Curator's Choice: Rotten eggs and hard labour at the last town gasworks in England

By Ben Miller | 16 April 2014

Museums at Night Curator’s Choice: Mike Bridges on the retort house at the Museum of Gas and Local History

A photo of large grey steel gas pipes
© Ashley Dace
“The retort house is the star of the whole thing. When you go in there you’re almost overwhelmed with it.

I’d grown up as a child in this little town, but I must confess I’d never been in the house. I was quite impressed to see the machinery they used to create the gas.

It’s like a series of ovens. They are about 12 feet long and two feet in diameter. The poor old stoker would have to shovel the coal in there by hand here, whereas in the London and big city ones it was all mechanically organised.

It was a lot of hard physical labour. They’d shut the door and the furnace underneath would heat the coal.

That meant the coal gave off all of the volatile substances within it. That’s your raw gas. The rest of the equipment on the site is to clean that up so that it is reasonably safe to push through pipes to people’s homes.

First of all they had to remove tar from it. The tar is still a very valuable substance. I know they put it on most of the roads. You can get pesticides and dyes from it, you can get explosives and medicines from it – in fact, a thousand different products can be taken from it by organic chemists.

The next things they had to take out of it were Ammonia and Naphthalene. They did that by cooling it down.

The gas was then washed. How do you wash gas? You bubble it through water. The final stage was to remove the gas hydrogen sulphide. It stinks like rotten eggs. It’s poisonous as well, so they couldn’t push it through the pipes.

It was removed by passing the gas over iron oxide. After a while they had to take it out and put it in the atmosphere. It re-oxidises, so you can use it all over again – a lot of interesting things were discovered in the 1800s.”

  • Lighting up the Gas Lamp takes place at the Museum of Gas and Local History on May 15 2014 as part of Museums at Night 2014. Hundreds of events take place for this year’s festival between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter @MuseumsAtNight.

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