‘Greenwich’s threatened gasholder is a local icon – it deserves to be saved’

East Greenwich gasholder
“It marks our area out” – SGN’s application to demolish the gasholder has caused dismay

The owners of the historic East Greenwich gasholder announced before Christmas that it plans to demolish the 130-year-old structure. It has asked Greenwich Council if it needs to apply for planning permission to take the structure down (search here for 17/4068/D1 to see details and formally comment).

Mary MillsIndustrial historian and former local councillor MARY MILLS says the structure is an integral part of the area’s heritage – and should be saved.

It’s right to say the proposed demolition is about “safety and security”. SGN is only proposing to pull down the framework, but will leave the difficult bits at ground level, and – presumably – keep the site for a bit, where it still has functioning equipment.

Of course the empty frame is expensive to maintain and there are all sorts of safety implications. However, this is about an industry which has never really engaged with the public, and their only solution is to demolish.

Three or four years ago I went to a big conference about the future of our gasholders – it was run by the gas industry and they were taken aback that people had come from outside the industry. They were so suspicious, we all had to identify ourselves and explain why we were there. Many distinguished industrial historians found their motives being challenged!

East Greenwich gasholder
The distinctive ironwork on the gasholder, as well as its size, make it special for historians as well as locals. Photo: Danny McL via Flickr (used under Creative Commons )

One of the papers given was about an attempt to demolish a gasholder somewhere on the outskirts of Newcastle. It was isolated on open ground but surrounded by a large council estate. When demolition began, the estate erupted in fury. It was their holder, they said. It was what made them different from other council estates – when they were away, they could explain where they lived by referring to it and when they saw it they knew they had come home.

The gas industry just didn’t understand – and missed a big and important opportunity to capitalise on their past. What should have been assets have been turned into liabilities and working with local authorities and local communities has been beyond them.

All over London there has been community campaign after community campaign to keep – or rather to reuse – gasholders. Most have been lost.

Lewisham Council has been quick to locally list Bell Green – but will the industry listen? Poplar is coming down, despite vigorous campaigns there, as have holders on several sites in Hornsey. I could list more.

Sadly, for us, this means SGN has a lot of practice in getting demolition plans through councils and putting down any opposition efficiently.

Metrogas sports ground, c.1984 - yes, that is the site editor in the photo
A view of the former gas works sports ground (now the Ikea building site) in 1984 showing the view up the Peninsula with both gas holders in place

A history kept hazy by the gas industry

I recommend you take a look at the report from the industry which is included with the planning papers. In most parts it is pretty good. The history of the holder is dealt with through Malcolm Tucker’s immaculate research for Historic England.

But Malcolm was working to a brief and there is some speculation he would not make in such a paper. One of these is the issue of the holder as an early modern movement building. There are many indications of this in the ideas – explained by its builder, George Livesey – behind its great size and economies of scale, but mostly in the stripped-down style.

I understand Malcolm’s problem here in that we have never managed to establish a link between the American design adviser and English industrial designers of the period (both with the same unusual surname).

Much of the paper is very interesting. There are some minor inaccuracies and I am not impressed with their constant harping on that the holder was built by Frank Livesey, not his brother George. Frank had to do what George told him to do! Perhaps they should read some of the contemporary descriptions of the holder, rather than make assumptions.

It is some of the arguments they are using which are less impressive:

  • They say that the holder has “lost its context” because the gas works itself has gone. This has to be nonsense. The two big holders were always on the edge of and slightly away from the main works – and in any case the industry commonly built holders at a considerable distance from any gas works.
  • It notes Enderby House as a local listed industrial structure but says it is too far away to be associated with the holder. This, too, is nonsense – the holder looms over the whole area and is the first thing you see.
  • Saying that the holder was the biggest in the world for only a short while is neither here nor there. It was, and is, very much bigger than the rest. Together with No.2. it was the largest amount of gas storage ever.
Blur's Parklife video, 1994, copyright EMI
The gasholder features prominently in one of UK music’s best-known videos – Blur’s Parklife, filmed on the peninsula in 1994

The gasholder’s heroes should be honoured, not forgottenThen there is the assertion that the holder has had a large number of repairs and its integrity can thus be questioned. This has to be nonsense – surely we don’t expect any structure of more than, say 20, years old not to have had some repairs. No-one is asking us to pull the Tower of London down because it is different to what it was in 1086.

The devastating Silvertown explosion of 1917 damaged the neighbouring No.2. holder. It is my understanding that the holder was ruptured by the shock wave. The gas escaped and blasted upwards, to explode high above the holder – which is what it was designed to do. I have never ever seen any contemporary reference to damage to our existing No.1. holder.

Indeed, between the flash of the explosion and the arrival of the shock wave, quick-thinking staff cut off the supply from the Greenwich holders and thus pressure was not lost in the mains. I also understand those staff received some sort of gallantry award. If this is true, it would be good to remember them.

As for the IRA attack, I do however remember reading an official report that said the bomb was in fact not placed on the holder but in some associated equipment. The photographs of the fire are very difficult to interpret. More information – or a copy of the report – would be interesting.

River Way, Greenwich
East Greenwich gasholder – then still in use – seen in 1998 from outside the Pilot pub, during construction of the Millennium Experience

When you see the gasholder, you know you are home

It is obvious that the holder is a landmark and an icon for the area, particularly from the river. As with the Newcastle council estate holder – it is what marks our area out. When you see it you know you are back in east Greenwich – and that means something to a lot of local people.

I am only too well aware that our community here in east Greenwich feel they have lost something in recent years. They have gained vast numbers of new flats – far more than most other areas. But in return, they’ve received very little in the form of local amenities.

Some developers on the Peninsula have worked hard to put in facilities, artworks and features for both new residents and others.

But others have not done this – and features which appeared in the original plans have not been built.

Quite honestly, east Greenwich and the Peninsula need something to be proud of – both to identify them and provide facilities for everyone.

The gas industry has missed an opportunity here, as with all its holders. Use the gas holders, they should be an asset.

View up the A102
The gasholder remains a local landmark – and should stay that way

The current planning application is a stitch up – the council has very little room, legally, to move in. Please don’t blame the council – I do think they have tried to get this right.

There is something in our society now, and in our institutions, which seems unable to think beyond short-term finance – and the gas industry just does not do imagination. And we are all the losers.

To see more details and comment on SGN’s application, search for reference 17/4068/D1 on Greenwich Council’s planning pages. Comments need to be in by 11 January.

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7 comments

  1. I’m a new arrival to the area as of a few years, as are a great deal of people to the Peninsula now and in the new decade. Neither I nor I suspect many of those arrivals will see any merit in keeping this structure, which serves no useful purpose and is not particularly attractive – this may be unfortunate but it’s not entirely unsurprising given the area is changing so dramatically. History is important but I’m afraid this site simply isn’t important enough – history in many instances unfortunately gets forgotten. Additionally, the new flue at the low carbon energy centre is now far more of an attractive local landmark than this redundant gas holder.

    I suspect this one may be a lost cause to many residents. Admittedly I won’t mourn its loss.

  2. Is there an alternative use for it? as a park or part of a block of flats? I’d like to keep it, but the land will need to be used, I think. Is there a petition to sign to let the gas industry know that we do care? if so, please let us know.

  3. The linked document from the industry includes a description of a plan for alternative use:

    “In 2013 the gasholder formed part of a project that was short-listed in the RIBA Forgotten Spaces
    competition. The gasholder was proposed as part of a new parkland, a public square and venue space in a
    design by architects Patrick Judd and Ash Bonham. The bell and tank were proposed as an event space and
    sail-like fabric elements were attached to the interior of the guide frame in the architects model for the site. It
    was exhibited at the 2014 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.”

    As someone who has photographed the area over many years I recognise the importance of the holder as a local landmark, visible from so many places in the area, and I have always found it an attractive structure. Mary Mills –
    an expert in such matters – suggests a good case for its historic importance, and I think Historic England was wrong to dismiss this. But there are many cases in recent years where they have made rather surprising decisions not to list large sites which promise lucrative returns to developers that I now have little respect for their independence.

  4. “[T]his structure … serves no useful purpose and is not particularly attractive” says Andy. Well, attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder — and so, for that matter, is usefulness. On this basis one could also argue for the removal of Nelson’s Column and Marble Arch.

    What would Andy say to a proposal to demolish The Iron Bridge in Shropshire (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Iron_Bridge), another structure of debatable appearance and limited use? (It has also been, and remains, in need of considerable remedial work during its life?

    And, as Mary Mills cogently argues, it is an important part of our local heritage that would be greatly missed not only by long-standing residents but many others.

Comments are closed.