A-Z of industries
Gasworks in Cumbria - The early years
by Roger Baker
(Page created 20/01/07. Last updated 25/04/07)
Gasworks for the manufacture of ‘town’ gas from coal were a common site in the towns and indeed some villages in what is now Cumbria from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. This article gives an overview of the their establishment over a 60 year period from 1819 when Carlisle became the first in the county and one of only 15 places in Britain to have their own gasworks.
Through the efforts of pioneers such as William Murdoch and Samuel Clegg, by the early 1800s the technology had been developed to enable gas to be supplied on a large scale, following on from small scale experiments in the late 1700s. The Gas Light and Coke Company was the first - established in London in 1812 - paving the way for developments elsewhere and reaching Preston in 1815.
Their arrival in Cumbria was as
Those listed are places where “public
supply companies” were established - by the 1870s, 34 towns (and villages) in
Cumbria had their own gasworks dedicated to supplying the town. Other places
were lighted with gas, but these were as a secondary function of a private
works. For example houses on Roa Island near Barrow, and in Tebay, were supplied
by the gasworks built to light the railway station. And the gas plant at Suttons
the tanners in Scotby near Carlisle also supplied the village.
Step 1 : Gather support and
Gas lighting was promoted not only as an opportunity for commerce and industry to make and save money, but also as a way of contributing to the modernisation of the town. Public safety was no less of a concern then than it is now.
A report in the Westmorland Advertiser and Chronicle  described how Kendal in 1817 was plagued with a gang of young men who “nightly paraded the streets and, when the watch had passed, extorted drink or money from timid citizens”. Gas lamps would be three times as powerful as the oil lamps in use at the time.
the contract to supply gas for street lighting was generally key to a gas
company’s success in its early years – being seen as the best advertisement
for its potential use – and was usually supplied at cost. Profits would come
instead from supplying gas for lighting shops, town houses, public premises
(halls, theatres, council chambers), commerce and industry – in a time of
growing urban population and industrial expansion. For all of them, gas lighting
was cheaper and safer than candles or lamps.
“The gas-light, too, amazing thought,
So brilliant and clear.
I trust , good sir, ‘twill save your purse
Some hundred pounds per year” 
Share prices were kept low to attract mainly local investors. £5 shares were common. Generally there were no problems filling the subscription lists – at Kendal so quickly were the 300 £20 shares taken that “a great many were obliged to leave the Hall disappointed, so great was the anxiety to become shareholders” . At Cockermouth in 1834, £3050 was raised in £5 shares by 75 investors – chiefly Jonathan Harris of Goat Mills, Flax Dresser, and ten other Gentlemen .
And they were certainly not bought in the expectation of getting rich quick Most NW companies 5 years old before paid a dividend, although Kendal took only 3 years. Some struggled more than others – Staveley paid no dividend for its first 12 years – and derived more income from selling coal rather than gas .
In the absence of effective local government, permission to go ahead with what would now be regarded as ordinary municipal services usually meant putting a Bill through Parliament. Although this could be expensive and long-winded it gave the company statutory powers, for example to lay mains, and monopoly supply rights in an area – so the advantages outweighed the costs.
The result would be something
like this, published in both the Whitehaven News and the London Gazette :
Cleator Moor. Board of Trade Session 1872.
- Application for provisional order to enable the Cleator Moor Gas Company Limited
- to purchase or lease lands,
- and erect and maintain gasworks thereon,
- to manufacture and store gas and residual products,
- to lay down mains and pipes,
- to break up streets etc.,
- to levy rates, rents and charges for supply of gas,
- to make contracts etc.
Step 2 : Engage a contractor
Back then what you would not be
able to do is search the internet, approach a development agency, or advertise
to tender in the European Journal. What you would do is to call in a specialist
engineer to plan and supervise erection of the works.
This engineer would be one of a
group of consultants who had learnt their trade after working for or with the
big metropolitan companies. Such as John Grafton – engineer at Carlisle –
who had worked in London with the Chartered Company then at Preston, Manchester,
Edinburgh, Sheffield, Wolverhampton before Carlisle - a lot when you read he was
only 23 years old in 1819 when supervising the works at Carlisle.
There was a “thin spread of
expertise” – engineers would pop off to supervise another works whilst
working on one. And one could be called in if necessary to offer advice on the
work of another. William Howard, Gas Engineer, Rochdale was responsible for
construction of the works at Longtown , but was brought to task by a Mr
Postlethwaite in March 1856. “Having examined the plans and specification, I
am of the opinion that the Contractor is bound to make the undermentioned
alterations” to the retort bench, governor etc. … at the contractor’s
expense – which Mr.Howard did!
As time went by there was some
“self-help” using local engineers, but they usually had assisted in another
undertaking and gained experience, and would be influenced by specialists
The consultant engineer would
know what was needed and where to get it. He would be happy to contract a local
builder or joiner to carry out the building work :
“To builders and others.Wanted.Persons to contract for erecting gasometer houses and other buildings for the Carlisle Gas Works” 
But equipment generally came
some distance from specialist suppliers:
Mr Hugh McIntosh, 19 Charlotte
St., Bloomsbury, London – supplied the pipework for the mains in Carlisle
, and the retorts and ironwork were brought from a manufacturer in Liverpool
to Sandsfield by schooner –and from there 5 miles by road into the city at
double the shipping costs. Staveley in 1865  got its plant from the Chadwick
Iron Works in Manchester, and mains from TeesSide Iron Works, Middlesborough.
There is little evidence of suppliers on the doorstep, but Robert Lucock for example had clearly got his hands on some Cumbrian fireclay, and was advertising in the Mannix Directory for 1847:
Lucock, Rbt.,mfr.,fire bricks, flags, ridge and agricultural tiles, ornamental chimney tops, gas retorts, crucibles etc etc
A number of factors would
influence the location of the works – some more crucial than others – and
not all of them followed all the time. Generally, the company would take the
best site available at the time that met at least some of these requirements:
Step 4 – Complete and run
The workforce was dependant on
the size of the works. Carlisle was up to 200 men by 1890 , but Appleby 10
years later than that in 1905  still only 3 employees: Mr Brough as manager
on £1 4s a week plus free house, gas and coal; Mr William Bland was employed as
night stoker at 25s a week, “on condition that he did not take a day job as
well”; the collector and book keeper was Douglas Dryden who received £20 per
Before the profession of gas
engineer was established, the early works faced the problem of who to appoint as
manager once the consulting engineer had left, but generally managed to recruit
someone who had gained experience in another works. To support the business, the
company’s board would be closely involved in anything other than routine
The main raw material - coal -
was carted in on turnpikes “crowded with coal and lime carts” from the
nearest collieries, unless you were sited near a waggonway or canal. So in 1825,
William Lawson of Upperby was transporting 18 cart loads per week to the
gasworks in Carlisle  from Lord Carlisle’s Midgehome Colliery on the
Northumberland border, 20 miles away. How much coal you needed depended of
course on the size of the works, its efficiency, and the time of year. But a
typical small works like Appleby needed on average under 2 tons of coal per day.
Most bituminous coals were suitable for gas making, but a type called cannel
coal was especially favoured – especially before the introduction of the
incandescent mantle – as it burned with an especially bright flame, and gave
an exceptionally high yield of gas at the works. The disadvantage was that it
gave off a correspondingly high amount of hydrogen sulphide.
The laying of mains was a major
expense – and prone to leakage – so were limited to areas where income could
be guaranteed. Those from the gasworks in Carlisle , for example, ran north
across the town centre – with 4” mains in English Street and 1.5” mains in
Finkle Street – but also to the cotton mills of Slater & Co. and Cowan
Heysham & Co..
As the works neared completion,
advertisements were placed around town to attract customers, as in Appleby,
March 1837 
The Appleby Gas Company….Will be ready to supply Gas in a few Months, and shall give it free for one Month; after which they will supply it on the following terms : by Meter, at 13s 4d per 1000 cubic feet, payable quarterly; and by Burner, on the following Scale, payable half-yearly in advance – at Christmas and Midsummer, in equal proportion
Finally the time for
celebration arrived, as in Kendal, July 1826 :
“On Monday night several of the principal shops were lighted with gas for the first time. The Gas Company, the Corporation, the Kendal Town Commissioners, and other gentlemen, commemorated the evening at the Town Hall, over a glass of wine. A beautiful gas star, four feet in diameter, shone before the front window of the Town Hall. Afterwards the gentlemen paraded the streets in procession, preceded by a band of music”
This article has been written with reference to four major sources of information:
Specific references are as follows: