Gasworks in Cumbria – The early years

by Roger Baker

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 follows:

  • 1819 Carlisle
  • 1826 Kendal (by which time only two towns in the country with a population over 10,000 did not have a gasworks –Lincoln and Whitehaven)
  • 1830s Appleby, Brampton, Cockermouth, Maryport, Penrith, Ulverston, Whitehaven, Wigton
  • 1840s Alston, Ambleside, Keswick, Kirkby Lonsdale, Workington
  • 1850s Aspatria, Dalton, Egremont, Longtown, Sedbergh, Silloth
  • 1860s Barrow, Burton, Grange, Harrington, Kirkby Stephen, Milnthorpe, Staveley, Windermere
  • 1870s Askam, Cleator Moor, Millom, St.Bees, Seascale

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 finance

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 [1] 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.

Indeed 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” [2]

John Grafton’s estimate for supplying gas in Carlisle [3] gives an indication of the cost of such a venture. Of course this would vary elsewhere according to the size of the works, and how early or late in the century it was constructed – Appleby for example cost £1500, Windermere £10,000.

Mains pipes                                        £2015  2s  5d
Retorts, gasometers etc                    £1144  8s  0d

Buildings, land and contingencies  £1947  18s  0d
Total                                                  £5107  8s   5d

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” [4]. 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 [5].

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 [6].

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 [7]:

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 [8], 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” [9]

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 [10], 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 [11] 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

Step 3 – Find a site

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:

  • Build as close as you can to your customers – to save on the costs of supply mains. Staveley, for example, is just off the main village street.
  • But not too close – to avoid upsetting the townsfolk with the noise and smell of the works. This generally meant building on the edge of town, even in industrial centres like Cleator Moor. The record distance from town stands with Grange-over-Sands, where the works were erected at Meathop Crag, at least a mile from the town centre.
  • A minimum size of 1.25 acres was required, to give room for expansion. This was not a large area, but most works managed to renew themselves within their original site. Only a few re-located like Carlisle did twice, or opened a second site as Barrow and Workington did.
  • On a transport route for the import of your main raw material – coal. Kendal was built next to the canal, but Ulverston was not – the coal being carted to the works from the canalside where it had been shipped. Most of the works were built before the railway arrived, and the majority of the small works were never connected to the network. So for the majority coal was carted to the works by road.
  • Located lower than the supply zone, to avoid pumping costs. Alston for example was located at the bottom of the hill on which the town was built, but the works at Ambleside was on the hillside above the town it served.
  • With an available water supply, important in the production processes. At Windermere, for example, the beck in the field above the works was diverted through the boundary wall and piped to the site. Whitehaven made use of a spring issuing from the cliffs behind.
  • Drainage and waste disposal nearby, as the sites themselves were so restricted to area. At Kirkby Stephen the waste was disposed of into the field next door, and became a considerable nuisance to the gravedigger once the nearby cemetery was extended over the land.
  • A stable site, above flood level – the works required firm foundations and protection from flooding. Both Keswick and Kirkby Lonsdale must have been vulnerable at times

Step 4 – Complete and run the works

The workforce was dependant on the size of the works. Carlisle was up to 200 men by 1890 [12], but Appleby 10 years later than that in 1905 [13] 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 annum.

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 functions.

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 [14] 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 [15], 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 [16]

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 [17]:

“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:

  1. Documents, maps and plans in the Cumbria Record Offices and the National Gas Archive
  2. Trade directories – both on-line and hard copy
  3. John E.Wilson : Lighting the Town – A study in the management of the NW gas industry 1805-1880, Paul Chapman Publishing, 1991
  4. Local people who have shared their knowledge with me

Specific references are as follows:

  1. Quoted in Bouch & Jones, The Lake Counties 1500-1830
  2. Gas-Light, or the inside of a cotton factory, Manchester, 1818 – quoted in Wilson
  3. G.Mark-Bell : The city of Carlisle, its history and its gasworks, NW Gas Historical Society, 1989
  4. Westmorland Gazette, 16 October 1824
  5. CRO Whitehaven, DBH/7/4 : Articles of agreement of the Cockermouth Gas Light & Coke Company, 1834
  6. Staveley Gas Company Ledger June 1866 – June 1888 (in private hands)
  7. CRO Carlisle QRZ/4/7
  8. CRO Carlisle DB23
  9. Carlisle Journal June 1819
  10. as 3
  11. as 6
  12. as 3
  13. Graham Coles : Let there be light – a history of town lighting in Appleby, with special reference to Appleby Gas Works, The Appleby-in-Westmorland Society Newsletter, 2004
  14. as 3
  15. as 3
  16. as 13
  17. Westmorland Gazette, 6 August 1825

(Page created 20/01/07. Last updated 25/04/07)