Gasworks in Cumbria – The later years

by Roger Baker

A previous article [1] covered the period from 1819, when the first gasworks in Cumbria was built in Carlisle. By the 1870s private companies were operating in 34 towns and villages throughout the county to produce gas to light their streets, buildings and workplaces.

This article takes the story forward another 60 years or so to the time of nationalisation of the industry after WWII.


A number of factors stimulated the growth in demand for gas:-

1. Falling prices which were the main engine for growth initially as the gas companies gradually came to realise that lower prices would mean more customers, more income and more profit. In Kendal, for example, the price (per 1000cu.ft.) fell from 12/6d. in 1830 to 3/9d in 1880.

2. A growing urban population (faster in some places than others), with an increasing number of industrial, commercial and residential properties installing gas lighting. Although the gas companies were naturally wary of increasing their costs by laying new mains unless an immediate return could be guaranteed, or a contribution made by a principal benefactor:

The report to the meeting of directors of the Sedbergh New Gas Company on 21st December 1896 [2] included an item on the “ £50 contributed by the Dovers for extending the gas main to their mill, to be paid into the ‘Extensions and Improvements Account’ “, and again on July 31st 1912 on “a 1.5 ins service 100 yds long was to be run to Thorne Hall, the occupier to contribute £5/10/- to the cost.”

A key contributor to the demand for gas lighting [3] was the development of an effective incandescent mantle in the late 1880s, producing “no smoke, less heat and a more brilliant light for less gas” consumed than the burners that preceded it.

3.Town improvements were accompanied by  a demand for better street lighting. Although local authorities did their best to restrict their expenditure on gas for street lighting.

  A visitor to Appleby in 1875 wrote an angry letter to the newspaper in which he declared his “great surprise” on finding the town unlit during the hours of darkness. For many years the practice has been to dispense with street lighting when “the moon was one quarter full and not to recommence until she was three quarters old”. [4]

4.The increasing use of gas for purposes other than lighting.

The manufacture of appliances that used gas was key. In industrial premises , from the 1870s, the gas engine could power machinery, especially where steam or water power was uneconomic or unavailable. Inside the home gas rings or cookers were followed by gas water heaters, fires, refrigerators, washing machines and irons in the 1920s and 30s.  Although growth was steady rather than spectacular:

Gas cookers featured in the Great Exhibition of 1851, but by 1889 only 70 cookers were in use in Keswick, despite their promotion 2 years earlier in January 1887 when posters [5] appeared:

Demonstration lectures on cookery

With the aid of Gas stoves and appliances

3-4.30 High Class Cookery Lecture

7.30-9 Everyday Cookery Lecture

by Mrs John B. Thwaites (of Liverpool)

By 1890 Carlisle boasted 40 gas engines, 500 cookers, and 1000 gas fires and stoves. [6]

Their acceptance was promoted by rental schemes for gas appliances in the 1880s, and by pay-as-you-go coin-in-the-slot meters introduced in 1889. However even in the 1930s Canon Akam, the then vicar of Seascale, became chairman of the local board, and it was remembered that much of his pastoral visiting was peppered with encouragements to parishioners to buy a new gas cooker! [7]


Over the period 1875-1920 the production of gas in the country as a whole trebled, largely due to increased domestic consumption. Here are some examples for Cumbria covering a later period.


1893production(millions cu.ft) 1928production number ofconsumers mains(miles)
Carlisle 228 586 14,720 102
Kendal 46 119 4,497 30
Cockermouth 15 45 1,650 8.5
Kirkby Lonsdale 3 5.6 338 4





This growth in production was achieved by increasing the size of the gasworks and by technical innovations that improved efficiency

  • More capacity

Appleby started with just one gasholder, the second being added only in 1896. Workington had two gasholders at the original Stanley Street site, but “of late” [Bulmers 1883]  “owing to the rapid increase of population, this supply has been found insufficient, and another gasometer therefore is being erected to the south of Senhouse Street, to supply the upper end of the town.” Carlisle opened its new works at Rome Street in 1922, doubling production capacity using the latest technology. [8]

  • Increased efficiency

The use of new materials to make retorts, more effective firing arrangements, mechanical stokers, inclined and vertical retorts, better purification methods and the invention of spirally guided (above ground) gasholders all contributed to increases in production [9]. Wilson [10] makes the point that many smaller gasworks were largely unaffected by these innovations, and this seems to be the case in Cumbria. Milnthorpe for example was the last gasworks in England to be still stoked by hand in the 1970s [11]. Improvements were however the order of the day elsewhere. Continuous vertical retorts – 2.5 times more efficient than the traditional horizontal –  were built at the bigger plants such as Carlisle, Maryport, Workington, and at Windermere in a major reconstruction in 1934 [12].

  • New methods

Carburretted water gas production – a mixture of water gas and oil gas from passing steam over and cracking oil on hot coke – was introduced to a number of sites including Wigton, Keswick and Penrith as a means of responding rapidly to fluctuations in demand.

“Spare” coke oven gas was available from later plant in West Cumbria, starting with the Becker ovens at Workington in 1936, and this was sold in bulk to the Borough Council. This was a complete reverse of the previous emphasis where coke had been a by-product of gas production. As a result gas was no longer made at many of the local gasworks – Harrington, Cleator Moor, Egremont and St.Bees included – which became “gasholder stations” storing gas supplied from the central coke oven plant

  • Other changes

In addition other changes had a positive effect on profit margins:-

    1. –         improvements in gas meters (to control and measure use. The sale of gas was initially calculated on the basis of the size of customers’ gas jets and for how long in the evening they were being used, but customers were tempted to widen their jets and burn gas for longer than their contract stated. So the introduction of meters in 1830s was a big improvement for the suppliers at least.
    2. –         reduction in wastage from the main. The average wastage in the North-West from pipes at stood at 15% in the 1860s. Carlisle was losing 12% of production in 1870, but this was brought down to 2.9% by 1890. Even so, in 1906, the Appleby Company decided it was cheaper to stand the loss rather than to open up all the mains just to find out where the leaks were [13].
    3. –         declining coal, iron and labour costs
    4. –         the emerging profession of gas engineer to exploit potential
    5. –         new uses for more “waste” products, such as naphthalene plant from 1912, benzole plant from WW1


But not all was plain sailing.

  • Explosions and other problems. The industry appears to have been generally a safe one (albeit smelly and dirty). But there were associated risks:

August 1879 might have seen the end of the Gas Works in Appleby [14], never mind a new beginning. Finance had been raised for the refurbishment of the works:-

“As part of the refurbishment programme, the roof covering the retorts was removed and temporarily replaced by a wooden shelter. A roof of some sort was essential as the retorts were often red hot and even rain water could cause damage. Unfortunately the temporary cover was made from well-tarred, previously used timbers which caught fire in the heat. Appleby’s 4 months old fire brigade, with its steam fire engine, was quickly on the scene and anxious to prove its worth. The firemen had received no formal training by then, but their enthusiasm knew no bounds. The Works Manager, Mr Brough, had to be very firm. River water at 300 gallons a minute applied through a jet onto red hot gas retorts might just produce a remarkable result. As Mr Brough had a wife and six children in the Gas Works House, he had an interest (and a job) riding on the outcome. The timbers were pulled away by hand and left to burn – no water was used and the Gas Works survived. It’s a good job Mr Brough was at home at the time”.

And accidents did happen:

The Royal Insurance Company [15] received a claim from the owner of the Theatre Royal, Whitehaven, declaring at … 8.30pm, Saturday 8th April 1905 … an explosion of gas occurred at or near the Gas Tank under the Stage … Coal Gas coming into Contact with Oxygen Gas. The cost of repairing the  damage to stage and circle was calculated at £2/0s/0d.

  •   Poor quality
    A popular anecdote from Kendal in the 1840s suggested that consumers had to “light a candle to see whether my gas is burning or not”. Even by1903 there was “Agitation in the town” of Sedbergh [16] that the gas should be tested for illuminating power.
  • Low pressure, or none
    December 1908 [17] saw a blockage in the purifiers, and the town of Appleby was plunged into darkness for several hours. Yet by 1938 an advert from Carlisle Gas Dept  could promise that “gas cooking is always reliable – no breakdowns in supply and nothing to go wrong
  • Smell
    In October 1911 [18] a letter from ‘Consumer’ in Appleby stated that “During the past month there has been much public disgust and much complaint owing to the abominable stench which is conveyed into houses through the gas mains. The stench in places of worship today was unbearable” A few days later ‘User’ wrote to describe the smell as “a mixture of decomposing codfish and doubtful eggs” and hoped that the inhabitants “be suffered to die natural deaths and not be the victims of poison gas”. The problem was traced to the water in which the gasholder “floated”, which over the years had become impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen. The water was changed and the problem solved.


As companies became established, there was increasing public interest in high prices and big profits. Private enterprise had always been seen as the vehicle for financing and managing services at the start of our period, but things were changing as the century progressed:

The result was

  • Creation of rivals in the form of consumer gas companies

Consumer dissatisfaction in response to cautious approach and high prices in Kendal saw the establishment of the Kendal Union Gas and Water Company established in 1845, forcing the Kendal Gas Light and Coke Company into a merger. Elsewhere, the Whitehaven Gas Light Consumers Company of St.Bees Rd merged with the original Whitehaven Gas Light Company of Bransty. For some years the two companies had carried on in close competition, and the price of gas was reduced to a sum at which the manufacture was “unremunerative”. In 1869 however an arrangement was made between them for a term of 14 years, by which gas is supplied at a fixed rate by both companies, prior to their merger in the 1880s.

  • Pressure from Local Boards of Health created after the Public Health Act of 1848 to make supplies more widely available both in terms of the area supplied and the price at which it was made available
  • Takeover by the town council

There was increasing interest in their local gasworks by the town council – partly in concern over the neglect of some areas, but largely with an eye to the obvious profits that were being made (which could be used to subsidise the rates or finance improvement projects)

As the powers and finances of local authorities grew they were able to take action but had no right of compulsory purchase – the shareholders had to agree and be compensated

This didn’t all happen at once – Barrow Corporation purchased the then Furness Gas & Water Co in 1868, but Windermere remained a private company until 1929.Dalton-in-Furness further south had only been adopted by the town in 1936. Half of the fourteen gas supply companies remaining in Cumberland in 1948 were still in private hands.

Appleby became the property of the corporation from January 1905 [19], although before then in 1886 Alderman Sanderson thought the Corporation should buy the Gas Works “and share in its immense profits” In February 1904 the Gas Company called an urgent meeting of shareholders following “a great deal of friction”. The main purpose of the meeting was to consider the offer price for the Works. The suggested price was £5,600 but some wanted to “stick out for £7000”. The Chairman said “You’ll never get it. The Works may have cost a great deal more but in Appleby you cannot get a fancy price”. The meeting agreed not to oppose the Bill (to gain approval to purchase) and accepted the original offer.

Competition from electricity

As early as 1894, Kelly’s reports that “Bowness is lighted by gas, but the public lamps and the principal hotels have lately been furnished with the electric light generated by machinery at Troutbeck Bridge Mills.

The Director’s Meeting at Sedbergh on March 14 1922 [20] was warned that the Company would in future “have to content against electricity, as a party is now wiring some of the Hotels and Houses to supply them with electric light”.

In October 1936, Appleby councillors [21] were informed that sales of gas had dropped since electricity came to town and that there was no profit to be made from the gas works.

The stage was set for nationalisation and rationalisation post-war, followed by the paradox of the 1960s as natural gas revived the fortunes of the industry but at the expense of the local gasworks.


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. Roger Baker : Gasworks in Cumbria – the early years, in The Cumbrian Industrialist, Volume Six, 2006
  2. Chris Hollett : Sedbergh by Gaslight. Part 1 (1896-1918): Sedbergh & District Historical Society Newsletter No.10. Part 2 (1918-1949) : The Sedbergh Historian Vol.2, No.1, Autumn 1985
  3. David Gledhill : Gas Lighting, Shire Publications, 1999
  4. 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
  5. CRO Whitehaven SG11
  6. G.Mark-Bell : The city of Carlisle, its history and its gasworks, NW Gas Historical Society, 1989
  7. Alan Postlethwaite (personal correspondence)
  8. Advert in The Gas Journal, November 28, 1923, p.575
  9. Monuments Protection Programme – The Gas Industry, Step 1 Report, Lancaster University Archaeological Unit, 1997
  10. G.B.L.Wilson : The Small Country Gasworks, in Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 1976
  11. Roger Bingham : Chronicles of Milnthorpe, 1981
  12. Booklet to celebrate re-opening, in CRO Whitehaven
  13. as 4
  14. as 4
  15. CRO Whitehaven DBT 11/72
  16. as 2
  17. as 4
  18. as 4
  19. as 4
  20. as 2
  21. as 4

(Page created 25/04/07)