Home | Membership | News | Diary | Walks | Calvocoressi Fund | Books | Links | Database | e-papers | About us

Notes and news — June 2014

In this issue:

Battersea gasholders under demolition

Demolition of the three water-sealed, telescopic gasholders at Battersea (GLIAS Newsletter February 2013) started in mid May and the whole site including the giant waterless holder is expected to be cleared by the end of the year. The site owners, National Grid, have a dedicated website at, while the demolition is in the specialist hands of Coleman and Company. The railway lines that pass the site afford unparalleled views of the dismantling process — take Southern trains out of Victoria, stopping at Battersea Park, for views from the west and South Eastern trains into Victoria (ie routes via Brixton or Denmark Hill) for close views from the other side.

The first operations removed the light, riveted crown sheeting and revealed the rest-frames, something not often seen and deserving some explanation. The shallow dome-shaped crowns of gasholder bells were supported when in use by the pressure of the gas being stored, but when lowered and depressurised they needed alternative support, conventionally provided by trusses spanning radially across the bell. The trusses usually landed on a central post for extra support. The sheeting was fixed by rivets to the trusses and purlins. An alternative approach, used at Battersea, was the 'untrussed crown', where the crown sheeting was unstiffened in the manner of the skin of a balloon and descended onto a rest frame. This extended across the whole tank and was shaped to the curve of the crown. The rest frame was usually built of timber (protected from rot by the oxygen-free conditions) and was supported by posts from the dumpling (the truncated-cone-shaped bottom of the in-ground tank). Omitting the trusses in this manner significantly reduced the weight of a bell, particularly when of large diameter, so less pressure had to be generated to lift it.

The Battersea holder station was one that I researched for my London Gasholders Survey for English Heritage (Sept 2000). It was established in 1871 by the London Gas Light Company, which already had three holders at its Nine Elms works. The numbering at Battersea therefore followed on from Nine Elms and culminated with No. 7, the 295-foot-high MAN waterless holder completed in 1932. The three water-sealed holders now being dismantled are:

No. 5, completed in 1876 with a guide frame of giant single-order cast-iron columns (the last in existence), No. 6, completed in 1883 with a wrought-iron guide frame of early box-lattice construction, and No. 4, originally a twin of No. 5 but rebuilt as a spiral-guided holder in 1963. The rest frame of No. 4 was evidently rebuilt then, using rolled steel sections instead of timber.

It is worth noting the changes with time in the proportions of untrussed crowns. When first used successfully in 1851 they were constructed flat, like drum skins, and so prone to fatigue. The first Battersea holders built in the 1870s had a crown rise 1/29 of the span, which looked distinctively shallow compared with later practice. Crowns then began to rise higher for greater structural efficiency, although increasing the inaccessible volume of gas in the crown. No. 6 completed in 1883 had a crown rise 1/22 of the span, while No. 4 when rebuilt in 1963 was given a crown rise of 1/13.

The demise of the Battersea gasholders is very sad. I had rated the site very highly in a supplementary report, but National Grid applied for and got a Certificate of Immunity from Listing in 2009, not consulted upon by English Heritage. When we learnt of this later, in the planning application for demolition, GLIAS asked for some structural components to be salvaged for future display on the redeveloped site (GLIAS Newsletter February 2013), but without success — in addition to natural indifference to such a proposal it's quite a congested site, and the two railway lines would make the manoeuvring of cranes particularly difficult. Some cast-iron company shields will be salvaged to satisfy the cultural values of those involved, and laser scans will create data clouds as a 3-D digital record, although I fear rather too coarse for the details — we wanted a full survey as original drawings seem not to have not survived. Malcolm Tucker

Piccadilly Line ventilation shaft buildings

On the east side of Bounds Green Road, just south side of the junction with Nightingale Road at TQ 303 909, is a Piccadilly line ventilation shaft with fans. Hidden by leaves in summer, the red-brick building which surmounts the shaft is only noticeable when the trees are completely bare. In an aggressively modern style this building, if in concrete and windowless, might almost compare with some of the work of the German fortifications engineer Friedrich Tamms (1904-1980) and yet the design is London Transport pre 1932. Nearby on the opposite side of the road is Wood Green old fire station of 1914, later used by ambulances.

There is a similar Piccadilly Line shaft and building further south in Green Lanes, on the east side immediately north of the junction with Colina Road at TQ 317 889. It was originally intended to have a station here but with the new trolley buses being introduced, which before mass car-ownership could speed unhindered along Green Lanes, Mr Pick decided a station here would be superfluous. Another ventilation shaft building, for the Northern Line, can be seen at Archway (GLIAS Newsletter October 2012). Bob Carr

Timbers at the House Mill

Advice from Museum of London Archaeology has recently answered two long-standing questions about the timbers used in the House Mill at Bromley-by-Bow.

It was already known from dendrochronology that the piles of the former Miller's House, built in 1763, were of pine from Scandinavia. During the work to restore the building, core samples were taken from beams and posts on every floor of the House Mill, which established that they were of Scots Pine from the Torun area in northern Poland. But this work did not include samples from the 'ships' knees', which support the joints of the beams and posts.

The Museum of London Archaeology advise that they were 're-used ships' knees, as are commonly found in industrial buildings in the lower Thames region. However, the knees were very distinctive as they were some kind of softwood, ie conifer species. While British shipwrights of the late 18th and early 19th century did use softwood species (ie imported conifer timbers) for many things, they did not use them for the framing timber or knees which were cut from bits of trees that had grown in curved shapes as appropriate. The British standard for large vessels was to use one of our two native oak species or one of their hybrids ie "oak"'.

However, softwood was widely used for this purpose in North American and North Scandinavian-built vessels. The nature and age of the softwood would require further study. Secondly, there has been interesting speculation on the nature of the wooden teeth used in the machinery at the House Mill.

Traditionally, mills used applewood; but it was known that hornbeam was widely used in mills in Essex, where it is prevalent. Tests by Museum of London Archaeology showed that the teeth were of hornbeam. Brian James-Strong

Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones

When querying the possible dates of a photograph of a First World War war grave with the CWGC I received the following reply from David Royle, their Enquiries Administrator. From an engineering perspective was this the first machine that could 'trace patterns' or was it just the first machine that could do it on stone?

'The major problem which faced the Commission from being able to produce the large quantity of headstones required was the shortage of skilled stone cutters following the end of the war. This problem remained until demobilised soldiers returned from the front lines and returned to civilian life. By March 1921 production had increased significantly and there were 70 different companies who had contracts with the Commission. The solution to producing large numbers of headstones and speeding up the entire process was perfected by a Lancashire firm; T Hodgkinson of Preston, Lancashire. They devised a machine that could trace patterns of regimental badges and inscriptions on to the stone. This meant that hand-carving could be kept to a minimum. Using this method enabled this company to produce over 50,000 stones alone in the first few years. This improvement meant that between 1920 and 1923 shipments of headstones increased from a mere handful to over 4,000 a week.' Peter J Butt

Short Brothers — blue plaque

Britain's first aircraft manufacturers, the Short brothers: Eustace (1875-1932), Oswald (1883-1969), and Horace (1872-1917) were commemorated on 17 September 2013 by English Heritage at their former workshop, railway arch 75 on the slip road behind the petrol station at Queen's Circus, Battersea Park, London SW8 4ND. They had worked in arches 75 and 81 and the plaque was unveiled by Jenny Body OBE, President of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

The two younger brothers, Eustace and Oswald, began their careers as showman-aeronauts. In 1901 they built their first balloon, and in October 1903 they received their first contract to construct balloons which was for two military observation balloons for use in India, this was followed by a repeat order in November 1904.

The Short brothers' association with Battersea began in June 1906 when they shifted their premises from the Tottenham Court Road area, the brothers living nearby in Battersea with their mother Emma, in Prince of Wales Mansions. This move was made under the aegis of Charles Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame, for he wanted the brothers to build his entry — 'Britannia' — for the first Gordon Bennett international balloon race in September 1906.

About 30 balloons were built by the Shorts in Battersea, mostly for members of the Aero Club (later Royal Aero Club). The balloons were filled with gas from the adjoining gas works. The English Heritage website has an impressive photo of two of their balloons with the Arches behind them, courtesy of Bombardier Aerospace.

Also it was at Battersea that they made the transition to aeroplane construction. In October 1908 the brothers were appointed as the Aero Club's aeronautical engineers but knowing that their mechanical skills were limited, Eustace and Oswald invited their elder brother Horace, who was then working for the engineer Sir Charles Parsons in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, to join them. However, even before Horace's arrival, Eustace and Oswald had tried their hand at aeroplane construction when, in 1907, they built a glider for the aviator (and later cabinet minister) J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, to his designs.

Although lighter-than-air work continued and the Shorts did not leave the site until late 1919, also as aircraft construction became more important, the focus of the Short brothers' business began to move away from Battersea to the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. This started in January 1909 when the aviator Frank McClean ordered Short No. 1; this was designed and built at Battersea, but needed a larger test site. And the rest is history. Peter J Butt

Paternoster lifts

(GLIAS Newsletter April 2014)

I served my apprenticeship at J & E Hall, Dartford who manufactured the lifts under licence.

When we went into the office block they had one of the lifts installed and used by most people. One of the chaps showing new people around used to show people what happened if you went over the top, he entered the lift going up OK but when it went over the top he used to stand on his hands implying that the lift turned you over. This did worry a few people until it was explained that the lift went over normally without any problems.

The lift cages had a guide fitted on both sides which followed a tube frame when travelling up or down and was suspended by a chain at two points which was driven by two large cog wheels at the top.

Under the cage was a guide that followed the tube frame over the top, but when the cage went underneath it was just suspended by the chain and if the person in the lift caused it to twist the guides did not align with the tube frame and the result had been known to destroy the cage.

I am not sure how H & S would regard this design now. Len Fiddler

Bankside Power Station

The article on the GLIAS website by Stephen Murray ('The rise, fall and transformation of Bankside power station, 1890-2010') interests me because of the research I have carried out on Lancaster Town Corporation's Electricity generation.

In 1891 Lancaster were considering setting up their own electricity generation — they had considered it some nine years before but wisely let it wait a few years. In August 1892 they sent a committee down to Oxford and then on to London to talk to power generators about their experiences. Our local reference library has the report of that visit, which I have a digital copy of.

The first place they visited in London was Bankside power station. The report has brief details of the equipment the power station was using. Tim Churchill, Lancaster

London Archaeologist

London Archaeologist Spring edition is a Bermondsey Special Issue. An article on excavations in John Felton Road discusses 18th-century development, which included rope walks. In the 19th century the area was dominated by industry, with tan yards, fell yards and glue manufactories. A second article discusses the development of the Thames waterfront at Bermondsey, where finds included a pewter baluster measure, possibly made by John Kenton, and ceramic vessels and glass bottles which are thought to relate to an ale-house or tavern. They also found clay pipes, bearing initials thought to relate to local makers: either Robert Phipps or Robert Pattison, and Thomas Woollard of Southwark. Timbers found in the foundations of a building were re-used and of ship origin 'as they would have been widely available because of the local ship-breaking industry'. The site archive and specialist analysis reports from these excavations are to be deposited at the London Archaeological Archive Research Centre (LAARC) under the sitecode CHJ06.

This edition of the London Archaeologist also reports the rediscovery of a monument marking the foundation of the Royal Naval Dockyard in Deptford by Henry VIII in 1513, bearing the initials of both Henry and Catherine of Aragon. The monument was retrieved from the bomb-damaged site in 1954 and brought to University College. When a new seminar room was created there in 2005 the monument disappeared behind a false wall. It was rediscovered during a chance visit and UCL now plans to return it to Deptford Dockyard as part of the redevelopment of the site. Brian James-Strong


During the war going west on the A40 at Cheltenham we passed the airfield where Gloster built planes and we saw the first jets taking off. The war ended and it seemed to me as a small boy that in no time at all the whole area beside the road was full with the sections of prefabricated houses on low loading articulated trailers pulled by the Bedfords and Fordson 7Vs that had transported aircraft parts.

When they came to Wood Green we were fascinated to watch a whole housing estate arrive four pieces at a time to be dropped into place by a mobile crane with a special spreader onto the rectangular brick built bases (complete with front doorstep), all around a pre-built road. I can still picture the 'services' being threaded up through a couple of hole in the floor and the waste water and sewage connected into special fittings as the section was lowered.

Many years later I worked for the exhibition division of Cyprien Fox. Our foreman erector Bill lived in a prefab at Peckham. Using all the techniques he had learned building exhibition stands he wall papered his prefab. His neighbours were very impressed and this got back to the local council. As a result he spent some time teaching the council's staff how to do the job. Bob Rust

The Prefab Museum (GLIAS Newsletter April 2014) will now stay open until the end of the summer. Further events and information:

News in brief

In Woodlands Park Gravesend, close to the Wrotham Road, there is an underground nuclear bunker now being opened for public visits. Listed grade II it was built in 1954 as a Civil Defence command post, with 13 rooms it is perhaps larger than you might expect. With the introduction of the Hydrogen Bomb, this 1950s bunker, being too shallow, became obsolete and was disused from about 1968. A deeper bunker for Gravesend was constructed beneath the new Civic Centre.

This celebrated example of militant modernism, at TQ 647 738, consists of the Woodville Halls together with Civic Offices and underground car parking. Designed as a town-centre showpiece, it is both extolled and hated. Built between 1964 and 1966, the architects were H T Cadbury-Brown* and Partners with Brian Richards. The exterior is clad in panels with large granite chips, sealed with Neoprene. The remarkable floor of the Woodville Hall, supported on telescopic columns, can be raised, lowered and tilted. Architecturally it is said that the Gravesend Civic Offices can be regarded as comparable in quality to the work of Denys Lasdun. Bob Carr

Next issue >>>

© GLIAS, 2014