The Coal Gas Industry in London and South East England

The Coal Gas Industry in London and South East England

by Steve Fraser

The first use of gas in Britain was in 1792, when William Murdock lit his house at Redruth, Cornwall, with gas. In 1798 he used gas to light the main building of the Soho foundry. One of the employees there, Samuel Clegg, saw the potential of this new form of lighting. He left and in 1804 started a business, the Gas Light and Coke Company, with a German, Frederick Albert Winsor, who was the first person to patent gas lighting. The Company first demonstrated street lighting in Pall Mall on 28 January 1807, and it received a Royal Charter in 1812. It was the first public utility company in the world. On December 31, 1813 it used gas lights to illuminate Westminster Bridge.

Gas was produced in local gas works, by the carbonization of coal. This was essentially the heating of coal in the absence of air. The resulting gas was cleaned and stored for use. In addition, there were other products sold, including coke and tar.

Once people started to understand it, where available, gas was quickly bought into houses for lighting. There were other uses for gas, but it was not until the 1880’s, when competition with electricity started, that significant effort went into their promotion.

A key development for the gas industry was in 1855 when Robert Bunsen produced an aerated burner – the ‘Bunsen burner’ – which improved the combustion of gas, giving a more intense flame. The invention of the gas mantle by Carl Auer von Welsbach in 1891 was also important, as it gave a much whiter and brighter light.

There were down sides to the use of gas, as the burning of fossil fuels gave off pollution, while those working in the industry often risked their health, and their lives. Chemicals given off by the manufacture of gas included cyanides, oxides and sulphur.

The increasing use of gas caused problems in Britain, and in the 1950’s warning films were made, highlighting the danger of smoke-laden fog that damaged buildings and ruined the health of people living in the country’s cities and towns.

In the UK there were 1,064 privately owned and municipal gas companies at the time of nationalisation in 1949.

some examples of private gas company overprints

The gas industry in the UK was reshaped with the Gas Act 1948 which nationalised the industry from 1 May 1949, when the private and municipal gas companies were merged into 12 area boards.

Those in London and the South East were:


North Thames Gas Board, NTGB

Parts of the administrative County of London and of Berkshire, Bucking-hamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Surrey


Eastern Gas Board, EGB

Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely, Norfolk, Peterborough, Suffolk and parts of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Middlesex


Southern Gas Board, SGB

Dorset, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and parts of Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Devon, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Surrey, Sussex and Wiltshire


South Eastern Gas Board, SEGB

Kent, and parts of the administrative County of London and of Middlesex

some examples of gas overprints from the nationalised period

In the late 1950s the price of coal became very expensive, doubling within 10 years. This had a knock on effect on the price of gas. Oil however was cheap, and so an oil reforming plant was developed in Northampton. However in the very year when it opened, 1965, natural gas was discovered under the North Sea. The oil reforming plant remained in operation for seven years, until the natural gas was supplied to Northampton. Natural gas presented a cleaner, cheaper alternative to coal-based production. The use of coal gas ceased, with the whole of the UK being converted to natural gas in the decade after 1967.

The 1972 Gas Act merged the industry’s area boards and created the British Gas Corporation. Then, in 1986, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government privatised the industry leading to today’s open gas supply market, with competing energy suppliers. British Gas plc was formed from the British Gas Corporation assets and subsequently floated on the stock market.

Steve Fraser is the Vice President of the Petroleum Philatelic Society International.