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Notes and news — February 1998

Royal Albert Hall — South Kensington Gasworks

Some readers may remember hearing a wag remark that the Royal Albert Hall was Victorian and ugly and reminiscent of the gasworks. At first sight this does not seem a very appropriate comment and it would be easy to dismiss the gasworks connotation as coming from an ignorant person who only associated the Albert Hall with a gasholder because they both had a roughly similar outline.

However, closer inspection of this connection reveals more concrete justification for the once popular Cockney joke. Britain has a warmish temperate climate and here our gas industry developed the water-sealed type of gasholder familiar to us all. Readers unfamiliar with the details of how these holders work are recommended to consult Brian Sturt's excellent article on low-pressure gas storage in London's Industrial Archaeology number two.

A problem comes when trying to transfer our traditional gasholder technology to countries on the European continent which have cold winters. In Germany, at least to the east, Poland, Austria and so on the winters are just too cold for a Victorian-type British gasholder to work. Quite simply the water freezes. This would be particularly true for the water forming seals between the upper lifting sections of telescopic holders in an east wind (see Brian Sturt's article, figure 7). The solution to this problem was to build gasholders indoors where the building could be heated. A water-sealed gasholder in a protective building existed in Hamburg up to the late 1980s. Further east the advisability of indoor water-sealed gasholders would have been even more pronounced.

So we have gone some way to explaining the old Albert Hall joke. The building surrounding a water-sealed gasholder in central Europe might well be circular in plan to accommodate a largish holder efficiently and have a domed roof of some kind.

Only since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the removal of the Iron Curtain have industrial archaeologists with cameras been able to visit Eastern Europe freely and photograph industrial sites. Needless to say the pictures we have seen published recently are very interesting and they include photographs of gasholders enclosed in circular buildings with domed roofs looking very much like the Albert Hall. A good example is the view of Warsaw gasworks on page 7 of Industrial Archaeology News number 99.

Before the First World War well-heeled music lovers would have been familiar with Leipzig, Dresden, Vienna and so forth and no doubt saw gas works there of the type alluded to above. With Prince Albert having such strong German connections the old Albert Hall joke is beginning to appear far more plausible. Can we say that now the Iron Curtain has come down it is obvious?

Some of the exterior decoration of the Royal Albert Hall is very much industrial. Look up and you will see a rolling mill for working hot wrought iron, a broad gauge GWR locomotive and other manifestations of Victorian high technology. For late Victorian haters of that age's industrialisation these images would contribute to a climate of opinion which disparaged the aesthetics of the Albertopolis concert hall.

Perhaps the Germans had the last laugh after all. It will be appreciated that building water-sealed gasholders in large protective buildings is expensive. To overcome this Germanic Europe developed, roughly since 1900, a different type of dry gasholder, essentially a large vertical cylinder with a piston above the gas having an oil or tar seal which could be heated by an electric element in winter. Since the 1920s dry holders of this type have been built in Britain. Brian Sturt deals with them from page 19 of his article. You may know the example in London at Battersea.


The German-type dry holder at Harrow, Middlesex, used to display a white painted sign 'NO' for aircraft navigation purposes. Nominally the NO meant Northolt but it could also be taken as no, not Heathrow. There is a well-known story of a Boeing 707 pilot mistaking the Harrow gasholder for a similar dry holder at Southall and instead of touching down at Heathrow he landed by mistake at Northolt. Luckily the skill of the pilot enabled the plane to be brought to a standstill just before the end of the Northolt runway, shorter than Heathrow's, and a very nasty accident was averted.

Do the dry holders at Harrow and Southall still both exist? Perhaps readers familiar with the present situation might write in. Before the Boeing 707 incident the holder at Harrow carried a sign other than 'NO' which made confusion with Southall easier. Does anyone remember what that sign used to be? Bob Carr

Early gas industry

(GLIAS Newsletter December 1997)


Brian Sturt

The old dairy, Crouch Hill

(GLIAS Newsletter August 1997)


John Hinshelwood

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© GLIAS, 1998