Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: March 2, 2016.
Webpage updated: March 22, 2016

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Gas was first used as a lighting resource in 1817, when Preston in Lancashire was provided with a gas installation.  In that same year residents in the Borough of Plymouth held a public meeting to discuss the formation of such a company to replace the oil lamps in the Town with gas ones.  They formed a committee and with Parliamentary consent the Plymouth Oil Gas Company was founded and constructed an oil gas works in Exeter Street.  In 1831 a new business, the United General Gas Company, was formed to build a coal gas works at Millbay.  But as this held a monopoly and thus could charge what it wanted, the residents of Plymouth and East Stonehouse held another meeting, the result of which was the formation in 1844 of their own supply business, the Plymouth and Stonehouse Gas Light and Coke Company, duly confirmed by Act of Parliament the following year.  Not surprisingly, the good citizens of Devonport wanted some of this action.

The Devonport Gas and Coke Company received its Act of Parliament in 1845.  Its chairman was Mr M W Jeffery, who replaced a Captain Sanders at short notice.  Mr Willing was the clerk to the board of directors and Mr Thomas A Hedley the secretary and engineer.  During 1846 the Company laid mains from its Keyham Gas Works for the supply of gas lighting to the Royal Dockyard, the Gun Wharf and the Keyham Steam Yard.  The lighting was switched on in the Royal Dockyard on September 29th 1846.  The Gun Wharf and Steam Yard were first lit in the November.

During the first half of 1847 work was underway to provide 'uniform and efficient lighting' at Devonport Market.  The price of gas at that time was 5 shillings per 1,000 cubic feet and the Company declared that as at May 31st 1847 they had 763 consumers in the Borough.  Moreover, so Mr Hedley reported at the third annual general meeting in June 1847, 'very few of your original customers have been so unpatriotic as to return to the United General Gas Company'.

Between 2 and 3 o'clock on the afternoon of Tuesday July 24th 1877 the residents of Morice Town were alarmed by the sound of an explosion at the Keyham Gas Works, which was engulfed in flames.  Luckily there were no workmen nearby at the time so there were no injuries, although garden produce was severely scorched and 'some unlucky pigs kept by one cottager had their backs badly burnt', so "The Western Morning News" reported.  It was thought that the explosion was caused by a piece of rock dislodged by some blasting that had taken place near the site the previous day had pierced the largest gasometer in the Works.  This had caused gas to escape and this had been blown by a south-westerly breeze towards the retort house, where it ignited.   The 50-foot diameter gasometer was completely wrecked.  Gas supplies were restored by that same evening.  No doubt the event was the talk of the neighbourhood for many weeks.

Mr John Willing served the Devonport Company as secretary for forty years until his retirement in June 1886.  The directors voted him an annuity of 150 and the chairman, Mr R C Smith, 'hoped he would live many years to enjoy the leisure he had so well earned'.  His successor was Mr John Williams.

The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Devonport were enabled to purchase the Devonport Gas and Coke Company in 1901 by an Act of Parliament.  The legal transfer took place on January 1st 1902 but the Corporation took its time in paying for the purchase and the Company was run under dual ownership until that happened in May 1902.  The amount paid was 149,000, which included 39,000 representing the liabilities of the Company.  Very soon after the takeover a firm of consulting engineers examined the condition of the plant and immediately prescribed a comprehensive scheme for the reconstruction of the Gas Works.  The total estimated cost of the work was 80,000 and this included the erection of two gas holders on a site in the Saint Levan valley that had already been purchased because there was no room to expand the existing Works.

By this time Saint Budeaux had been absorbed into the Borough and at the first meeting of the Saint Budeaux Ratepayers' Association on Thursday January 31st 1901 they had complained about their lack of access to gas.  Their only hope was in the acquisition of the Gas Company by the Corporation.  They received their first supply of gas from the Keyham Gas Works in December 1902 courtesy of a gas mains carried across Weston Mill Creek by the London and South Western Railway Company's viaduct.

On Tuesday July 7th 1908 the chairman of the Gas Committee, Alderman W Hornbrook, laid the foundation stone of a new Retort House to replace one that was 'rotten to the core and positively dangerous for their men to work in.'  This building was expected to cost around 8,500 and the internal dimensions were 280 feet 9 inches long by 70 feet 6 inches wide by 26 feet 9 inches high.  The height to the apex of the roof was 50 feet.  It was built of dressed limestone and there was coal stores at both ends of the building, each capable of holding 2,000 tons of coal.  It was to be built by Mr A Andrews and Messrs Willey & Company were to install the equipment.  Also present at the ceremony were the Mayor of Devonport, Mr R Smerdon, and the gas engineer, Mr J W Buckley.  The Retort House was expected to enter service in September 1908.

During 1947 the Saltash Gas Works was closed down and the Town in future obtained its supply from Devonport.

In the midst of the post-War enthusiasm for nationalisation, the South Western Gas Board was formed and took over Keyham Gas Works as from Sunday May 1st 1949.  The works employed 120 men under the station manager, Mr Peter G Richardson, and works manager, Mr L P Price.  The Works was closed down on Wednesday April 30th 1958 but the site was retained as a storage depot for coke.  The many local housewives who had over the years complained about the soot and grime soiling their washing must have been very pleased.  The last gas lamps in the Town, at Stoke and Saint Budeaux, were finally replaced by electric ones during 1973.