Gasholder No.13, Old Kent Road former gasworks


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Location Description:
Statutory Address:
Old Kent Road, Southwark, London, SE15 1JR


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Statutory Address:
Old Kent Road, Southwark, London, SE15 1JR

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Greater London Authority
Southwark (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Gasholder. Built in 1879-1881 by the engineer George Livesey and contractors Ashmore & While for the South Metropolitan Gas Company. The tank was constructed by Dowcra & Sons. Repaired by Clayton & Son Ltd in 1942 following war damage.

Reasons for Designation

Gasholder No. 13 at the former gasworks, Old Kent Road, built in 1879-81 by the engineer Sir George Livesey, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Historic Interest: the world’s largest gasholder when built, it was a pioneering structure and important achievement in civil engineering, inspiring the development of helical or geodesic structures; * Structural Interest: built to a radical new concept that treated the guide-frame as a cylindrical lattice shell for the first time, the gasholder had to be built up tier-by-tier since it relied on the complete circle for integrity; * Technical Interest: every aspect was at the forefront of technology; the wrought-iron standards were exceptionally thin, the bell used mild-steel for the first time, and the tank was the deepest then constructed and one of the deepest ever built; * Architectural Interest: the guide frame marked an important moment in gasholder design because it departed from the use of all applied decoration, and instead relied on the purity of the structural form; *     Rarity: the only example of this form of gasholder on the National Heritage List, Livesey’s No.13 served as the basis for several types, and proved a highly influential prototype widely copied across the country; * Historic Association: one of the highest achievements of Sir George Livesey, the outstanding gas industry engineer of his generation who spent his life at these gasworks, carrying out innovations which helped ensure gas became common place across the country; * Group Value: with the Grade II-listed former Livesey Museum (erected by Livesey as Camberwell’s first public library) and Livesey statue, and the locally-listed No.10 and No.12 Gasholders which together with No.13 well-illustrate the development of gasholder design.


The site originally formed part of the gasworks of the South Metropolitan Gas Company, which was founded in 1829. It built the new works adjoining the Grand Surrey Canal. The works were completed by 1833. Thomas Livesey (1807–1871) was appointed Chief Officer in 1839. The company prospered under his lead and he brought about reforms such as a workmen’s sick fund, superannuation fund and paid holiday. A plan of 1838 shows the gasworks on a narrow strip of land extending eastwards from Old Kent Road and broadly following the curvature of the canal. At this time it included four small gasholders, a retort house, offices and associated buildings. Small extensions were made in 1843 and barges were acquired to bring in coal. In 1848 Thomas’s son, George (1834 -1908), joined the company and helped to reconstruct the gasworks, which became the most efficient in London. He had been brought up on Canal Grove, a street next to the gasworks (his childhood home is still extant). George’s younger brother Frank (1844-1899) also worked as an engineer for the company.

George Livesey became company Engineer in 1862, company Secretary in 1871 when his father died, and subsequently Chairman. The company considerably expanded during his lifetime; between 1862 and 1908 the annual output increased from 350 million to 12,520 million cubic feet. He had wide influence not only in engineering terms at Old Kent Road (see below) but also in company management. Livesey proposed that company dividends and prices should be linked, a practice subsequently implemented by other major companies. Following labour disputes and unionisation in 1889, he introduced copartnership to employees and this idea of profit sharing was repeated elsewhere. In 1892 Livesey initiated a customer scheme whereby a gas supply with pre-payment meter, full lighting and a cooker were installed in homes without an existing supply at the company’s expense; the costs were recovered through a surcharge over succeeding years. It was adopted across the country and ensured that gas became commonplace for cooking and appeared in many working class homes for the first time. As a local philanthropist, George Livesey erected the first public library in Camberwell on Old Kent Road (later the Livesey Museum for Children, Grade II listed). He also served as a Sunday school teacher at Christ Church. Livesey was knighted in 1902 and a statue by F W Pomeroy was erected in his honour at the gasworks following his death in 1908 (Grade II listed).

The Old Kent Road gasworks increased from a 3 acre site to 36 acres by the 1870s. The 1875 OS map shows six gasholders, a retort house and purifiers, as well as a large area of open land to the east; Gasholder No.10 had been built at the north-west corner of this new land in 1867. Between 1879 and 1881 the company amalgamated with the Surrey Consumers Gas Company and, its main rivals, the Phoenix Gas Light and Coke Company. It gained gasworks at Rotherhithe Street, Vauxhall, Bankside and Thames Street, and Greenwich. Coal for the production process at the Old Kent Road gasworks was brought by sea to the jetty on the riverside at Rotherhithe and carried by barge to the works along the Grand Surrey Canal. The barges were then unloaded by two steam-driven grabbing cranes on the gantry at the end of the retort house. By 1896, the Old Kent Road gasworks included three further gasholders (Nos. 11-13), as well as a substantial office building (erected in 1881-2), new retort houses and engine houses, with a public recreation ground, cricket ground and allotment gardens at the south east. The ground conditions proved particularly challenging for the construction of the gasholders, and Livesey oversaw several developments. In erecting the tank of Gasholder No.10 in 1867, his contractors Messrs Docwra had carried out excavation in the fine-grained, water-saturated, Thanet Sand by installing dewatering wells in the underlying chalk. Livesey pioneered the use of Portland Cement concrete in a gasholder tank during the construction of Gasholder No.11, with a brick-facing, in 1872 (demolished in the c1980s when the tank was buried). The subsequent gasholder, No.12 (1875) had the first tank without a brick facing or puddled-clay waterproofing. The water tightness was improved in building Gasholder No.13 (1879) by using embedded hoop-iron reinforcement and the concrete was cast directly against the temporarily dewatered sand for the first time, thereby avoiding need for backfilling.

The gasworks became part of the Metropolitan Division of the South Eastern Gas Board upon nationalisation in 1949. It ceased production in 1953. The buildings were gradually replaced by new development. A recycling facility was built on part of the land in the 2000s. There remain three gasholders on the site (No.10, No.12 and No.13), which are now decommissioned and in their resting state.

Gasholder No.13 was erected in 1879-1881 with a capacity of 5.5m cu ft; at that time the largest in the world. It was built to a new design principle which treated the entire guide frame as a cylindrical lattice shell, rather than a series of individual standards linked together. This enabled the size of the vertical and horizontal elements to be considerably reduced but placed much greater dependence on strong diagonal members to keep the shape and to transfer shearing forces around the structure under wind-loading. Livesey consulted the opinions of the civil engineers Rowland Ordish and Benjamin Baker regarding the mathematical calculations; maths became essential for gasholders built on this basis hereafter. The new method required the guide frame to be built up tier by tier, five stages in all, since it relied on the complete circle for integrity. It enabled considerable cost savings; the total cost of £47,000 equated to £8-10s per 1000 cubic feet, less than half the cost of previous gasholders. The clean lines of the structure, which entirely departed from the use of ornament, eliminated crevices that might encourage corrosion and rust. Despite difficult ground conditions, the tank was the deepest then constructed, and one of the deepest ever built. The gasholder bell was the first three-lift telescopic bell to be erected on a large scale and also the first to use mild steel in the top curb of the untrussed crown (since replaced). Livesey had favoured George Piggott’s round-section cup and grip for the gasholder bells, which he was the first to specify during the erection of No.9 gasholder in 1862. They remain on the lower two lifts of No.13, which also have vertical stiffeners introduced by Livesey. Unlike any previous gasholder in England, No.13 used two types of rollers (radial and tangential) to distribute the forces from the bell to the guide frame. The gasholder was first filled with gas on 16th December 1881. It was repaired in September 1942 following wartime damage in September 1940. The opportunity was taken to replace the top tier of the guide frame, which previously used cruciform-section struts as in the lower tiers, with a stiffer rolled-steel girder.


Gasholder. Built in 1879-1881 by the engineer George Livesey and contractors Ashmore & While for the South Metropolitan Gas Company. The tank was constructed by Dowcra & Sons. Repaired by Clayton & Son Ltd in 1942 following war damage.

MATERIALS: Wrought-iron standards and struts, an iron bell and mass-concrete tank embedded with iron bands.

DESCRIPTION: Gasholder No.13 is a frame-guided holder with a capacity of 5.5m cu ft; at that time the largest in the world. It comprises 22 very slender wrought-iron standards (uprights) attached to five-tiers of horizontal members; four original lower tiers of struts of a riveted cruciform section, and a top tier formed of a rolled-steel semi-box girder added in 1942 (Type 41 in Tucker’s Typology). The frame was built to a new structural principle, which treated the guide frame as a single huge cylinder for the first time. It is 48.8m high and c66.5m in diameter. The standards are I-section plate girders with a slight taper towards the top and a depth of just over 0.5m at the base where they are bolted to shallow cast-iron plates. Strong diagonal bracing of flat wrought-iron bars is placed at frequent intervals, forming intersecting helices with 10 crossings in the height of the frame. The bars weave between the inner and outer faces of the standards where they are riveted to gusset plates. At the crossing points the bars are clipped together with a lozenge-shaped cover plate. The top girder forms a walkway and has a steel handrail attached to the outside edge. It is reached from ground-level by five ladders with four intermediate rest platforms attached to the N side of the gasholder. Paddon wind ties of steel wire rope support the top of the frame. A three-lift iron bell rises on both radial and tangential rollers from an in-ground tank; the untrussed crown of the bell, originally with a steel top-curb, has been replaced following wartime damage. The two lower lifts retain the cups and grips of George Piggott's rounded profile and the lowest lift has D-section external stiffeners of Livesey's bent-plate pattern. Guide rails for the bell are riveted to the inside edge of the standards. The tank is constructed of Portland Cement concrete with a layer of cement render on the inside reinforced by 25 iron hoops embedded in the wall.


Books and journals
Smith, D, Civil Engineering Heritage: London and the Thames Valley, (2001), 205-207
'South Metropolitan Gasworks' in The journal of gas lighting, water supply & sanitary improvement., , Vol. 38, (1881), 794, 833-4, 872-3, 913, 953, 993, 1034
Goodall, F, ‘Livesey, Sir George Thomas (1834-1908)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) (accessible online at
Montagu Evans, Report for SGN on Gasholders No. 10, 12 and 13 Old Kent Road, London (February 2017)
OS maps 1:2500 (1875 and 1896)
Trueman, M, Gas Industry: Site Assessment for Greater London 16, Old Kent Road Gasworks. English Heritage Monuments Protection Programme. (2002)
Trueman, M, Gasholders: Step 3 Report for Monuments Protection Programme, English Heritage (2002)
Tucker, M, London Gasholders Survey: the Development of the Gasholder in London in the Later Nineteenth Century (2000, Re-formatted May 2014)


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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