There’s a question looming both literally and metaphorically over large parts of London: what the hell should we do with the city’s old gasholders? These hulking metal structures, also known as gasometers, have been an integral part of the capital’s skyline since the Victorian era, yet are now facing demolition because their original purpose (storing gas, duh) is now defunct.
Having gained widespread use during the 19th century, the gasholders’ reign lasted until the 1960s when, with the discovery of the North Sea natural gas reserves, gas began being transported via high pressure pipes. The holders took a backseat, only being used when extra capacity was needed. As the pipes increased in capacity, the gasworks dotted throughout UK cities slowly became obsolete. The National Grid was left with these functionally-pointless, space-consuming monsters – often in what is now prime urban real estate. Think King’s Cross, Kennington, Bethnal Green.
Once aptly described by poet Victoria Bean aptly as a “great grey lung”, it’s the “telescopic” gasometers that receive particular attention. Supported by a giant cylindrical frame, the inner-container would fluctuate in size depending on how gas-hungry the surrounding residents were. By day they would fill up and rise, and then by night they would empty and retract back into the ground.
But the lungs are no longer breathing and all we’re left with is the frame. But blimey, what frames they are. Even for those not intimidatingly enthusiastic about industrial heritage, it’s hard to deny their beauty. Classical columns connected by decorative wrought iron; just what you would expect from the Victorians. Around sunset, when their steel skeletons are silhouetted against the sky in particularly spectacular fashion, it becomes easy to see why there are 12 gasholders with listed status (of which all but one are in London). But developers are fighting for the land; eight of the capital’s other gasholders have been awarded a Certificate of Immunity, meaning they cannot be listed for the following five years – offering property developers assurance to their investment.
So once campaigners succeed in getting the treasured gasholders protected, something needs to be done with them. After all, blocking off huge swathes of land in the heart of a city clamouring for space hardly seems fair. Building within them has proved a successful option (even if the flats inside the old King’s Cross gasometers look like giant air conditioning units). Planning for the development of the Oval Gasholders – which has towered over the famous cricket ground for 150 years, and gained listed status in 2016 following a local campaign – was passed earlier this year as part of a wider project to build 1250 new homes. In a city in the midst of a housing crisis, incorporating heritage into new housing is a great idea. That said, it’d be a shame to lose all the gasworks to property developers.
With Gasholder Park, the developers behind the King’s Cross air conditioning units, have created a public space within the remains of one of the gasholders. It is the only place in London where anyone can stand in the centre of, and enjoy these peculiar treasures. The Bromley-by-Bow Gasworks, which consist of seven listed gasholders, sits empty but could make a brilliant park. This was proposed as a submission to the New London Landscape, a green infrastructure design competition, but lost out to a hare-brained scheme to add a swimming lane to Regent’s Canal.
Whatever their future – be it as housing or a public space – at least some gasholders will remain; a solemn reminder of an important chapter in London’s history.