“I just remember the gasworks as big grey stone buildings that almost frightened you.” Connections with the past informs and inspires BDFI’s new research hub

University of Bristol historian Lena Ferriday concludes BDFI’s ‘History of the Sheds’ project with a summary of the living histories collected to inform its place the former industrial community of The Dings and St Philips. Alongside artist Ellie Shipman, Lena interviewed former local residents and employees of the Bristol Gas Company to uncover how it felt to live and work among a transformational industry for Bristol.

In June 2022, the BDFI became the first inhabitants of the new Temple Quarter Campus when they moved into their new building at 65 Avon Street. As part of this relocation, they were keen to investigate the histories of this site which once housed Bristol’s gasworks, in order to draw connections between the socio-technical pasts, presents and futures of the space. Following extensive archival research conducted by Dr James Watts, the two of us wrote a report which revealed the gasworks and gas industry’s important influences on Bristol in social, economic, environmental and technological terms. But we also identified that what was missing from the written record were the voices of those who lived and worked in the vicinity of this site, whose memories are obscured in the archives. As such, the project became a more participatory one.

Plan of Avon Street Gas Station, 1857. Bristol Archives, 28777/U/E/5/1.

After publicising a call for contributions, I conducted a set of oral history interviews with local residents who were all differently connected to the site of the gasworks. Concurrently, we commissioned illustrator and artist Ellie Shipman to work alongside us to produce an artistic response to the histories we were continuing to uncover and write. Ellie also engaged with members of the public through interviews and memory café chats – with the help of local historian and co-founder of the Barton Hill History Group Garry Atterton.[1] Across these conversations – both structured and less formal – themes highlighted in the previous report were brought out in animated, lively ways.[2] But people’s tangible memories of the site also took the history in new ways, sometimes with narratives that competed with the stories told by archival material.


Our original report had identified that the gasworks opened in 1821 and was frequently renovated until its decommissioning in 1970. In an interview with Geraldine Stone, who lived in East Bristol in the 1960s, she relayed that ‘I just remember the gasworks as big grey stone buildings that almost frightened you … cause they were again grey and dark’. This perspective of the building from the outside – as perhaps relational to the way in which the majority of Bristol’s inhabitants will experience the refurbished BDFI building – demonstrated the emotional power of the site on the memories of those who lived nearby. But they also showed the gasworks’ relationship to the other buildings in this industrial area. From the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, this area of Bristol was fiercely industrial.

Neighbouring the gasworks were an ironworks, a vitriol works, a lead works, a paint works, a marble factory, a railway engine works, the railway and Temple Meads station, a timber yard and a dye factory. As Garry explained, ‘The Feeder Canal was sort of a good thing and a bad thing, in some respects. It was a good thing because it was an artery that spread the heart of Bristol out to other parts of the city … But because of the flat land that was available, it was brilliant for industry… What you saw in that time was a massive concentration of heavy industry that had not been seen in the city.’ Geraldine recalled that the area was ‘always dark, you know. But it was mostly the smells in everything that was going on, and because it was the centre of St Philips and The Dings, it was something that you lived with every day, because you didn’t have cars, you would walk everywhere.’ For Geraldine, living as a pedestrian in this area led to a particular form of sensory engagement with the industrial space, and also led to an understanding of Avon Street a transitional place: ‘To me Avon Street was a way of getting through to anywhere. It was a throughway.’

For Geraldine this dark, smelly area also produced a particular atmosphere in the area: ‘in those days when you had the trains and smoke, well in our days as a small child everything was smog. It was just smog. It used to come down really low and you couldn’t see…’ In the report we attested to the concern for the environmental impact of gas that was demonstrated nationally in the nineteenth century, and the moves within the Bristol Gas Company to reduce pollution.[3]  In his interview with Ellie, Garry corroborated this, writing that ‘You had this massive concentration there, which potentially was all going in the Feeder. All the pollutants.’ The report also attested to the company’s attempts to ensure this pollution did not cause medical concerns. Members of the Barton Hill Group recalled that those who worked in the area struggled with chest and lung issues – ‘coming home with really heavy coughs’ – although here Lysaghts steel works and the cotton factory were more frequently listed as embodied polluters than the gasworks.


In the report we noted that this pollution made the gasworks an uncomfortable and challenging workplace. Richard Nicholls, whose father worked as a foreman at the site from 1944, noted that this physical atmosphere also had a social impact on the employees:

“It was unusual in those days for engineers to be able to talk about their marriage, their sex life or whatever. Because they were in what were dangerous conditions, you know, really hot there, the hot coals there and so on. So when they were in that condition they were very much a family of their own and looked after each other…”

Here, Richard attested to a community within the group of men working at the site that the archival records had shown to an extent, through evidence of an employee brass band and football team. Richard’s intergenerational memories bring this collegiality to life with stories. He noted that ‘it was very much a mick-taking humour’ between colleagues, recalling the instance in which ‘One of the guys had his shoes nailed down to the floor cause when they’d go to the building sites they’d change shoes, … and he had to go back in his muddy boots.’

It was the dangerous conditions that Richard also linked to the success of trade unionism within the industry: ‘that’s why the strikes were so solid, because they were family, they relied on each other, they could talk to each other about anything. They could speak their mind as it was. Very hard men, very stuck together.’ In our initial report we identified Bristol gas workers’ strong involvement in the strikes of 1866, 1889 and 1920, the archives attesting to the outcomes of this action. But the internal mentalities of those striking were not documented, and Richard’s comments are enlightening here.

Banners of the National Union of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Bristol District No 1 Branch. Credit to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives, T8389.

The successful 1889 strike saw a dispute over shift length, with workers petitioning for a move from 12 to 8-hour shifts. By the time Richard’s father was employed at Avon Street, shift patterns were fairly regular: ‘The normal one would be 8 till 5, 8 till 6, that sort of thing’. When engineers worked on call, however, they could be called out to emergency leaks across the city at any time. Richard noted that ‘it wasn’t a case of you said no. You went.’ The gas works were therefore closely connected to the insides of Bristolians’ homes in a way the archives had not accounted for, not only via the material substance of the gas but also those who monitored it. But it was not only engineers who brought the gasworks into the home. Members of the Barton Hill group recounted memories of company employees visiting to collect money from the gas meters, an exciting day as they would often get money back. Richard remembered ways in which people would also get around this system in certain ways: ‘there was a mechanism inside the meter where you could change the rate that you’d pay for your gas, and they used to get them to change it so that the money would go in … then when the meter reader came they’d make them a cup of tea, oh you’ve overpaid us this much, so they’d give them a refund out of the money that was in the thing’. Others would put coin-shaped objects into the meter to get themselves through the week until they confessed on collection day.


This connection into urban homes came with its difficulties. Archival records attested to concerns about the dangers of gas circulating from its introduction in the early nineteenth century, and numerous gas explosions were reported in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Members of the Barton Hill History Group similarly remembered a gas explosion that flattened two houses on Lincoln Street in the early 1950s.

Difficulties with gas not only arose from fears regarding its danger – from the 1890s acknowledgment of the efficiency and stability of electric light in industrial settings (beginning with the Wills Tobacco factory) posed a challenge to the Bristol gasworks. Yet gaslighting remained popular for longer than expected, and many of the participants in our project had strong recollections of it. When working as a gas engineer in Bristol, Richard recounted being called out to a house that still had no electricity in 1972: ‘She had gas lighting, gas cooking … So it’s amazing how long it was before some people had electrics.’ Richard noted being concerned about the hazards of the lighting here however: ‘the gas lights had little chains on that you could pull down to turn on and … She wanted me to lower it. She had big frizzy hair. And I thought, well if I lower that down, it’s going to be so near her hair – I could just see it going whoosh!’, he laughed.

Lamplighter, Bristol 1946, Bristol Archives 2877

The gasworks also contributed to energy in the home via other materials than gas. Members of the Barton Hill group recalled taking metal prams down to the gasworks to collect bags of coke for the fire – coke being a purified substance created in the production of coal gas. The elongated transition to electricity also shaped memories of gas itself, particularly given that gas is still used in many homes but now for cooking and central heating, rather than lighting. One member of the Barton Hill Group referred to cooking gas as ‘normal gas’, in comparison to the historic gas substance used to fuel lights. Yet in her interview Geraldine spoke of ‘the gas lamp posts being lit by somebody, by a man coming with a stick.’ Here too, however, her memories become sticky: ‘I don’t know if I imagined it – I didn’t and I know I didn’t …. so I think is that my vision or did I see it? But I’m sure I did …. Cause it used to shine all the time into my bedroom.’ Although she described the memory in detail, the chasm between gaslight technology and contemporary lighting innovations has worked to obscure her own visual childhood memories.


In the first report published on our findings about the site of Bristol gasworks, we concluded that ‘The tension between the benefit and harm brought by the introduction of gas to the city … is what characterises the history of this site.’ Predominantly the living histories we have collected have also pointed towards contested and competing narratives operating within the history of the gasworks. Gas was hazardous to the local landscape and residents’ bodies in the short term, with explosions destroying buildings and injuring inhabitants, and on a longer time scale, polluting the waterways and atmosphere which in turn brought on lung and chest issues for those immersed in them. Yet it also played a formative role in people’s fond memories of the area.

Given the BDFI’s emphasis on ensuring that the production of digital technology is inclusive and sustainable for the societies it affects, that the findings of these oral histories attest to the environmental, social and technological dimensions of the site is of great importance. Acknowledging via archival material that the former proprietors of the site also worked to reduce the environmental impact of innovative gas production, and that their employees campaigned for workplace equality provides a source of inspiration for the ways in with the Institute now inhabit this site in the present and into the future. The findings of the living and community histories that this new report has attested to, however, stretch beyond the site itself, and reaffirm the wider range of forms engagement with the gasworks site took. The gasworks had strong connections both to the wider industrial area of St Philips and to homes across the city, and in a similar way through this project the BDFI has maintained this connection between the sites and local communities through the sharing of memories. In addition, this project has amplified lived experience and as such demonstrated the importance of considering the individuals who are impacted by innovation in diverse ways.


The quotes in this piece are excerpted from recordings by Lena Ferriday with participants Geraldine Stone and Richard Nicholls, and Ellie Shipman with Garry Atterton, Pete Insole, and members of the Barton Hill History Group, Bern and Gill. We are very grateful to all those involved for sharing their time and memories with us, which have brought to life this historic site.

About the author

Lena FerridayLena is a PhD researcher in the Department of History here at Bristol, with an interest in modern histories of bodies, the environment and everyday experience. Her research has previously explored other areas of Bristol – including the city’s transport networks, tourism, green spaces and the history of the University – and she is currently writing a history of embodiment in nineteenth century Cornwall.



[1] A memory café is a community group that gathers people with shared memories (often of a place or event) to meet and discuss. The Barton Hill History Group run a monthly memory café, the August instalment of which Ellie joined.

[2] An edited audio piece including excerpts from these recordings was created by Ellie Shipman, and can be listened to here.

[3]This is also expanded in another blog post I have written to complement the project, considering the ways in which the senses profoundly shaped the urban production of gas.

The Streets Seen and ‘The Sheds’ Smelled

Lena Ferriday is co-author of ‘Avon Street Gasworks and Bristol’s Gas Industry‘ with Dr James Watts, a report commissioned for BDFI to examine the histories of their renovated industrial building in St Philips, Bristol.  Here she looks at the senses most provoked by the production and distribution of gas – sight and smell.

In 1861, the Bristol Mirror proclaimed that,

Of all the social improvements that the last 50 years have seen brought about, none is more significant of progress than the lighting with gas all the thoroughfares of our towns. To look back to the year 1800 in this respect and conceive what the streets […] of our own city […] were after dark, without the aid of gaslight, is a task most of us would rather shirk than encounter. Yet there are those living and walking in our midst […] who can very easily go back in memory to the period when a light was shed upon the darkness that prevailed by Winsor illuminating the metropolis.[1]

 For historians of nineteenth century dark and light, the introduction of gaslighting was a revelation for urban life, stimulating a new economy where the hours of factory work and public leisure time were able to extend into the evening without the sun’s aid.[3] For Constance Classen, this innovation ‘blurred the age-old sensory divide between the visuality of daytime and the tactility of night-time’.[4] In the streets, this was indeed true. Yet as this short piece will show, in the industrial setting and on the level of company organisation, it was the interaction of sight with another sense, that of smell, that proved most important.

Lamplighter, Bristol 1946, Bristol Archives 2877

The first gas works was established in London in 1814. By 1819 gas works were in operation throughout the country, and in the mid-1820s most big cities were supplied with gas. The Bristol Gas Light Company first manifested in 1815 and was incorporated in 1818, working to produce coal-gas for the purposes of lighting. The first gas lamps were lit in the city, inside the Exchange, and on Wine and St. Nicholas Streets. Looking back, Bristol’s press proclaimed that from the Gas Light Company’s formation ‘we have had light shed upon our doings when the orb of day has sunk beneath the horizon, which, though it may not equal that furnished by the sun […] is yet the best substitute that has ever been discovered.’[2]

In 1821, the company headquarters expanded beyond its site at Temple Back and was rehoused to 65 Avon Street, in the building now known as ‘The Sheds’. Coal-gas was produced through a burning of coal to distil it into coke and capturing the gas that this produced, and the ‘Sheds’ was comprised of the Coal Shed, for storage, and Retort House, which the oven heating the coal to release gas, as seen in Fig. 2.

Plan of Avon Street Gas Station, 1857. Bristol Archives, 28777/U/E/5/1.

This production of gas did, however, have notoriously sensory consequences. This was not least in the noxious odours that were emitted from coal-gas as a result of its containing Hydrogen sulphide, characterised by a distinctively sulphuric scent. Despite commenting in 1861 that ‘These lights are clear, white, and beautiful – luminous, without any smoke or obnoxous effluvium, producing an effect equal to daylight, at about one-third the expense usually employed to obtain a miserable substitute’, John Breillat, one of the Gas Company’s original engineers, worked with his team across the 1820s in an attempt to reduce the smell of the gas production, and its pollution of the local area.[5] Local inhabitants also complained of the smell and in its early years calls were made for the Company to switch to the use of oil gas. extracted from whale or seal blubber.

These attempts failed, however, as the company’s management committee decided that to produce ‘the same quantity of light’ oil gas was significantly more expensive than coal, at a ratio of roughly 5:3.[6] To some extent then, sight was prioritised above smell: the importance of a gas emitting strong light to combat the darkness more important than the strength of its odour. Yet as part of their ‘exposition’ of the oil gas scheme, Bristol Mirror also concluded that ‘the ridiculous assertion of Oil-Gas being without smell, is also without foundation’, having found evidence that oil gas too ‘invaded’ homes with ‘a most distressing stench’.[7]

The failure to institute changes within the Gas Light Company led to a movement that formed a separate oil gas company, which by August 1823 had instated the Bristol and Clifton Oil Gas Company Act forbidding the company from using coal gas. Yet as the cost of whale oil rose in the 1830s, price differentiation once again took precedent over olfactory adversity, and the Oil Gas Company also began to use coal gas in 1836. For nearly two decades the companies operated alongside one another, each serving different Bristolian districts, until they were finally amalgamated in 1853 as the Bristol United Gaslight Company.

Whilst the changes to visual experience have commonly been seen as the key indicator of gaslight innovation’s sensory influence on urban space, in the case of Bristol’s Gasworks’ civic and industrial position the eye was not entirely dominant. For the city’s inhabitants, the gasworks were a strong-smelling presence and this sensory characteristic had great impact on the Gas Company’s bureaucratic and manufacturing development in its early years.


[1] ‘Jubilee of Gas Lighting in Bristol’, Bristol Mercury, 7 Sept 1861, p.4.

[2] ‘Jubilee of Gas Lighting in Bristol’, Bristol Mercury, 7 Sept 1861, p.4.

[3] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, trans. Angela Davies (University of California Press, 1995) 16; Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (Yale University Press, 2000) p.98. Further, see Chris Otter, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910 (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[4] Constance Classen, ‘Introduction: The Transformation of Perception‘ in Constance Classen (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Empire (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 8-10.

[5] ‘Jubilee of Gas Lighting in Bristol’, Bristol Mercury, 7 Sept 1861, p.4.

[6] ‘Exposition of the Oil Gas Scheme’, Bristol Mirror, 3 March 1823, p.3.

[7] ‘Exposition of the Oil Gas Scheme’, Bristol Mirror, 3 March 1823, p.3.

Avon Street, Gas, and Bristol

We commissioned a report into the industrial and social histories of our new building at 65 Avon Street, known as The Sheds.  In the heart of the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus it was the former headquarters of the Bristol Gas Company.

Here one of the report authors, Dr James Watts, Lecturer in Public and Creative Histories describes how the project has unfolded and how its shed light Bristol’s industrial heritage. Co-author on the report,  Lena Ferriday, is continuing the research with a call for local people to come forward with their memories.

The Avon Street gasworks operated for nearly 150 years bringing light and heat to much of Bristol through the dangerous labour of those at the gasworks. Since April 2021 I have been researching this history for BDFI.

I was fortunate in beginning this project that research on the gasworks and their place in Bristol has been undertaken by others before me. Harold Nabb’s PhD thesis and pamphlet on the gasworks is invaluable as is Mike Richardson’s Men of Fire Work, Resistance and Organisation of Bristol Gasworkers in the Nineteenth Century alongside work by Michael Painting and Mike Richardson. Material on Know Your Place and in Bristol Archives has also been very helpful in digging into the history of the gas industry in Bristol in greater detail.

drawing of the gasworks by Samuel Loxton
Figure 1 The Avon Street gasworks, Samuel Loxton 1919, Bristol Library J785. By Permission of Bristol Libraries

The research revealed many links and parallels between the historical use of the site as a gasworks with the revolutionary effect this had on the life of Bristol.

The gasworks and the many local people employed there also had a profound effect on the local community, the workforce was locally drawn and, along with employers like the Ironworks across Silverthorne Lane, created a sense of community in this deeply industrial area of Bristol.


I was continually surprised by how far-reaching the technologies of gas heating and lighting were. Gaslighting created and extended the night-time economy, especially in the winter months. This meant that the centre of Bristol was lit from 1820 onwards. The Old Vic was an early customer of the gas company and remained one of their largest customers for many years and in 1869 was eligible for a special discount due to the volume that they were using which was more than 1 million cubic feet a year.

By the 1900s gas heating was also very common and pre-paid gas meters allowed tighter budgeting and enabled the spread of gas heating and cooking into working class households. There was a large showroom on Colston Street in the city centre, built in 1935, to advertise and sell gas cookers as well. This was demolished in 2007 and the building is now the Bristol Beacon.

gas showroom
Figure 2 Bristol Archives, Vaughan Postcard collection, 43207/35/1/2

The other thing that impressed itself on me was the sense of how much of a community the gasworks and the surrounding area seemed to be. The gasworks had football teams who were season champions in 1930-1 as well as a brass band. The solidarity of the workers in times of industrial action was remarkable as the gasworks were involved in the wave of strikes in Bristol in 1889.

gas workers football team
Figure 3 Bristol Gas Company Reserves Football Club, 5th Division Champions, Bristol and District League 1931, Bristol Archives, 28777/U/Ph/1/6

Hopes for the research and site

I think the Avon Street gasworks could act as an important example for the modern use of historic buildings. It is, for me, about respect. Respecting the building itself, but also an awareness of the people who made, used, worked, and lived in them. I hope that the buildings’ new uses will reflect this history and help to educate others about the history of this industry and area. Those stories should not disappear but should be considered and reflected upon in the future uses of the buildings.

For instance, George Daniel Jones was a gas holder attendant during the 1940s. On March 11th 1941 ‘during an air raid two incendiary bombs lodged on the top of a large gas holder. Jones immediately climbed to the top of the holder and succeeded in knocking the bombs off the crown with his steel hat.’[1]

For his bravery that day he was awarded the George Medal. There is also now a road named after George Jones as well as a plaque on Folly Rd on the site of a gasholder close to Avon St and also owned by the Bristol Gas Company.

My main hope for this research and the site is to find more stories and personal memories from the current outreach. What I want to know about the site are these personal stories of someone’s Grandfather who was a stoker or captained the gasworks’ football team.

It is personal stories that give the site its interest given the long history of work there.

We’ve created a short survey for anyone who might have memories, artifacts, documents  or photographs from the gas industry in Bristol.  Please get in touch to help us ensure the social and industrial heritage of BDFI’s new home is remembered and celebrated.


[1] Supplement to the London Gazette, 2 May, 1941. The recommendation is in the National Archives. https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14149725