video slots at SlotsDad

Sudbury by Gaslight

by Phyllis Felton

(Click on images to enlarge)

Cathedral on the Stour

In the mid 20th century Sudbury watched in amazement as a building under construction near Friars Meadow went up and up until finally it reached 10 storeys and dominated the landscape.  The red brick giant with its twin towers was quickly nicknamed ‘the Cathedral’, though religion played no part it its use. Its purpose was  to extract gas from coal to keep Sudbury’s homes warm and its ovens baking in the days when the town made its own gas and supplied Long Melford and Lavenham too.

The giant retort house captured on camera when the Suffolk Regiment paraded in 1959

There is no point in looking for the  building now. It was in use for only 15 years before a national grid gas pipeline arrived in Sudbury making the gas works redundant and the landmark building marked down for demolition. It was a particularly sad moment for former managing director Charles Edward Grimwood who had master minded the development of the retort house that he jokingly called  St Murdoch and all Stokers, a wry reference to actor Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch then a star of the long-running radio comedy Much Binding in the Marsh.

The giant retort house casts a long shadow (top right) in this aerial view from the 1950s

The switch to natural gas ended an enterprise that had played an important role in the life of Sudbury both as an employer and a supplier of light and heat. By the time the last valve was closed off in March 1966, Sudbury Gas and Coke Company had kept gas flowing through the mains for 130 years despite two wars, dire shortages of coal and bombing.

Lighting up

Queen Victoria had just come to the throne when gas lights first cast their glow on Sudbury streets. At the turn of the century Scots-born engineer William Murdock had begun a revolution in lighting, heating and cooking by producing gas from coal to light his Cornish home. In 1836 Sudbury’s leading citizens formed a company to manufacture gas. It was launched with £5,000 capital and among the subscribers were Edmund Stedman of Belle Vue, John Sikes the wine importer of East House, solicitor George Andrews, Richard Gainsborough Dupont and master weaver John Burkitt.

Sudbury Paving and Lighting Commissioners awarded the company a contract to provide gas street lighting in the town, though in some places oil lanterns were still used, most of them privately owned. The company lamplighter doing his regular round with ladder and pole was soon a familiar sight in the town though the contract gave the company the right not to light the lamps at the time of a full moon.

Gas lamps just visible on the left in this picture of Friars Street in 1863

The decision to make town gas in Sudbury followed similar enterprises elsewhere and by 1850 almost  every small to middle-sized town had its own gas works. The Sudbury company chose contractors George and James Malam to build their plant, the pair having already constructed others in Bury St Edmunds, Ely and Newmarket. The site spanned an area between Quay Lane and Meadow Lane with access to the river needed for landing coal. The main entrance was from Meadow Lane.

Initially five small retorts carbonised coal into coke by heating it to extract the gas which was purified before storage in a gasholder. The company had three of these telescopic giants by the 20th century. At first coal was brought from Northumberland and Durham by sea to Mistley at the mouth of the Stour and from there upriver on horse-drawn barges to Sudbury quay. On the return trip the barges carried bricks and other cargos. Using river transport ended in 1849 when the Great Eastern Railway reached Sudbury and took over the trade.

In early years there were problems with both Company and the works managements. The first superintendent Joseph Martin left after a rift with the accountant Joseph Garnham who was also a director of the company. The board of directors was criticised for mismanagement and in 1842 James Wright, who had replaced Martin as works superintendent, was appointed managing director. Four years later the works were leased to him for ten years which was then extended until the company accepted a tender for a ten-year lease from the Woolwich Consumers’ Gas Company.

Gas lamps on Market Hill

Illumination gas, as it was called, was an exciting new technology in an age when homes and businesses relied on candles and oil lamps, and by 1860 the company had 312 customers paying just over seven shillings (35p) a cubic foot. But others hung back, afraid that gas was dangerous. The Company countered this by distributing a booklet maintaining that gas was safer and easier to use than candles or oil. It reassured the timid that leaks could be detected by the odour of gas, at the same time warning them not to search with a lighted candle! Perhaps most persuasive of all was the company’s claim that the cost of using gas lighting was only a fifth of the usual outlay on candles.

By 1868 the company’s customers – there would have been about 350 of them – were complaining about the price of gas, the quality and the pressure at which it was supplied. At a protest meeting in the Town Hall one agitator lit two candles insisting they were needed ‘in order to see the gas,’ and there was were complaints that the gas company management and staff ignored their grievances.

The earliest gas lights were simple perforated shapes on the end of supply pipes. These burners had descriptive names describing the shape of the flame produced. These included  rat’s tail, cockspur, cock comb, bat’s wing and fish tail, but none was truly efficient. That only came with the invention in 1884 of the incandescent mantle which turns a gas flame into a glowing ball giving a bright light. These are still used in gas camping lamps.

Gas lamp with mantle

Glowing gas mantle

The Town Hall protest over the price and quality of Sudbury gas apparently had results because Thomas Hill Methven of Bury St Edmunds took over the lease with the existing clerk and payment collector Charles William Grimwood as his works manager. In time Grimwood was granted a 14-year lease and a Grimwood dynasty would remain in charge for the rest of the gas works life. Charles William born in 1849 was succeeded by his son Charles George, whose son Charles Edward finally shut down the main on the final day.

By 1880 the price of gas had more than halved over a span of 40 years and  the Sudbury gas company had 450 customers who paid either by putting a penny or shilling (5p) in a slot meter or had a credit meter that recorded consumption. By 1885 gas was being used  for cooking and heating as well as lighting and the company was selling gas cookers. These regulated hob and oven temperatures accurately, a big step forward from the guesswork necessary when using a cast iron range heated by solid fuel. These new appliances fed the demand for gas and by the turn of the century the company had connected 580 businesses and homes to the mains, and the upward trend continued despite the availability of electricity which in 1904 replaced gas lighting in Sudbury streets.

Local advert for early gas cooker with side water boiler

Impact of War

During the First World War the loss of skilled workers to the military led to a serious shortage of trained men and two of the company’s key workers would die in the trenches. As a precaution against air raids all doors and vents in the gas production areas had to be closed at night which resulted in challenging working conditions for stokers feeding the retort ovens. Coal was in short supply too, but the company kept gas flowing through the mains despite the difficulties. Then in March 1916 it had to overcome another serious problem after a German Zeppelin airship dropped a string of bombs across Sudbury killing five people. Neither the gas works nor any of the mains were damaged, but the town’s Emergency Committee panicked and ordered the company to cut off the gas whenever a hostile aircraft appeared. The company protested pointing out the dangers of suddenly blacking out the whole town and the Committee relented. The compromise was for mains pressure to be reduced when there was an high level alert which would also serve as an air raid warning for its customers.

During the coal strikes of the 1920s the company ensured supply to its 1,000 plus customers by using carbonised wood as a substitute for coal. It also did the town a great service in 1922 when a disastrous fire destroyed the historic Rose and Crown coaching inn in King Street. The intense heat came close to melting  lead in the windows of St Peter’s Church opposite, but Charles George Grimwood, who had succeeded his father at the gas works, covered them with asbestos sheets brought from the works.

The Rose and Crown - destroyed by fire in 1922

The 1930s was a decade of progress for the company. In 1934 it branched out by opening a showroom on Market Hill that sold cookers, gas fires and fittings. The last showroom at 18 North Street closed in 1992, the manager Arthur Gill had lived above the shop.

First gas company showroom on Market Hill

In 1936 the Sudbury Gas and Coke Company celebrated its centenary and two years later it acquired Lavenham gas works putting in a high pressure main from Long Melford holding station where it installed a compressing plant at Melford. The output at Lavenham increased rapidly due to the appeal of cheaper gas at constant quality and better facilities for renting gas appliances. Larger and improved washing and scrubbing plant was added to the Sudbury works and the company increased the size of mains in the supply network.

Aerial view of the Sudbury works in the 1930s

In 1939, little more than three years after the Company’s centenary, the Second World War broke out. Sudbury and the surrounding district became a reception area for evacuees from London and several factories from vulnerable areas also moved into the town. The demand for gas therefore increased, stretching the company‘s resources. In addition to that, difficulties experienced during the First World War were soon repeated. Labour became scarce and coal in short supply and often of mediocre quality. At times deliveries were delayed by bomb damage to the railway network but still the gas supply was maintained. Later in the war labour problems were eased by using Italian prisoners-of-war collected from a camp at Braintree. They worked hard and Charles Grimwood showed his gratitude by quietly handing over a weekly crate of beer.

Stringent blackout regulations again made night work extremely uncomfortable. The town escaped heavy bombing, but there were some near misses when enemy aircraft jettisoned bombs while being chased by fighters. The gas works was a prime target and the Sudbury men  had orders to evacuate to Friars Meadow in the event of an air raid. On one dark night, stoker Harry Chinery lost his footing and had to be rescued from a water-logged ditch, a story that was retold for many years. In one air raid bombs fell about 150 yards from the works bringing down ceilings and shattering windows. On another occasion a gas main at Lavenham had to be disconnected while a bomb disposal squad removed the delayed action bomb lying beside it.

A useful make-do-and-mend plant made from spare parts to extract benzole from gas was still in use several years after the war. The by-products of making gas also included tar, pitch, creosote and coke, the last being coal after all else had been extracted from it. This was sold through coal merchants for use in solid fuel stoves, the remaining dust going to the town sewage works for filtration.

It’s good for you!

Producing gas was a smelly business but even that was thought to be beneficial. The second Charles Grimwood’s daughter Kath, and other children with bronchial problems such as whooping cough, were encouraged to play at the works where they could breathe in vapours from the coal tar. John Grimwood, son of the last managing director,  remembers playing in the grey oxide powder used to purify gas as this was regarded as an antidote to chicken pox. One of his boyhood thrills was riding up and down in the retort house lift. Less of a  pleasure was the day he innocently jumped on to a tarpaulin not realising it covered a tar pit. He sank up to his neck before being hauled out and taken home wrapped in newspapers.

After the war application was made to the Ministry of Fuel for a permit to erect a vertical carbonising plant to replace existing equipment which had suffered badly from lack of proper maintenance during the war years. Permission was finally given after many delays and refusals, and work began on ‘the Cathedral’ in 1950. It was commissioned the following summer.

By that time the Gas Act of 1948 nationalising the gas industry had come into force ending Sudbury Gas and Coke Company’s long independent life. It became part of the  Eastern Gas Board, one of the twelve area boards covering England, Wales and Scotland. Managing director Charles Grimwood became the manager and a gas board employee along with the rest of the staff.

A bird's eye view for employee William Deeks c1960 standing on the 90 foot high gas holder

The end of the story

In 1965 the first commercial cargoes of natural gas from Algeria arrived in liquefied form at a new terminal on the Thames Estuary and a pipeline reached Sudbury the following year. The first North Sea gas came ashore in 1967 and eventually became the sole supply. In the meantime a ten-year nationwide programme was underway to converted existing gas appliances to burn natural gas which is methane. Sudbury was among pioneers in this programme and many outdated gas fires, cookers and curiosities such as gas-heated irons, went on the scrap heap. The giant retort house was doomed to follow. This press cutting photo shows the redundant retort house in 1966.A press cutting photograph of the redundant retort house in 1966

Charles Grimwood shut off  the main on the last day in March 1966 that Sudbury used its own gas. The plant was gradually dismantled along with more than 1,000 others  around the country, creating large open spaces in many towns.

Gas works staff in 1966 when it closed. Front row in hats and raincoats: L- Charles E. Grimwood R- H.R.Thomas (acting manager)

Vestiges of the days when town gas was king still remain in Sudbury. A disused gas light fixture still hangs in a newsagent’s shop in Friars Street. Another in a fish and chip shop in Cross Street has been  converted to electricity. The handsome cast iron lamp standards have been replaced, though two stood in front of St Peters Church until after the Second World War. Some remnants had a second life such as fire bricks from the retorts which were reused in a kiln at Bulmer Brick and Tile company.

Gas fixture in the Friars Street newsagent's shop 1984 - still complete with globe and mantles.

The gas works have been almost completely obliterated except for the former manager’s house in Nonsuch Meadow, now almost unrecognisable as its former self. It overlooks a privately-owned croquet lawn which was a bowling green used by the staff.

The site of two of the three gasholders is now a tennis club and the adjoining Scout headquarters is also on the site. Cheyne Walk was built on land that formed an access to the works from Quay Lane and was also the route of the main pipeline. At one time Sudbury’s ambulances were stationed here. Homes in Nonsuch Meadow should have fertile gardens because company employees had allotments in this area where they planted fruit trees and produced soft fruit and vegetables. Meadow Place housing complex, built soon after the Millennium, covers the site of the ‘Cathedral’ retort house and the surrounding area. Last to go was the gas work’s office which stood on the deserted site until demolition in the year 2,000. The only obvious evidence of one of Sudbury’s important industries had been finally obliterated.

The deserted gas offices, shortly before demolition

November   2010