The cluster of gasholders on Twelvetrees Crescent, E3, is one of the industrial treasures of the Lower Lea Valley.
Originally there were nine, then eight, now seven, and all easily seen from the District line between West Ham and Bromley-by-Bow. They were built by the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company between 1872 and 1878 and formed part of a huge 170 acre gasworks beside Bow Creek. Altogether they saw a century of service before natural gas replaced town gas and they were last used for storage in 1984. Since then they've been left to decay somewhat, to the extent that in 2018 the Victorian Society placed them on a list of 'Top 10 buildings crying out to be saved'.
Over the last week as part of Newham Heritage Month there's been an incredibly rare opportunity to get past the security fence and walk amongst them, so I absolutely did. It turned out there was an ulterior motive, but we'll get to that.
One does not simply wander into a dangerous toxic environment, full PPE is required. We even received an email in advance asking if we were planning to bring any hi-vis of our own and what size shoes we took, making it sound like they didn't have much. So it was a surprise to turn up and discover, in amongst the usual helmets and plastic goggles, a shopsworth of shoeboxes piled up by size containing a full range of pristine safety boots. Such overstocking is a feat usually well beyond the capability of your average council heritage month. Also, as I was about to discover to my cost, iPhone cameras don't respond to touch if you're wearing safety gloves. I did my best. [7 photos]
Our 'tour' took us inside the hallowed perimeter and around most of the dead-end paths. It was fantastic to be standing amid the whirls of uplifted ironwork, but not too close, and don't touch anything, and whatever you do don't step off the path. The gasholders were plainly worse for wear if very much substantially intact, with peeling paint and ladders it probably wouldn't be advisable to climb. Closest to the entrance is gasholder number 2, still proudly numbered and bearing an 1872 construction date on some of the supports. The central telescopic drum membrane is slightly warped but no longer has any pressurised gas to support. Those peripheral wheels helped some of the structure to rotate.
Gasholder number 3 was hit by a bomb during the Blitz so had to be demolished. In its place today is a circular lake, considerably deeper than it looks, overflowing the original tank on which all the gas used to be supported. It's since become a haven for wildlife which most of the time gets to live here entirely undisturbed, which might be why the heron didn't immediately fly off when our hi-vis army approached. It's a shame number 3's vanished because it was one of only two gasholders to have been gifted an extra ring on top, which leaves number 1 as the only three-storey cross-braced structure remaining. Thankfully this is the closest gasholder to the street so the easiest to see when special tours are not on offer.
The space between the gasholders has become semi-overgrown, which at this time of year means a lot of shrubby trees and brambles. At the far end of the site there's even a dilapidated phonebox, 70s style, which staff in later years used when they needed to communicate with control... so obviously we spent some time looking at that as well. Our guide was excellent and well on top of his subject, often with a relevant archived image tucked away in his plastic folder. But there were still several moments when I ended up thinking "This is a unique site and we will only ever be standing here for 30 minutes, so what on earth are we doing huddled around a printout when we should be staring at the bloody marvellous stuff around us?"
Back in 2010 the proposed legacy use for these gasholders was as some kind of park. The plans for Lea River Park are still online based on the optimistic creation of a leisure corridor threaded down the river from the Olympic Park to the Thames. 'Twelvetrees Park' was envisioned as somewhere for adventurous climbing activities or perhaps as some kind of multi-habitat paradise for wider recreation - the artist's impression was impressively outrageous. But although the overall project got initial funding and outline planning permission, the remediation needed to turn these gasholders into "a London-scale destination" would have been astronomical and so sadly (but unsurprisingly) never happened.
Instead, it being 2022, the updated destiny for these gasholders is to be turned into flats. Of course it's flats, it's always flats, because the Lower Lea Valley has reached the stage where even the most toxic contaminated land can turn a profit if transformed into stacks of investor-friendly floggable boxes. The redevelopment of the gasholders at King's Cross into cylindrical blocks of luxury apartments showed what was possible and now the plan is to try that approach here at Bromley-by-Bow. The fact there are seven gasholders allows the developers to keep one substantially intact as a heritage feature and still have six left to make a pile out of. Throw in a pre-existing lake as a central feature and those premium 'penthouse chic' financial workers will be flocking in.
So the reason the Twelvetrees site miraculously opened its gates last week isn't because of Newham Heritage Month, it's because property developers St William took ownership of the site at the start of June. They're now embarked on a lengthy project to turn these Victorian leftovers into 2000 flats, the first stage of which will be the submission of initial planning documents next year, and don't expect anyone to be moving in for at least five years after that. Where we are currently is the Public Engagement stage where the developer tries to get the community onside to smooth the wheels for what's to come, and how better than to allow a few lucky souls inside for half an hour. Suddenly that pile of brand new shoeboxes makes sense, a piddly investment for St William in return for getting as many social influencers inside as possible.
The far side of the gasworks site, immediately alongside West Ham station, has already opened a sales office to offload the first of 3800 homes. Poplar Gasworks on the other side of the Lea is further down the line with the first of two dozen blocks substantially complete alongside Leven Road. That's another St William project and so is Bow CommonGasworks, nearer Mile End, whose 10 acres have recently been cleared in preparation to become a forest of predictable brick-coated towers. At least the Twelvetrees development should be architecturally more interesting given its cast iron circular constraints, but how much nicer it would have been not to have had to disfigure this world-beating cluster of gasholders in the first place.
We could have had a park, but instead we're getting insufficiently-affordable flats because that's what East London gasworks invariably become in the 2020s. If you get the chance to see this extraordinary industrial landscape before the highflyers and the coffee carts move in, grab it with both hands.