River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Fakenham Gas Works

August 2001

The continuing search for future fuels looks to the past

I recently wrote about the possibility of hydrogen replacing petrol as the automotive fuel of the future with the introduction of fuel cells as the power source. I also expressed some concern over the potential hazards associated with the widespread use of hydrogen because of its flammability and its ability to form readily combustible mixtures with air over a wide range of mixture strengths. The Hindenberg airship disaster demonstrated the problem in a dramatic and tragic manner.

It is easy to forget, however, that, from early in the nineteenth century, hydrogen was widely used for lighting and later for heating purposes in homes throughout the country. It was, of course, the so-called 'town gas' or 'coal gas' that was produced and distributed widely by gas-works all over the country until natural gas became available in the 1960's. Most towns had their own gas works and were easily located by the gasometer, which often dominated the skyline and, as I am sure many readers will recall, by the smell.

The gas was produced by heating coal in airtight retorts; this process generated a mixture of vapours and gases. The vapours were condensed to produce substances such as creosote and tar and a myriad of by-products; the coal residue was the 'smokeless' fuel 'coke'. The gases were a mixture mainly of hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide. These gases were collected in the gasometer, a large container inverted over water, and subsequently fed into the distribution network. Most of this distribution network was made of iron pipes, which had a nasty tendency to rust through in certain soils with consequent risk of fire or explosion. Gas explosions and fires were not uncommon. The presence of carbon monoxide in the gas also offered a means of suicide and 'putting one's head in the gas oven' was a meaningful phrase. I am not sure of the source of the smell; it was almost certainly due to the sulphur content of the coal. The old 'bad eggs' smell of hydrogen sulphide was evident along with the choking smell of sulphur dioxide, but I have no idea how they came to be released into the atmosphere.

Most towns had their own gas-works and Fakenham was no exception. Fakenham's operation was rather more modest, as befitted the town, and its gasometer proportionately small. Many of the old gas-works have disappeared and the sites used for other developments but Fakenham have retained their old works as a museum. It is the only surviving example in England and Wales of the small horizontal hand fired retort and was in use from 1846 until 1965. The works supplied 500 customers and was operated by a staff of eleven men. Nationwide 'town gas' was supplied to eleven million customers; gas production was a major industry employing a very large number of people.

The museum is open on Thursdays during the summer months and is worth a visit. Standing by the retorts it is just possible to envisage the unpleasant nature of the work of the stokers, the working temperature must have been far too high for comfort and, when the hot coke was extracted and quenched with water to stop it igniting in the air, the humidity must have been unbearable also.

Apart from the old works there is also a display of gas appliances and a small display of items and photographs from town history.

Ron Watts

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