History of the British gas industry

It's hard for us to imagine living without gas and electricity, but what are the origins of the British gas industry?

The lives of British people were transformed 200 years ago when the gas industry was born, giving the people of the country easy access to affordable light, heat and energy for the first time.

It spread like absolute wildfire, people were fascinated by this incandescent illuminated light
National Grid Director Jonathan Butterworth

Many see 1792 as the key date, the year that William Murdoch lit his house at Redruth, Cornwall, using gas.

Murdoch went on to work closely with Samuel Clegg in developing gas lighting commercially, but their achievements as pioneers in the field tend to be overlooked in favour of a German inventor.

Frederick Albert Winsor - who had seen Philippe Lebon's gas lighting experiments in Paris - was the founder of the Gas Light and Coke Company, the world's first public utility firm.

The company gained its Royal Charter in 1812 and opened in Westminster the following year, bringing gas lights to the streets of London by burning coal.

"The streets started to become safer and it changed the ways cities and the citizens in them operated," National Grid Director Jonathan Butterworth told the BBC.

Wildfire

The advantages were obvious and the services - and the need for power - multiplied quickly.

Gas

In 1816, Preston became the first provincial town to get gas street lighting, and the following year the first gas meter was developed and installed at the gas works of the Royal Mint.

"It spread like absolute wildfire, people were fascinated by this incandescent illuminated light that was so bright and so powerful," said Butterworth. "It took off all over the country and then the western world.

"Once people started to understand it, it was brought into houses. It was a massive deal for exhibitions and theatres.

"People came up with all sorts of ideas. Heated curling tongs with flames coming out the back of them, water heaters, gas toaster… Everyone was inventing and trying to make money out of utensils powered by gas."

Such diversification would be important as the rise of the electric lamp from c.1880 gave gas a serious competitor in the battle to light the land.

Bunsen's burner

The year 1855 saw a key development for the gas industry - and again a German inventor was at its heart.

Chemicals given off by the manufacture of gas included cyanides, oxides and sulphur
Jonathan Butterworth

Robert Bunsen's production of an aerated burner - the 'Bunsen burner' - improved the combustion of gas, giving a more intense flame.

Prepayment gas meters were introduced in 1870, making the service even more accessible and affordable for ordinary people.

There were serious down sides, though, the burning of fossil fuels giving off pollution, while those working in the industry often risked their health, and their lives.

"Chemicals given off by the manufacture of gas included cyanides, oxides and sulphur," said Butterworth.

"The working conditions were absolutely appalling. Imagine lots and lots of employees loading the ovens in rows, putting coal in, pulling out the old coal, and having the flames and poisonous gases hitting them straight in the face.

"The stoker [who put the coal in] was given a pair of wooden clogs and could get a new pair every month.

"This was because the heat and the ashes on the floor slowly burnt through the clogs, and after a month would have burnt through to the soles of the feet."

World war

Women were a key part of the story, and by 1914 the gas industry was the leading employer of females in the country.

Many toiled as sales representatives, secretaries and clerks, but World War I led to an expansion of their roles and women were employed as coke loaders, welders, lamp lighters and stokers.

Maintaining the gas supply was vital to the war effort, and the industry was at the heart of the production of weapons and explosives for the front-line troops.

At the time of World War II the service was still the largest coal-run gas industry in the world, and in 1948 Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government nationalised it.

Privatisation led to today's open gas supply market with competing energy suppliers

Natural gas

The ever-increasing use of gas was causing increasing problems in Britain, and in the 1950s warning films were made, highlighting the danger of smoke-laden fog that damaged buildings and ruined the health of people living in the country's cities and towns.

The discovery of natural gas in the North Sea presented a cleaner, cheaper alternative to coal-based production, though, and the whole of the UK was converted to natural gas in the decade after 1967.

Natural gas burnt at a much higher temperature, meaning that many struggled with the new supply and educational films were made to help people with their cooking.

The 1972 Gas Act merged the industry's area boards and created the British Gas Corporation, a body that would exist for 14 years.

Privatisation

In 1986, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government privatised the industry, leading to today's open gas supply market with competing energy suppliers.

The assets of the British Gas Corporation were initially transferred to the government-owned British Gas plc, before the latter company was floated on the stockmarket.

In 1997, the firm was demerged into separate parts called Centrica, BG Group and National Grid, with the British Gas brand still being used as a subsidiary of Centrica.

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By Sean Davies