The Isle of Wight Society

January 2020

Island Gas Works

Today we think of gas for heating and cooking.  We just accept that it always has been and always will be there.  But will it??

The supply of gas has seen great changes.  Anyone over the age of fifty will remember seeing the great gasometers storing locally made gas.  That word does not even appear on spellchecker today!  

The main gasometer in East Cowes at Kingston is pictured, dated 1955.  The casing of these enormous structures rose as the gas was piped into it or fell as the gas was used during the day.  The spirals helped the steel casing to spiral up and down.  

East Cowes Gas Works 1955

Alongside each gasometer was a retort house where coal was burnt in an enclosed space giving off gas.  This was then piped to the gasometer and from there along the streets of the town.  The resulting coke was sold as a slow burning fuel for stoves.  

Today we use natural gas directly sourced from under the ground that is held in high pressure pipes.  The gasometers on the Island were dismantled.  Elsewhere, some have received Listed status, the most famous being that by the Oval Cricket Ground in London.

Gas has been used as a fuel on the Island since 1823, when a company was formed to supply Newport street lighting.  The Gas works were at Pan Bridge.  Lighting in houses, using fragile gas mantles, came later, followed by gas cookers, gas fires, gas pokers to light coal fires and, even later, central heating.

Early gas works were near water, for ships or barges to deliver the coal to make the gas.  East and West Cowes had gas works by 1860, as did Yarmouth, just north of the Tide Mill.  At Ventnor the gas works were at Wheelers Bay, where ships could tie up.  In planning the gas works for St Helen’s, Seaview and Bembridge in 1877, use was made of St. Helen’s wharf then a short stretch of narrow gauge railway.  Norton gas works on the Yar supplied Freshwater from 1899.

With the creation of the rail network across the Island, vast quantities of coal were landed at Medina Wharf in west Cowes, adjacent to the new railway.  In 1866 Ryde gas works were developed in Rink Road, by the railway.  New gas works were constructed beside the railway line in Newport, just above the present Riverside Centre.  There coal trucks on the viaduct tipped their contents directly into the yard below.  Coal for Havenstreet gas works also came by rail, and that Retort house is now part of the railway museum.

In 1955 large modern gas works were built at Kingston, East Cowes, serving the whole Island.  Small gas works elsewhere closed down.  Bulk supply of coal arrived by river.  Kingston works had a short life, closing in 1968 when a natural gas pipeline was laid under the Solent from the mainland to the Island.  

We all need to reduce our carbon footprint.   How much longer will we need to use gas?

Sarah Burdett

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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