Rail Roots on the site of the Dome

The article below appeared in the Railway Magazine in January 2000 and is reproduced with their permission.  The pictures are not included, since the quality in my photocopy of the article is not ok – and in any case I have no idea of their copyright status.



by Peter Excell

THE fact that two glorious centuries of British railway history are, by all accounts, being virtually ignored by those selecting exhibits for the Millennium Dome is all the more unfortunate insofar as much of the controversial structure is built on the site of a former railway.

As the former home of East Greenwich Gasworks, the Thames-side peninsular on which the Dome and its surrounding complexes stands was once a network of railway lines, worked by fleets of steam, diesel and electric locomotives.

Built by the South Metropolitan Gas Company in about 1886, it was one of the largest gasworks in the country, rivalling the giant Beckton plant on the north side of the Thames.

running on standard gauge tracks, were built to an oversize loading gauge and were used on  a separate system to haul large hopper wagons filled with red- hot coke from the gas retorts.   These were moved a short distance to quenching bays, where they were doused with water. Such systems existed in a number of the larger gasworks producing town gas from coal. These plants have long since disappeared, but identical systems are still used in coke ovens at some iron and steel works and at a few other coal by-products works.

phase ac traction, with power taken from three wires located at one side of the track (the running rails were not used for traction current).   At least one example of the type is preserved, at Leeds Industrial Museum: it was built by Greenwood & Batley of Leeds, but the ones at East Greenwich were built by Wellman Smith Owen of Darlaston, Staffs, which only built locos of this type.
LMS No. 11243. This had worked on the construction of Southampton Docks before going to Charlton and is now preserved by the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway. Although it didn’t work on the East Greenwich gasworks site itself, surely space could have been found in the Dome for such a small loco?

The’ second visit was to the gasworks, where three diesel, were at work on the main system. One was a Drewry/ Vulcan Foundry O-4-ODM, effectively a shortened version of BR .Class 04. The others were unusual 0-4-0DMs, built for Drewry by the small firm of Baguley, in Burton-upon-Trent (Drewry never built its own diesel locos). These locos would have produced about 150hp and were painted in a bright blue livery with yellow lining.

Inside the locoshed was the works’ last steam engine, a Peckett 0-4-0ST with an unusual short saddle-tank (most Pecketts had full-length saddle-tanks). This seemed to have been kept for sentimental reasons and it was pulled out by one of the diesels to be photographed.

Following this, the party was taken to see the electric locos and some spectacular pictures were possible when the red-hot coke was shoved out of the horizontal retorts into the coke car.”

This visit, and especially the sight of the coke-discharging, has always been a vivid memory for me. Gas works played an important part in the industrialisation of this country and most had interesting and well-kept industrial shunters.

No doubt the Millennium Dome will be an improvement on the long-disused site – but it is doubtful whether it will contain anything as spectacular as a gas retort and coke car.


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