It was in the last few years of the 18th century that the concept of creating gas from coal, and using this gas as a source of light, was demonstrated. Coal, when heated in an inert atmosphere, yields a mixture of combustible gases which burn with a highly luminous flame, as well as many other valuable products such as tar and ammonia sulphate. The coal itself transforms into coke, useful both for burning and vital for iron manufacture. London adopted gas lighting in 1812, followed by Preston in 1816. Alnwick was at the forefront of this revolution with gas street lighting being introduced in 1817. William Davison, the pharmacist, printer and founder of the Alnwick Mercury, built a small gas production plant, possibly somewhere on Green Batt, which supplied eight streetlights within the town as well as a number of domestic customers.
It seems that Davison’s early plant was not successful. In 1827, the Canongate Gas Works was opened. The plant was enlarged in 1859 but by the late 1870s, the site was seen to be too small for the projected increases in demand for gas. Rather than provide extra land at this site, the Duke of Northumberland favoured the gas works being relocated and a new site on South Road was agreed.
The South Road Gas Works started operation in December 1882 with the old Canongate works closing down a few weeks later. By this time there were 136 gaslights in the town.
The gas works was periodically upgraded and became one of the main producers in the area. The use of gas continued to expand as residents started using gas ovens, and businesses installed gas engines to power their machines. The gas industry was nationalised in 1949, and that led to the increasing interconnection of different companies’ systems, in effect creating the beginnings of a national distribution grid. This led to the closure of smaller plants, including Amble and Rothbury. Alnwick continued production until 1964 supplying the local area. Following closure of the production, gas was supplied from major sites, such as at Blaydon, though the Alnwick site has remained in operation, providing storage and pressure control for the national gas distribution system.
A major change took place in 1972 with the local change to ‘North Sea Gas’. The lack of luminosity of this ‘new’ gas spelt the end of gas lighting with the resulting extinguishing of the last six gas streetlights in Alnwick on Denwick Lane. Gas storage was maintained until 1984, when the large gas holders were finally demolished. Pressure control is still carried out in a new facility on South Road, maintaining the link with the original South Road plant and its predecessors.
For detailed information see “Gas in Alnwick” by D.P. Dalby