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Fanny by Gaslight

Aberdeen was at 1st illuminated with Gas extracted from oil, by a company established in 1824; but finding it an unprofitable undertaking, they afterwards had recourse to coal-gas, in the production of which the best parrot-coal is used, and the streets are now brilliantly lighted with gas, carefully purified, and conducted by cast-iron pipes, of which the aggregate length exceeds 48 miles: the works are extensive, and conveniently situated in the lower part of the town.  Parrot Coal - a term for Gas Coal, often but not always restricted to such as is of inferior quality. This name has probably been derived from the crackling noise made by this type of coal during burning.

Gas Light Co. of Aberdeen
Directors & Committee of Management.
Chairman. - Newell Burnett.
Anthony Cruickshank.
J. Duncan,
Alexander Jopp.
Newell Burnett.
John Webster.
James Giles.
Alexander Gibb.
William Adam.
Manager and Secretary. - George Gordon.
Superintendent - James Leslie
Assistant Superintendent - James Chalmers.
Collectors.- James Crane,
Alexander W. Ledingham, and Wm. Moir.
Meter-Inspector - Alex. Forbes.
Clerics - John B. Simpson and W. H, Shanks,

Aberdeen's Gas Industry dates back to 1824 when the 1st Gas Works were set up at Gas Lane, Poynernook. This part of the Harbour allowed ships with coals to berth near the then Gasworks, the site of which was in the open space on the East of the Joint Station.  A public supply came in 1824 when, using oil as the energy source, the Aberdeen Gas Light Company produced gas to light 242 street lamps.
A New Gas Light Company was set up in
1843. Its gasworks were established at Sandilands near the Beach.

In 1871 Aberdeen Corporation took over the works and ran it until nationalisation in 1949. Final closure of the City's Gasworks came in 1975 when the oil reforming plant built in adjacent Miller Street took over from coal. The Miller Street plant was short lived, closing in 1979 bringing a final end to gas making in Aberdeen after 155 years as North Sea Gas replaced all the local gas works in the UK when the flow of Natural Gas from the offshore fields became available.  Gas must have provided a quite stunning improvement to people’s ability to read, write or sew in the evenings with minimal effort following prevalent whale oil lamps and candles. It nevertheless had many drawbacks.  There were frequent explosions, and it replaced the oxygen in the air with black and noxious deposits.  The aspidistra, a hugely popular plant, became so because it survived well in oxygen-starved conditions due to near hermetically sealed rooms to avoid drafts.  Victorian ladies frequently fainted partly because of tight-lacing, but also because of a lack of oxygen in their gas-lit rooms.

Domestic Gas provided light and cooking to supplement the heat and light received by the open coal-fired range which itself was often lit using a a gas 'Poker' - an improvised perforated brass or more often copper tube with a flattened business end. It was simply connected to the gas supply by an oft perishing rubber hose.  When ignited it could be plunged in the coals to start the fire without kindling.  Unlike the illustration here there was no protection from conducted heat other than by its length for heat dissipationThe nipple on the end of the posh version was for connecting the rubber tube supplying the gas flow.

Brass Wall Light   WL96 Lighting was by means of a hinged Bracket Gas Lamp Bracket with a protective glass shade and a plate suspended on a chain to prevent overheating and staining of the ceiling by the heat generated..  It was necessary to fit a preformed asbestos gas mantle to give a brilliant white light which could be controlled like a dimmer by using the volume delivery gas tap.  It gave a re-assuring hiss reminiscent of a Tilley lamp. These were consumer items and often were broken due to heat or dismantling and often simply discarded pending another replacement.  The  all important gas mantle would be inevitably be punctured by matches or by smokers lighting cigarettes which reduced the lights efficiency dramatically; requiring their instant replacement.  All was jolly till the gas run out and dimmed dramatically urging a rush into a dark room recessed cupboard to insert the penny in the meter to continue the supply before it finally extinguished with a plopping sound - that is if there were any pennies left for the purpose.  Many a bairn had to sit in the fearful darkness of the 2 roomed attic for a parent returning from the pub. With only the coal fire flickering ghostly shadows on the attic walls and rendering fear into total panic due to imagined and ever changing seemingly clutching spectres.  With a family of 3 my mother had only a single gas ring to boil water on and cooking was continued on the side of the fire range giving every kettle and pot a liberal coating of coal soot.  Downstairs below attic level they had the luxury of electric lighting at the touch of a switch.  In good times there would always be a stack of pennies on the Mantlepiece that would suffice both the voracious meter and the hunger of a child enticed by an ice cream man to amortize 3d from the family provision for ongoing gas light and cooking.   The meter would be emptied by the Gas Board and any rebate on the tariff per Therm returned to the customer - like a small but welcome savings account.

Street lighting was by a gas lamp standard allowing extended play periods if you were lucky to have one outside your Tenement doorway.  It provided a vertical climbing frame and one could hang from the cross bars provided for the maintenance ladder support.  These were all auto ignition on a pilot light with a clockwork mechanism and these too had mantles that needed to be changed when they disintegrated due to vibration from enthusiastic climbers, movers and shakers.

The Gas Works

One severe winter Circa 1946 'I mine ma chappit knees' bringing me tae tears of desperation for a wee ladle of Goose Fat to use as embrocation - the local authority granted that families could collect coke from the gasworks FOR FREE – They didna tell ye  the stuff was a devil to ignite needing a deal of heat which we couldn't generate easily without a bellows..  A Galvanised bath full or two would be dragged o’er the Tarry Brig and up 6 flights of stairs by the family junior workforce of 3 lads with no shame.  Mither could hide herself -  black affronted under these circumstances seemingly 'begging' for such an irrestistable bargain.

A view of Aberdeen Gas Works and John Miller's Sandilands Chemical Works about 1897. Miller's chemical works was sometimes known as "Stinky Miller's" because of the unpleasant smells that came from there. The gas works at the Beach were opened in 1843 and the chemical works in 1848.
The sulphurous fumes would kill all laurel vegetation planted as a wind break on the edge of the links. So wee lads like me lost our Tarzan's jungle in the interests of Chemical Commerce.   Behind Cotton Street was a temporary reservoir for the wartime fire brigade that gave us the alternative of becoming Pirates punting on old door rafts with flotation barrels instead – nae fear a that now eh.  Now did those Sea Beach trams really go down Constitution Street ages ago – the narrow canal/railway bridge must have been the obstacle before the Beach Boulevard was finally opened by Her Majesty - ERll. 

John Miller & Co, Sandilands, was taken over by ICI in 1928. Located next to the gas works, the chemical works utilized the waste products of its neighbour. The gasholders contained 500,000 cubic feet each in 1953, at which time the chemical output included 1,550 tons of sulphate of ammonia, 10,000 of tar and three million gallons of Benzole.  Miller Street is named after the Owner.

The coal which is used in these works for the production of gas is the best parrot coal, which, reckoning the average of the stock at present on hand, costs them about £1, 8s. per ton laid down at the works. At one time they were able to procure the same coal as low as 13s. per ton, but in the latter part of 1836, owing to a scarcity of this coal, they were under the necessity for a time of using Wigan coal, which cost them not less than £1-16s. The parrot coal is capable of yielding 6 Cubic feet of gas per lb., but in these works it is scarcely ever pushed beyond 4½ cubic feet, which is worked off in a 4 hours charge. The retorts employed are partly iron and partly of fire-brick, the former cylindrical or kidney-shaped, the latter flat, elliptical, or D shaped. The number fitted up is at present about 64, some of which are heated by coal and coke, but a good many are worked off entirely by the tar of former distillations; and generally about one-half of the retorts are in operation at once during the winter, but in summer from four to ten are sufficient. The gas produced is 1st subjected to atmospheric cold in an extensive series of condensing pipes, and afterwards purified by being passed 1st through a vessel containing lime diffused in water, and then through several trays filled with dry lime; after which it passes into a meter, to which Mr Massie, the then Superintendent of the works, has ingeniously adapted a clock, bearing a pencil attached to the minute hand, which marks, on a card that revolves with the meter, the quantity of gas produced in each hour. The gas then passes into the Gasometers, whose contents are at present about 93,000 feet, but another, capable of holding 61,000, was soon erected ready for use.

The works are conveniently situated in the lower part of the town, and the whole of the arrangements are well contrived. The Company have hitherto been always careful to employ the best quality of coals only, and to this and the intelligence and activity of their manager is greatly to be ascribed the high degree of success which has attended the speculation; the gas produced at these works being, it is believed, fully equal, if not superior in quality to that made in any other part of the kingdom.

Mr Massie, not content with simply producing and purifying gas according to the methods usually received, has applied his ingenuity to the contrivance of various means for testing the purity and value of the gas, with a view of detecting and obviating any occasional failure, among which may be noticed an instrument for detecting the presence of sulphuretted hydrogen by means of a jet of gas thrown on a revolving disk moistened with a solution of acetate of lead, and a contrivance for testing the illuminating power by the number of plates of colourless glass of uniform thickness and texture through which the light from a flame of a given size can be discerned.

The consumption has been gradually increasing since the use of oil gas was relinquished, and at present the nightly distribution is about 140,000 feet in winter, and about 18,000 feet in summer. The consumers may be thus classed: manufactories and weaving-shops, 111; shops and warehouses, 1211; private houses, 1336; churches, 27; schools and lecture-rooms, 50; public institutions, 33; besides 1075 public lamps for lighting the streets.

Aerial view of the St Clements-Aberdeen Links area, 1951.  In the 19th century a whole cluster of industries developed here. Most prominent amongst them was the Gasworks, seen here with its three storage tanks and buildings immediately to the right.  In 1843 the New Gas Light Company opened its works on the site. This eventually replaced Aberdeen's first gasworks which was at Poynernook. Adjacent to the gasworks is Sandilands Chemical Works. George Miller of Glasgow came to the city in 1848, (hence Miller Street) leased the land and agreed to re-process ammoniac water produced in gas manufacture, this he turned into fertiliser.

In the foreground is the large timber yard of John Fleming & Co. John Fleming began his Aberdeen business in August 1877. However, it was only in 1884 that he opened a sawmill in the city, this was at Albert Quay. In 1903 the company moved to large new premises near the Gasworks.  There was a fine Beam Steam Engine in the works. Nestling amongst the noise of the shipyards and pungent smells of chemical industry, is St Clement's Kirk, built in 1828. In the Disruption of 1843 the Minister Alexander Spence, with most of the congregation, helped form the Free Church of Scotland.

Queen's Links, Cotton Street Gasworks, Sandilands Chemical works and the Banner Mill. In the background central Aberdeen. Also visible are WW II anti-landing ditches on the Queen's Links and the links Beach Station. 

Sandilands Chemical Works. Storage tanks for Tar / Ammonia distillate pumped from the Gas Works. John Miller and Co. started business in 1848 having the expertise to convert this distillate into various oils and other products. Gas Works had started in 1844. The sections were made of cast iron and were bolted together to form storage tanks. These could be dismantled and re-sited as required.

The new phosphate store (capacity 20,000 tons) at Sandilands Chemical Works, built next to the Garvock Wynd boundary wall. The phosphate rock came into Aberdeen from the Pacific Islands and Russia by ship to be unloaded at International Quay and then transferred to Sandilands by lorry. The lorries then tipped their loads into an underground hopper and conveyor system through a grid opening at ground level. The phosphate was then lifted by an elevator to an overhead conveyor from which it was tipped into the store. The material was then trimmed using a bulldozer. One operator was responsible for the operation of unloading the phosphate including the trimming operation. The phosphate was removed from the store by means of a mechanical shovel and used in the production of phosphoric acid.

Gas making in Aberdeen commenced in 1824 when the Aberdeen Gas Light Company established its works in Poynernook, close to the site of the current Railway Station. However in 1844, the Aberdeen New Gas Light Company was formed in opposition and erected its gas works at Sandilands. The 2 companies merged in 1846 and the Poynernook site was abandoned in favour of Sandilands. The gas company's undertakings were transferred to the Aberdeen Town Council in 1871 by Act of Parliament and gas manufacture on the Sandilands site continued till closure in 1975 when the oil reforming plant built in adjacent Miller Street took over from coal. The Miller Street plant was short lived, closing in 1979 bringing a final end to gas making in Aberdeen after 155 years as North Sea Gas replaced all the local gas works in the UK.

In the early 1820's, gas was manufactured from oil, but the cost was high (£2/1000 cu.ft). However, by 1828, the process of converting coal to gas was well established and the cost of manufacture at £0.75/1000 cu. Ft. made it an affordable fuel. As a result, gas usage rose steadily and the Aberdeen Gas works expanded steadily to meet the ever increasing demand. By 1900, the gas making plant consisted of 27 beds of 16 Horizontal retorts housed in the single 370ft long retort house. Supplemented by the water gas plant. Coal was delivered into the retort house by rail where it was feed into the coal breakers before being feed into the retorts by the charging machines. As soon as the gas was driven off, the drawing machines removed the residual coke and the retorts were recharged with fresh coal on a batch basis. Much of the coke was used in the "producers" to make "producer gas", a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which was then burned to heat the retorts. The gas liberated was drawn off by the steam driven exhausters and passed to the condensers where the coal tar was separated. It was then passed through the scrubbers, which removed the ammonia gas, and through the "purifiers", beds of iron oxide and lime, which removed the sulphur compounds such as hydrogen sulphide. The purified gas was pumped to the gasholders and on to the gas distribution network.

In 1914, the first of the "Vertical" retort houses was built using the Woodall Duckham downward heated continuous vertical retort system. Whilst the fundamental principle of distilling off the coal gas in brick retorts heated by burning producer gas was essentially the same as in the horizontals, the Vertical retorts operated on a continuous basis, with coal being feed in at the top by gravity, and the coke being emptied out at the bottom. Being continuous, the plant was capable of producing more gas per hour, and of a more standard and controllable quality.  In 1925, the No. II plant was built, entirely replacing the old horizontal retorts.

The Woodall Duckham Vertical Retort system continued with the expansion of the No.2 retort house in 1941 and the building of the No.3 retort house in 1933, 

The building of the No.4 retort house in 1946 and No.5 in the 1950's further expanded the works. The building of the No5 retort house also saw the building of the massive coke screening plant. The coke removed from the No.3-5 retort houses was collected and conveyed to the plant by means of a narrow gauge railway using battery electric bogies. Prior to the building of the screening plant, an overhead Telfer crane system emptied the bogie cars into coke bunkers situated at the east end of the No.3 Retort house.  The same system was used in the No.2 retort house but this was never connected to the screening plant.

The early 1960's saw gas sales drop as Electricity took over in the domestic market and street lighting. This resulted in the No.1 and No.2 retort houses becoming surplus and these were mothballed.  However, gas sales recovered in the 1970,s and the No.2 retort house was again used to meet the peak demands during the winters of 1971 and 72.

The oil reforming plant built in Miller Street saw the end of coal gas manufacture, in 1975.

Gas Locomotive - Aberdeen Corporation Gas works between 1914 and 1918 used this steam locomotive. They needed an additional engine to cover the extra demands, which occurred during the war. The city paid £1164 and was canny enough to sell her at £800.  The shunter's cylinders were 14 inch in diameter and you can see from the maker's nameplate that Andrew Barclay Sons of Kilmarnock built her.

The Bon-Accord Steam Engine

1897 Built by Andrew Barclay & Sons, Kilmarnock
1897 Arrived in Aberdeen, to pull coal trucks from the harbour to the Aberdeen Gas Works in Cotton Street.
1914 Extensive repairs allowed Bon-Accord to continue at the gas works
1964 B
on-Accord decommissioned and replaced by a diesel loco.
1972 Bon-Accord saved for preservation, initially at Ferryhill and later moved and stored at Brechin.
1975 The Gas Works were closed and demolished. (The Beach Retail Park now occupies the site.)
1999 Bon-Accord, now owned by Grampian Transport Museum, returns to Aberdeen for full restoration.  Bon-Accord Locomotive Society is formed by volunteers who use their skills to restore the engine.
2005 Much restoration progress made, but the boiler fails its steam test, requiring further lengthy restoration work.  Restoration continues to be funded by personal donations, sponsorship, & National Lottery Heritage Fund
2008 Restoration is complete and boiler steam test passed. Painted in original 1897 livery.
2010 Bon-Accord moves to her new home on the Royal Deeside Railway at Milton of Crathies.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013