Four black metal pillars in a half circle. About three, four metres high, standing between two blocks of flats in London’s East End.
To what purpose? Play things for kids? A work of art?
It turns out this part of London, called Tower Hamlets, was where the Stepney Gas Works produced coal gas for over a hundred years. Coal was shipped by barge on the Regent’s Canal, offloaded here and converted to gas for households, industry and the city’s streetlights.
Remember, London just beat Kimberley in South Africa by a whisker in getting its first electric streetlights in 1878. Kimberley followed in 1882.
Then again, our Eskom now tends to switch off the lights randomly: loadshedding. And to this day still burns coal – lots of it. On winter mornings the air in many parts of South Africa’s Highveld looks and smells toxic. There was a time when London was smothered in smog, its buildings black with soot. Nowadays it’s a lot cleaner with much less pollution.
Some of the Stepney Gas Works’s byproducts included ammonia, sulphur and coke – no, not the stuff celebrities snort!
We’ll get to the pillars in a minute… and I promise, it’s not too technical.
The purified gas was stored here in large gasholders. What the Commercial Gas Light & Coke Company specified in a tender advertised in The Times of London in 1853 was for two wrought-iron telescope gasholders 125 feet (38 metres) in diameter. Each was like a tank that fitted snugly into a brick pool and automatically telescoped up and down as the gas pressure rose or fell.
Think of it as a huge open-bottomed bell resting in the circular brick pool with its open bottom in water. This contraption was kept in position by 14 cast-iron guide columns or pillars 52 feet (16 m) high. Some were raised to 78 feet (24 m) in 1892. When the gas was piped out for use, the bell tank slowly descended between the guide columns and ascended again when the pressure increased as gas was pumped in.
Similar gasholders once graced the hills of Auckland Park near the SABC and the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.
As the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was developed into a residential area after the war, the gas works was dismantled. Fortunately, the developers retained four sections of the massive cast-iron guide columns as a memorial to the industrial era.
What is so remarkable, is that these are probably the oldest surviving gasholder guideframe columns of this type in the world.
And if you look up to the nearby buildings, try to spot the Commercial Gas Light & Coke Company’s emblem affixed high up on the outer wall. It consists of the White Tower and the Royal Coat of Arms on a shield.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets derives its name from William the Conqueror’s White Tower and the hamlets surrounding it in earlier centuries.
Anyway, this is not where our story ends.
Walking around this part of London, you’re bound to come across some of those ubiquitous blue English Heritage plaques denoting a special or historical place. On the Regent’s Canal there is one with the inscription: The first flying bomb on London fell here 13 June 1944.
In fact, the information board map on the canal at Tower Hamlets shows extensive bomb damage suffered during World War II. The Stepney Gas Works was clearly a particular target of the German military.
You may ask: what’s a flying bomb?
Now this is taking us on a different trajectory, but let’s be brief: What the Allies called a buzz bomb, the Brits dubbed the Doodlebug.
Nazi Germany’s V1 ‘revenge weapon’ was essentially a cruise missile, launched from occupied Europe towards London. It flew unguided until its fuel was spent, then dropped to explode on the ground. Londoners would actually hear it coming and run for cover.
Then came the V2. Brainchild of renowned rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, this fearsome ‘Vergeltungswaffen’ was a last-ditch German effort to turn the tide of the war. Von Braun became synonymous with America’s space programme that led to the first moonlanding in 1969.
The first V2 hit London on 8 September 1944 – exactly 76 years ago this week. More than 1 300 followed in its wake. As a supersonic rocket, nobody could hear it come; it took a mere five minutes from launch to hit the target, causing huge destruction.
The Stepney Gas Works was particularly hard hit with much of the Tower Hamlets area badly damaged. Which probably explains its repurposing into affordable residential dwellings after the war.