The early history of the St Albans Gas Works

The last gasholders of the St Albans Gas Company were demolished only in 2014, ending a nearly two hundred years’ provision for gas lighting and heating the town. Kate Morris tells the story of how gas came to St Albans

Gasometers, Griffith Way, St Albans (© Nigel Cox, Creative Commons Licence)

Early promise, but a slow start in St Albans

The early success of the Gaslight and Coke Company in London from 1812 heralded many more across the country.

In St Albans the story began in 1822 with authorisation to dig up roads for pipes granted to Joseph Hedley. With no apparent development by 1824, correspondence began with the General Gaslight Company. Time passed, but in 1831, a small plot of land at the foot of St Stephen’s Hill was taken to progress the venture. Distanced from the town centre, foul smells generated by such works and the risks of fire and explosion could be avoided. A fire at the site already in October 1833 was fortunately contained by the engine’s prompt attendance.

Large gasometers built on site

With land secured, gasometers were built by gas engineer, Nathan Defries, and their substantial scale is clear from the St Stephen’s tithe map of 1838. The gasometers also appear as circles in the extract below of the 1897 Ordnance Survey map.

At the front of the plot, adjacent to the street was the ‘Gas House’, occupied by banker Henry Edwards as under-tenant from leaseholder James Matthias Gilbertson, a wealthy linendraper from Hertford. By 1841 Edward Hunt and Joseph Allen were resident ‘at the gas works’.

But financial success was elusive. In the early 1840s it seems Edwards had lost interest in the venture and it was bought for the young civil engineer John Marsh Edward Stokes by his indulgent father. However, his bankruptcy proceedings as ‘gas contractor in St Albans’ already in early 1844 demonstrate the challenge. The sale of his goods, in December 1843, included nearly new modern and genteel household furniture, 12 dozen of superior port wine, a neat gig, two ponies and a Shetland pony, pigs and poultry, a quantity of new gas fittings and meters, tools, pipes, dung and water carts and 100 tons of coal, 30 chaldrons of coke and 60 coal sacks.

Stokes’ father’s will described his mortgage of property to support his ‘unfortunate’ son – ‘unfortunate’ indeed, since Stokes was in 1847 sentenced to seven years’ transportation following charges of larceny. The business was continued by John Benjamin Stammers. But success eluded him too and in 1852, Stammers also had to admit failure and seek bankruptcy.

Gas lighting and piped water

However, there was demand in the town for gas lighting and also piped water direct to domestic premises. A new company for each of these utilities was established with Richard Gibbs, otherwise of the town’s newspaper and printing works, as Manager and Treasurer. The Water Company was based at Snatchup in the north of the town with boreholes on Bernard’s Heath.

Rail connection made supplying coal easier

A major improvement for the Gas Company occurred with the arrival in 1858 of the long awaited rail connection with the London and North Western Railway at Watford. Its terminus was adjacent to the gas works, as can be seen in the Ordnance Survey map above. No longer need the all-important coal be delivered by cart from the canal at distant Boxmoor.

Under Gibbs the house at the Gas Works was not required and, tempted by the forthcoming advent of the railway line, Watford brewer George Fearnley Whittingstall took it on for an alehouse – the Railway Tavern.

Following Gibbs’ withdrawal from management of the works in 1869, so under the new manager, civil engineer, Arthur J Phillips, the company bought the freehold of the site from head landlords, the churchwardens of St Peter’s parish. Nearby competition had rendered Whittingstall’s public house unprofitable and its closure in 1872 vacated the house once more for the management.

Phillips lived on site until his retirement to the more salubrious and newly-developed Hatfield Road, and in 1894 the 8-bedroom property with bathroom, pleasant living rooms, garden, vineries and tennis lawn was let and a resident foreman left on the site.

Manufactured gas was no longer required on the introduction of natural gas from the North Sea in the 1960s, but the site, by then too contaminated for housing, was developed as our Abbey View Retail Park for ‘out of town’ shopping.