Future of the gas works site. 1980s.

This report is included with some reservations. The copy it was scanned from had no identifying marks as to authorship, origins or ownership. It appears to be a document commissioned, possibly by British Gas, on the history and future of the East Greenwich Gas Works site – and is thus of considerable interest.
If someone feels they own the copyright please get in touch and it will be removed with an apology, or an acknowledgement inserted.

1.1 The earliest name that we know of is Lee Ness, which is likely to be of Anglo- Saxon origin, and mean ‘thinly wooded headland’ or ‘headland [covered] low-lying meadow’; it could also have been named by attraction from the river Lee which run northwards from the opposite bank of the Thames, whose name appears to derive from an ancient British river-name from a root meaning ‘light’ or just possibly ‘the river of the god Lugus’. .

1.2 Before a system of embanking was in place (by C17, probably earlier, and perhaps as early as the Roman period), this was a place of marsh, water-meadow, and reed- beds, and almost always liable to flooding .On the other hand, it was an ideal place for hunting wildfowl, and Henry VIII certainly hawked here from his palace of Placentia at Greenwich. Indeed, there is no reason not to expect that the Roman period inhabitants of the area (whether officials or natives) would have done likewise: there were, after all settlements of that date at Charlton, Woolwich, and Greenwich, and the main London-Dover road (Watling Street) ran within 2km of the south end of the peninsula.

1.3 During the Anglo-Saxon period Lee Ness was part of a large estate which would have been called Lieveshamscire (Lewisham-shire) and included Lewisham, Greenwich, Woolwich, Mottingham, and Combe. This estate belonged in 918 to Elstrudis, youngest daughter of King Alfred, and in 1006 was the subject of the document reproduced. Vow of Edward the Confessor as heir apparent to the throne In the early years of the eleventh century, the Danish fleet wintered at Greenwich (and, incidentally, slew Bishop Alphege over non-payment of ransom; at that spot, it is said, the church of St Alphege was built, now represented by the monumental C18 fabric of the old church of Greenwich) and forced the Thames up to London.

1.4 In 1588, Robert Adams drew a descriptive plan of the Thames, showing its defences (and Queen Elizabeth’s route to her famous Tilbury speech), among which are shown a bastion at Lee Ness connected by a pontoon barrier to one of the north bank at Blackwall, clearly sited not only to form a final line of defence before the City, but also to command the mouth of the river Lee which was an important navigable channel. [It should be noted that there has been no search of the records for references to this defence line, so that at the moment this plan remains the sole evidence for its existence.] Its appearance would be not dissimilar the Italian engineer Gianibelli’s 1588 design for defences at Tilbury.

1.5 By 1695 when Samuel Travers, HM Surveyor General, compiled a plan of ‘the King’s Lordship or Manor of East Greenwich’, the peninsula was wholly protected from flooding and had been divided up into fields, with a Watch House in the centre of the northern part. The only other building shown is the New Magazine, which by 1760 was in such a dangerous condition that it was declared unsafe; it lasted however until 1802 before being demolished. [There were constant petitions to Parliament in the early C18 for its removal because of the danger of explosion.] The C18 also saw the removal of Execution Dock from Wapping to a point on the west side of the peninsula. This iron-caged gallows can be seen in a 1782 view from Blackwall (figure 6). Towards the end of that century a tide-mill was erected on the east side just north of the river end of the modern River Way. This was the site of a serious explosion of a high-pressure boiler installed by Trevithick, which led to improvements in boiler design, and thus a footnote in the history of steam engineering. When the early/mid-Victorian entrepreneurs needed to expand from their cramped quarters in and around the City, the peninsula offered an ideal greenfield site, and by 1874 the Thames Conservancy’s river plans show a whole series of such works. On the west side (running selectively northwards), were at Enderby’s Wharf [now owned by STC] and Morden Wharf. Tthe consortium trading as the Telegraph Construct; and Maintenance Co (manufacturers of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable laid on an epic voyage by BruneI’s leviathan the Great Eastern), Maudslay Sons & Field (who expanded to this site in 1865 and were builders of innovative marine steam engines for, among many other ships, BruneI’s Great Western of 1837 and also the Time Ball on top of the Old Observatory in Greenwich Park). [This is now the derelict site of Humphery & Grey’s Bay Wharf Construction Co Shipyard, Bessemer‘s Patent Steel Works then Bethell’s Chemical and Alum Works, Mockford & Co’s Chemical Manure Stores, and, right on the point, the graving dock managed by Lewis & Stockwell, which still survives, having been converted into a river water reservoir for the gas works, and is now backfilled although structurally complete. In 1874 the north east sector of the peninsula was still undeveloped, apart from F.C Hills & Co Chemical Manure Works and Bugsby’s Mill immediately north of River Way.

1.7 The South Metropolitan Gas Company (now part of British Gas) bought the vacant land between 1881 and 1885 and thereafter absorbed more to reach today’s total of 99ha. The last two major acts are, of course the construction of the two Blackwall Tunnels, the first opened in 1895 and the second built between 1960 and 1967.

2.0 Preservation

2.1 Within the British Gas site very few standing structures remain. Of these (and of virtually all the other buildings on the peninsula) one stands out as a pre-eminent candidate for preservation: the Ammonium Sulphate Storage Shed, built in 1956 by the Demolition & Construction Co Ltd to hold up to 10 000 tons of dry powder. [This was used in the scrubbing process to remove ammonia from the raw manufactured gas.] Its reinforced concrete parabolic roof is a remarkable and spectacular example of concrete engineering virtuosity. Attempts are being made by groups such as the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society to have it Listed as it is now over 30 years old (the cut-off point). An out- standing opportunity exists here to seed the regeneration process by creating a major cultural centre which could easily gain international status. There are already excellent communications by road, rail, air, and water. Ideally, sufficient land should be included to create a parkland atmosphere, thus producing a resource more akin to Glyndebourne than the Royal Albert Hall. [See Appendix for a musical assessment and further details.]

2.2 Also within the British Gas site (on the south side of River Way) are the earliest standing buildings on the peninsula: Ceylon Place (a row of two-storey cottages) and the Pilot Public House, on whose front wall is a plaque inscribed CEYLON PLACE New East Greenwich 1801. These are on the Local List and clearly merit preservation
2.3 To the west of the massive cast/wrought iron coal and coke jetty are two gasworks buildings of c 1900. Further from the river is the wash house and nearer is an engineering workshop. Although both buildings have been truncated in plan, neither is without a certain architectural charm: the wash house has a series of engaged piers with corniced capitals of brick on its south wall, and the workshop south wall is arcaded. Of the two, the workshop is probably more suitable for preservation.

2.4 Finally on the site, there are three structures, all of which have some claim to preservation and all of which present major problems not only of refurbishment but also of integration within the overall redevelopment scheme. These are the massive cast and wrought iron coal and coke jetty of 1886 (the southern arm of the T added soon after 1903), the remaining gasholder (no. 1 of 1886 by George Livesey, the world’s first four-lift gasholder) which is a major landscape feature at over 60m high in an otherwise relatively flat terrain and the dry dock at the north end of the peninsula (1871, lengthened before 1890)
3.0 Archaeology

3.1 For most of its documented history, the British Gas site has been low-lying meadows, reed beds, and marsh, constantly liable to flooding until systemic embanking perhaps as late as the early C17. Changes in the course of the Thames as yet largely unassessed for this area, will have altered the topography, possibly in a fairly drastic manner if we consider the whole period of human occupation of the middle and lower Thames catchment area.

3.2 Much of the peninsula is covered by a layer of peat (recorded in ground investigations) between about O.75m and 5.5m thick, whose upper surface is at about -1.5mOD. This peat band is likely to represent the Tilbury IV marine regression, which has been identified in archaeological contexts in London and dated to within the Middle Bronze Age (later 2nd millennium BC). Analysis of this type of deposit allows us to assess the topographic and vegetational environment in which prehistoric Thames-dwellers lived.

3.3 On the sites where it has been identified in London, the Tilbury IV peat sealed a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age landscape which produced evidence for cereal farming (including minor structures such as platforms). This opens up the exciting possibility that (apart from areas disturbed/destroyed by recent foundations) up to 99ha of early 2nd millennium BC landscape underlies the British Gas site!

3.4 The archaeological implications are drastic, not least because, unlike the better known types of prehistoric site that have an impact on the modern landscape, such as Stonehenge, hill forts, and barrows, the sort of occupation site that might be, found here is more likely to be the remains of a temporary shelter and/or a scatter of stone/flint tool fragments and food bones. It is therefore almost impossible to predict the locations of such sites, although a thorough analysis of the ground investigation data for the area should give some idea of the’ topography at that period and hence areas that might be more likely to be ‘settled or otherwise used in an archaeologically recoverable way. That said, the importance of investigating a broad spectrum of the landscape must not be minimised, and it should be noted that piling is just as destructive of these types of deposit as deep excavation: in other words almost any typical ‘brown land’ foundation method will result in a total loss of the archaeological deposits. 3.5 Furthermore, slight though such remains as discussed above are, they represent an important (and often much neglected through their difficulty of recovery) part of our heritage and, imaginatively interpreted and displayed, can add to the ‘sense of place’ that is so crucial to the successful establishment of a largely new residential area such as is planned here.

3.5 Without the detailed study of the early topography of the area mentioned above it is difficult to estimate accurately the archaeological potential of the later periods up to the seventeenth century (by which time the river wall seems to have been in place), particularly as virtually no stray finds have been recorded which might offer some clues. One which was recorded (in 1948) from the northern edge of the peninsula was a find of C4 Roman pottery (one complete and one broken ‘vase’ from a depth of 7.5m), which need not indicate more than a relatively casual loss, possibly from a passing ship.

3.6 We must now return to the Armada bastion. Because the original plan was drawn at such a small scale (1: 63 360) it is difficult to go further than a location to the nearest 6ha. It is, however, clear that English Heritage will object most strenuously to development within that area without at least a full-scale trial excavation, which is likely to cost about £20,000 and take between one and two months to complete. Once the site is found, a major excavation will be required, costing perhaps £0.25M and lasting possibly three months. Post-excavation processing can be expected to cost virtually as much again. [It is difficult to be more precise at this stage, but these figures give a reasonably accurate view of the likely financial and time costs involved. The bonus, of course, is a site of enormous heritage potential and with major promotional possibilities.] While the visible remains, when uncovered, will .be disappointing to those unfamiliar with excavated structures, it will be entirely possible to recreate an accurate replica either on the same site (which is now perhaps 70m back from the modern river wall) or on the present river edge.

3.7 The opportunity should be taken, while groundwork’s are proceeding, to carry out a series of fairly small-scale investigations of the early river wall(s): we do not know at present when embanking first took place in this area, or indeed whether or not it was systematic or piecemeal. All these questions are, in theory, answerable, but it is more likely that we will be able to recover only part of these answers. Nevertheless, that part will be very valuable for building the overall picture.

3.8 Finally, the one thing that can confidently be predicted is that during these investigations we will find something that is completely unexpected, and that is supremely difficult to build into a budget or timescale.

The Ammonium Sulphate Storage Shed: Performance Possibilities. Virtually every new performing arts structure, and especially those for music, has proved to be acoustically inadequate (eg the Royal Festival Hall). It is therefore exciting when a building becomes available that has excellent acoustics to start with and does not need expensive modifications. Here some combination of materials and three-dimensional geometry has offered an ideal venue for the performance of early music (for instance Monteverdi’s works could for almost the first time be performed in exactly the way they were designed (both tonally and locationally) for San Marco in Venice, where groups of musicians and vocalists were scattered around the galleries of the church), and also for modern ‘electronic music such as Stockhausen, Boulez, and the Paris-based Institut de recherche et de coordination accoustique/musique (IRCAM). The purity of the reverberation here should be stressed-unlike some halls it does not distort the sounds, which means that both early (including Mozart and modern (eg Berg’s Lulu) operas would perform well here. Indeed, there is very little that .is put on at Glyndebourne that could not be put on here. It is, however, easy to ruin acoustics-soft fabrics and carpets are particularly absorbent, as, indeed, are audiences. Therefore, while portable dampers may be required for some types of performance, every effort should be made to retain hard surfaces. In addition, as little as possible of the air volume should be occupied, so that while the audience seating platform will probably require a slight rake it should be no more than 2m from front to back. It would also be advantageous to have as few permanent structures as possible, including the seating; in this way the utilisability of the building.


Return to East Greenwich Gas Works


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: