With many thanks to Peter Healy who wrote a longer version of this article for the Amersham Museum website, amershammuseum.org.

Any reader who was living in the area in the 1990s, will remember the landmark gas holders which stood near the river in Old Amersham and dominated the Broadway.

Following the UKs conversion to natural gas in the 1970s they were seldom used for gas storage and were regarded as a ‘blot on the landscape’ before they were demolished.

However, we should remember that in the 1850s, when the Amersham Gas works was established, gas liberated local householders from lighting by whale oil or tallow candles.

These gave off an unpleasant smoky smell, and only a feeble light. Gas gave them well-lit houses and streets before electricity and electric lighting became standard, around the start of WWI.

The Amersham Gas Light & Coke Company, who constructed and initially ran the Amersham Gas Works was established by a Deed of Settlement drawn up and signed in 1855. The original deed is in the Amersham Museum collection.

The first 300 shares were priced at £5 each which raised £1500. Some 21 individuals purchased these shares. The largest shareholders, who were also members of the board, were William Weller, of Wellers Brewery (see Nostalgia October 30, 2020) and Herbert Ingram, the Liberal MP for Boston in Lincolnshire.

He was a papermaker and publisher who lived at Glen Chess, a large house he had built, in Loudwater, Rickmansworth. His papermaking business was in Chesham, and he was the publisher of the Illustrated London News, a hugely successful pictorial magazine which continued until 2003.

In the 1850s and up to the conversion to natural gas, the gas provided to customers was called Town or Coal gas. It was a mixture of hydrogen and methane.

Each town gas works required gas retorts, which are industrial ovens in which coal is baked to release coal gas. The gas was siphoned off and passed on to a condenser where it was captured and then stored. The gas needed to be stored because most gas production took place during the day but was burnt, for lighting, at night.

At this time gas was almost exclusively used for lighting with cooking undertaken on open or closed range cookers and heating supplied by open coal or wood fires.

So, the first task of the fledging Amersham Gas Light & Coke Company was to build the three retorts used for gas production together with the first gas holder. The retorts were constructed by Messers Bale and Hardy for £14 12s 3d.

However, as no minute books for the gas works have survived, we have no prices for the construction of the 1850s gas holder or the cost of laying gas supplies to the affluent middle class houses which could afford the cost of the service and the fuel.

The manager of the Amersham Gas Works was expected to live in a house attached to the works. He was paid around 20 to 25 shillings per a week and enjoyed free gas lighting.

The photographer George Ward (see Nostalgia April 19, 2019) was manager of the Gas Works in 1883 and then succeeded by his brother, Frederick Joseph Ward in 1891.

One use of gas, which would have pleased Amersham residents, was the provision of gas street lighting around the town. This first appeared in the 1890s and by 1903, there were 37 gas lamps which cost Amersham Rural District Council approximately £40 a year to fund.

It was the manager’s job to light the street lights every evening. In 1880 the company also agreed to supply gas for lighting to the Union Workhouse in Whielden Street with the meter costing the Board of Guardians 10s per annum.

The single gas holder of the 1850s was supplemented by a second gas holder in 1893. This was constructed by the Amersham building firm of George Darlington, who was also the town undertaker!

It was in this period that new gas services were laid around the old town and up Station Road to Amersham Station. A further gas supply was run along the ‘cinder path’ (which still runs from Highover Park to the Hyrons humpback bridge) in order that gas lighting could be provided at the rear access to Amersham Station.

In 1910 the Amersham company merged with the Uxbridge Gas Company and a new gas holder was installed. 5 ½ miles of gas main were then laid from Amersham to Sarratt which provided gas to Amersham Common and Little Chalfont.

In 1920, the owners of the Uxbridge Gas Company acquired the High Wycombe Gas Light and Coke Co. and was renamed the Uxbridge, Wycombe and District Gas Co. In 1948, the Amersham works became part of the North Thames Gas Board, one of the twelve nationalised gas utilities. Four years later, the gas works itself was deemed to ‘have reached the end of its life’ and was dismantled.

However, the site was retained as a location for gas holders, which were important to meet peak gas demand and a new half-million cubic feet gas holder was bought in to operation in 1958. The conversion of the UK to natural gas between 1968 and 1976 removed the need for gas holders. The landmark gas holders on the Amersham site were demolished in 1994 and replaced by the serviced office complex of St Mary’s Court.

Amersham Museum is now open Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday 12pm until 16.30pm. Guided walks of the old town take place every Sunday at 2.30 and the next Tudor walk will take place Saturday 26 June at 2.30. Please book online at amershammuseum.org/events.

All photographs are from Amersham Museum’s collection of George Ward plates and date from the 1890s.