job to record groundwater toxicity levels throughout the UK) and Newham Council claim it is closed because of ‘unsafe footpaths’. There are literally a few small cracks in the concrete, crazy! Apparently a locomotive engine and rubbish from the British Library’s revamp are under here too! If I start a petition to the Councillor responsible for the environment of Newham, would people sign it?!

  3. My father David Ritchie worked there from 1932 until 1952. He was working on locomotives during the day and Home Guard as well, all through the War. Our father’s could have known each other. He lived in Winsor Terrace.

  4. My dad, Albert Milton worked at the Products Works from about 1936 to 1969 when he retired through ill health and died in 1972 We lived in Beckton Road and he used to cycle to and from work.We were bombed out during the blitz and moved out to Essex, near Brentwood, about 6 miles from the station..He worked long hours during the war, often 7 days in a row, cycling to Brentwood Station very early, changing at Stratford Low level then another train on to Beckton .And then the reverse to come home.Often in the dark during air raids.I remember the kids Christmas parties there and the strong chemical smells.

  5. “The gasworks at Beckton in the borough of Newham played a major role in East End industry for over 100 years” – this is complete fabrication! During this period Beckton was in ESSEX, not London.

    Beckton only got swallowed up by London in 1965. Before that the ESSEX border was much further west, at the River Lea, where it met Middlesex.

    1. Margaret Knight née Key

      My father worked in the gas works and I lived at 46 Windsor Terrace a company house, I married in 1957 and moved away, Beckton was London E6 all the time I lived there so sorry it was not Essex then

      1. Margaret, you must have known my grandad and his mother’s family, the Reeces. Gladys Reece, with lots of brothers and one sister Rosina, parents Rosina and Tom Reece. They lived at 41 Windsor Tce I’m pretty sure. My grandad was Hector Chase.

      2. I lived, for a short time at 96 Winsor Terrace in the 1954/55 time, I was only a kid then but we stayed with Sydney and Daisy Hurrell. Their son Bill was a Flight Sergeant Pilot flying Hurricanes and was killed in action in 1944 and I’m wondering if you or someone you know knew the family, after the war Daisy emigrated to Australia with her remaining son but Syd stayed at the house. My sister and I ended up in a home for orphans and Fatherless children, so lost touch, just wonder if anyone has any info’ ?

  6. I remember my late Dad working at Beckton during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

    He used to cycle to the site every day from our house in Ilford, a flat cap on his head and a donkey jacket on his back, and a roll-up of Golden Virginia dangling from a corner of his mouth. My late Mum seeing him off in her hairnet and dressing gown, as he left very early each day.

    He took me there when I was about seven years old. It felt like a long way (even on a bus) for him to cycle each day!

    I couldn’t get over the noise of the steam-hauled coal trains on the overhead viaducts, the smoke and the heat. It was an amazing place for a young boy to visit, and left a lasting impression on me! If only I’d been old enough to own and operate a cine camera, I would’ve done so to capture the industry of that period – long since swept away in a tide of redevelopment.

    I did come across a few minutes of film on YouTube which may be of interest, showing some of the industrial steam locomotives being used on site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUVZ2od1K7g&t=1s.

    If anyone else has any film to still of the site from that period I would love to see them? Great to read all of the interesting comments posted already – and hopefully those in the future too.

  7. My grandparents lived at the gasworks during the war. My grandfather, Leslie Clark, was something senior in engineering and very tall. Possibly in charge of the works?? My grandmother, Mary, was tiny. Does anyone remember them? My great grandfather, Joseph Clark, was an engineer there too but that IS going back…

    1. Hello all,

      I have fabulous memories of growing up around Winsor Terrace in the 1970’s & 1980’s. As a child My Great Grandmother and my twin Great Aunts lived at 100 Winsor Terrace. When it was a house! However, more importantly my parents grew up living next door but one to eachother. My Maternal grandparents lived at number 8 and my Paternal Grandpatents, number 4 Winsor Terrace. There were many characters and family members and special friends, who were a significant part of either, the Gas works, the street or our up bringing. Our family history of the street spans from the war years through to the 1990’s. Our family were employed by both the gas works and the Beckton Thames water site. A recent passing of a treasured family member left us some amazing family photos of this time span. We were the Beavington/ Hammond/Quinn family. Anyone who knew them feel free to get in touch.

      I recently took my Mother to the VA Museum. Only to discover that My mother had been a friend of Melanie Hampshire growing up, I have tried to find her on social media., but to no avail. It would be great to find her so that they can catch up. If any one has any information please feel free to help put them back in touch.

      1. You may have known my grandparents or parents lived in Windsor terrace there whole life number 58 if i remember rightly Elmes family

  8. Jeremy Quarshie-Halm

    Hi everyone
    I am doing a podcast about different East London towns.
    I would like to do an episode about Beckton; so if you live, have lived there, and have a few stories to share please get in touch.
    I have done two episodes, I’m about to do a third, please listen to other episodes https://notlikeitusedtobe.podbean.com/

    1. Margaret Knight nee Key

      My father was a stoker in the gas works and we lived in one of the company houses in Windsor Terrace, this was I believe from 1945 until my father won on the premium bonds and bought a house in Bridge near Canterbury.
      In 1957 I married and had the reception in the company social club, we had all the families in the street to our wedding and did the congar in and out of everyone’s house. I remember when the river overflowed and Windsor Terrace was flooded quite badly all the gardens were under water . The company railway ran along the back of the houses and during the time I lived there someone managed to steal one of the railway engines, goodness knows how. At the top of Windsor Terrace there was a Church where my parents were married ,sadly it was bombed during the war, the house I lived in is still there

      1. My grandparents lived in 74 Winsor Terrace. They lived there from 1915 when they got married. My father was born there in 1916. My father went to Winsor school, then got an apprenticeship at the Gas Works. He became a fitter and turner and worked on the locomotives all through the War. Grandad died in the 60’s but lived in the same house. When David Milne Watson was Governor at the gas works grandad had been a coachman but was then given the job of Messenger for the company. My grandmother had been Nurse to the Milne Watson children before she married.

        1. LEONARD watkinson

          My father had the contract knocking down No 7 Retult house the biggest retult in Europe. I was about 19 when I work in there for my father has a demolition oxygen burner, in there for3 years 6 of us ended up in old church hospital with Lead poisoning ,we got it from burning the RSJ, with the lead paint over the years they kept painting them

      2. Margaret Knight nee Key

        I lived at 46 Windsor Terrace, next door was a family called Banham with a small son named Brian, next to them was the Roots with a daughter called Barbara, I knew everyone in the street but can’t remember names any more,the 1950s were a long time ago. Does anyone remember our family the Keys, I was a teenager when my mother had twin girls, she usedto help a lot in the chapel and sadly passed away when she was only 47 in 1960

  9. My Grandfather, William “Bill” Brown, worked as a stoker – did evening classes etc and became a supervisor. Worked at Beckton until around 1963.

  10. Margaret Knight ( nee Key )

    My father was a stoker at the gas works and we lived in one of the company houses , 46 WinsorTerrace until I married in 1957,

  11. My parents both worked in the Products End of Beckton Gas Works after the war. Dad was a boiler makers mate and Mum was a canteen assistant.
    They were both active in the unions and I have happy memories of sitting under the table in our living room listening to the discussions about reducing the working hour. Dad worked from 7am till 4pm Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings as a normal week. But often he would do overtime until 7pm and all day Saturday and Sunday.

  12. Has anyone got any photos of Beckton gasworks and the marshes nearby? I would love to see them as I have a fascination with Beckton.

  13. Whilst working for a Wembley haulage firm called Mead Transport between 66/68 I collected a consignment of scrap aluminium from the then defunct Beckton site. The load was then delivered to a company called Allen Aluminium. The scale of Beckton left quite an impression on me. It was vast!

  14. hi my name is brian croew i was an apprentise chemical plumber /lead burner in the beckton product works from 1960 untill 1966 when i was made redundent my work pals where syd pierce forman albert evens charghand jim bartholomew ted milburn len hunt colin wilson and reg tyler plumbers brian freeman colin woodbine george bailey les root and bill chilvers plumbers mates my dad fred crow was a wire rope plicer in the same place

  15. Leonard Watkinson

    I worked fo my Father at Beckton gas works pulling No 7 Retort House down
    I was only about 16/17 then not shaw I was a Demolition Gas Burner. The conditions we worked in was terrible, 5 of us ended up in hospital with Lead Poisoning, from the lead paint what was on all the steal /Iron they painted over the years. Also all silver money what was in your pocket went black from the oxide we was working in, has in takinging down the big oxide hoppers, .i am now 72 years old and my health has deteriorated from
    The work I done in the past, it would not be allowed now.

  16. I WHENT TO EAST HAM TECH 1956/1960 .FIRST TO THE OLD TECH THEN TO THE NEW BUILDING .NEXT TO THE POLICE STATION.NOBBY CLARK WAS ONE OF OUR TEACHERS.I LIVED IN BURGES ROAD EAST HAM

  17. I new a wally CROOKBAIN WHO LIVED IN THE HOUSE NEXT TO THE ENTRANCE OF THE PRODUCTS WORKS IN WINDSOR TERRACE AND HE WAS ALWAYS LATE FOR WORK ALSO A SID GIBBS FORMAN OF THE LOCO WORKS SHED LIVED IN WINDSOR TERRACE IN 1958

    1. You didn’t know the Reece family or the Chase family, did you? The Reeces lived in Windsor Terrace for many many years, number 3 first then number 35 I believe. This family worked for the Beckton Gasworks for nigh on 100 years, from the time it was the Gas Light & Coke Company. They are my family, my great great grandfather, great grandfather, and then my grandad. I think even my dad did a short stint there sometime in the early 60s before it shut down. My great great grandad Tom Reece worked as the locomotive engine driver there for decades but died in 1931. His sons William, Henry, Charles, Arthur and James all definitely worked there too, and likely his oldest son Tom, and youngest sons Alf and Ernie would have as well. My grandad was Hector Chase, son of Tom’s daughter Gladys, and he worked there too, likely straight after WWII and continuously until the family moved in 1959. But he didn’t live in Windsor Tce, he lived in Hornchurch and Romford.

    2. Paula Moussoulides

      Wally Crookbaine would of been my uncle. My Gran Mary, Granddad Bill and my Dad Billy (Jock) all worked there in the 50s living in Windsor Terrace no 28.

    3. Lynne Hughes (Gregory)

      I lived in the prefabs on the left as you went down Winsor Terrace and was friends with an Yvonne Crookbain and I think she had an older brother, I wonder if any relation. Was part of the Gas Works on the left behind the prefabs?

      1. Yvonne Crookbaine is my Aunt. My mum was Sally Crookbaine, Mary and Bill, my nan and grandad. Billy and Walter (Wally) my uncles. They lived at 28 Windsor Terrace. I remember spending many Christmasses there in the 60s.

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