The Wapping Gas Works Blaze

Wapping has
experienced a number of fires in the past few centuries and rumours abound
about how in more recent decades a number of warehouses were burnt down.
There’s one
year in particular, 1935, when Wapping was in the news as the results of some
rather significant blazes. The two conflagrations I’ve been reading about are those
at the Wapping Gas Works and later in the year at the Colonial Wharves. This post deals with the fire at the gas works and I’ll post shortly about the fire later in the year.

Wapping Gas
Works

The gas works
in Wapping were located on a street then called Prusoms Island, which now
exists only in the name of the converted warehouse that it ran alongside. The
street still exists albeit now called Hilliard’s Court, the name adopted from
the street that it ran into.
Map of the gas works 1895
 These days, we (or
at least I do) think of gas as coming from across the North Sea through
pipelines. Before the 1940s however, gas in the UK was produced in a very
different way, and was ‘coal gas’ or ‘town gas’. This gas is not the methane found
and collected in coal fields, rather it is a product of processing coal by
heating it to release gas. There was no national gas grid in the UK and so any gas
had to be produced locally. 
View of the gas works from the north
Wapping was no exception and at one point had two gas works, one  stood on the site of the old Star Brewery and after some businesses were convinced they were being overcharged, another was opened immediately next door. Eventually the two consolidated. However, both companies had an ideal site as they wereclose to the river which allowed ample coal to be delivered.
To produce coal gas, coal is heated to a high temperature in a process called destructive distillation and the gas is released (leaving coke and coal tar (asphalt) as by-products). The gas wouldn’t be a pure fuel and needed further processing using a ‘scrubber’ to remove impurities such as ammonia.
It was the collapse of one of the three ammonia scrubbers that led to the fire. In the map above, I think the three circles by the ‘C’ of ‘Commercial’ are likely to be the scrubbers.
At around midday
on Saturday 26th January that as a result of settlement or defect in the
scrubber’s foundation that one of the towers fell. When it fell, the scrubber broke
an elevated gas pipe, and a large volume of escaping gas suddenly burst into
flame.
Close up: Ammonia scrubbers may be the three cylindrical structures in front of the warehouse
Unfortunately,
despite safety valves, the gas couldn’t be turned off as the flames prevented
access. Not only could the gas works not turn off their supply, but gas in the
street mains started flowing back to the gas works, continuing to feed the
fire. Officials of the Commercial Gas Company directed that the supply of gas
should be pumped to neighbouring works.  Despite
this eventually being done there still remained sufficient gas to continue to feed
the flames.
There was a
significant response by the fire brigade.  A district call was circulated and about 25
fire engines soon arrived. Water towers were erected and hoses were soon
playing on the fire from adjoining wharves.
News reel of the fire
While firemen
were pouring thousands of gallons of water on the flames workmen were strenuously
excavating in order that street mains might be sealed and the station isolated.
At times the workmen worked knee-deep in water as it collected around them, and
they were forced to pause repeatedly in order to empty the trenches.
To make matters
worse, those not suffering the heat of the fire had to endure driving snow and
sleet.
It was only
early on the next morning that the street mains were closed off and after 16
hours the fire was out.
The explosion and
aftermath must have been terrifying. It was reported that houses were shaken by
the explosion which led to hundreds of people running out of their homes in the
square, bounded on one side by the gas works and on the other side by Clegg
Street, Prusom Street, and Reigate Street.  Windows in all of the neighbouring streets
were broken by the explosion, no doubt causing even more consternation.
Patients in St.
George’s Hospital, which overlooked the works, showed some alarm at first, but were soon reassured, and many of them were able to watch the firemen at work. The entertainments hall of the hospital was thrown open to people who had to
leave their homes, and arrangements were made to provide them with hot tea and food. One of the firemen, James Wailer, who, fell into some hot tar, was taken to the hospital suffering from burns, but his condition was not serious.
Despite the
massive fire, the chief engineer noted that “the
retort houses [ie where the coal is heated] are being maintained at their full working temperature, and it is expected to resume gas-making early in the
coming week.”

Whether
maintenance of the of full working temperature of the retorts was assisted by
the small blaze isn’t reported. However, this report seems overly optimistic as the gas works ultimately closed down.
There are a lot of photos of the fire on various stock photo websites unfortunately, I haven’t been able to licence any to use. 
Read this blog for a fascinating account of the intrigues of the Wapping gas price wars.

The site from the south post WW2
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