Tag Archives: Western Gas Works

On the border 6.1: Canal

The next couple of posts arise from this photograph, which  my  friend  Maggie  got excited about a couple of weeks ago. (There aren’t too many pictures of this building.) This one comes from our collection of former Planning photos  and was taken on October 16th 1984. You can see the staple in the middle which joins two prints together, as we used to do before we could get help from a computer.





It shows the rear of the former public  baths in Kensal Road which backed onto the  Grand Union Canal. (Previously known as the Grand Junction Canal) Two  faded lines  of graffiti seem to read “Save  our baths“.Too late perhaps. The impressive building must have been close  to demolition given the date . You can see Trellick Tower in the background to give you some idea of the location.

The highlighted graffiti  reads “An eye for an eye – in the end the whole world goes blind.” A characteristically seventies bit of instant sloganeering. See this old post about graffiti.

On the left is one of those scary high sided foot  bridges which were hated by young and old alike because you never knew what you might encounter on them while crossing. (Known locally as the halfpenny steps I’m told.)

This picture shows the steps up to the bridge, and the main entrance to the baths in Wedlake Street (the baths were sometimes called the Wedlake Baths). No amount of peering with a magnifying glass (another piece of old tech used in local studies) will reveal the wording text of the graffiti.



This is the view around the corner in Kensal Road, another carefully stapled image. The building on which JM and his friends have left their mark were once the Vestry Offices.



Historical note: up to 1900 the Chelsea Vestry owned a piece of territory called Kensal New Town which straddled the later border between Kensington and Paddington, so these Vestry offices originally belonged to Chelsea, as did the wharf, as we’ll see later.

Kensal Road now runs from Ladbroke Grove to Golborne Road, ending more or less at Trellick Tower but it formerly went all the way to the Great Western Road, running parallel with the canal, and north of the railway line. This is why I wanted to look at this border area, the canal and the road, together. This week we’ll look at the canal, so back to the water.



This view of the towpath is the last of this series from 1984.

This older image shows the backs of the industrial buildings on the south side of the canal.



This one gives a better view of the north side.



It’s a slightly discoloured image (some colour prints go that way) which shows how the houses and shops on the Harrow Road went right up to the edge of the canal. My houseboat correspondent tells me that one of these was the rear of a fish and chip shop and that boat people could get their order handed to them without leaving their boats.

We’re heading west from this point back towards Ladbroke Grove. But before we get there we should stop off at Portobello Dock.



The dock (once called Kensal Wharf) is a small basin off the canal. As part of Kensal New Town it would once have belonged to the Chelsea Vestry. (Access to the canal might well have been useful to the Vestry, just as some landlocked nations like to have access to the sea or to useful waterways. The Kensington Vestry once owned a riverside section of Chelsea and later had a wharf on the river near Chelsea Creek.)



These two pictures have been cropped from a contact sheet. (See the pen mark at the top of the image.) This one shows where the dock area could be entered from Kensal Road.

This picture by local photographer Peter Dixon shows the somewhat waterlogged towpath with the gas works in the background and on the right the Narrow Boat public house.



There is another photograph showing the now demolished pub by Peter in the Ladbroke Grove post I did a couple of years ago.

On the other side of the road, in a picture from 1975, you can see the gas works (covered quite extensively in this post) and on the other side of the canal, the wall of Kensal Green Cemetery.



The gas works had two basins of its own. You can see the entrance to the smaller one  (which still exists) in the foreground. The bridge over the entrance to the larger basin is visible in the distance.

Here is a picture of a barge actually entering the basin.



This view shows the rear of the barge as it performs this manoeuvre.



I think this is the smaller basin, about 1970.



Back on the main body of the canal we carry on westwards. This view of the less grand section of the cemetery looks quite rural, as it would have been once.



And finally, this view just around the corner gives us a traditional motor barge passing by  a stand of trees with only the gasometer to give the setting away.

1970s we think, based on the plastic sheathed tree on the right.

That takes us along the northern border of Kensington and Chelsea by canal. The next post gets back to the road.


Thanks to Peter Dixon for his photograph, which is reproduced by permission. Please do not use it without his permission.

Thanks also to Barbara for providing the two pictures of the barge entering the basin, and for finding many of the others which come from our Planning collection. I’m grateful for the continuing interest of North Kensington residents in their history which is just as fascinating as the more “historical” parts of Kensington and Chelsea.

Better living through gas: Kensal House

This post is an  appendix to the journey up Ladbroke Grove I’ve been on in the last two weeks. I won’t bother you with many more of my personal reminiscences but I do remember being struck by Kensal House in the time when I was working in North Kensington and taking the 52 bus home every night to Kensal Rise. Looking down from the upper deck of a bus I recognized the unique character of Kensal House sitting below the level of the road next to the railway. I wasn’t any kind of expert on the architecture of the area then but I could see it came from a more optimistic time than the late 1970s and had seen better days.


Kensal House 1936 K66-702 - Copy

[Ladbroke Grove 1936]

In the 1930s planners and architects were enthused with the possibilities of new forms of housing, and possibly were no longer in thrall to paternalistic Victorian notions of raising up the working classes by improving their living conditions. Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a machine for living in was a fresh idea. (from 1923) It was a brave new world of course as of 1931 (although Aldous Huxley’s phrase was ironic). The housing scheme which utilised a no longer needed corner of the Gas Works site was sponsored by the Gas, Light and Coke Company. There was a team of architects headed by Maxwell Fry, with Robert Atkinson, C H James and Grey Wornum (whose work has been on the blog before). They were joined by a housing consultant, Elizabeth Denby.

In 1938 Ascot Water Heaters Ltd published a survey of recent developments called “Flats: Municipal and Private Enterprise” which featured the new estate.

Kensal House site plan - Copy

In the introduction Bernard Friedman says: “To the Greeks physical fitness, beauty of form, and congenial environment were essential to the harmony of life.”

Kensal House 1936 p68 top

[On the left, the school]

Maxwell Fry goes on to describe the thinking behind the scheme. Although he sounds a bit patronizing (“The idea that animated both sides of the work was the desire to build a group of homes where people whose incomes allow them little above sheer necessity could experience as full a life as can be”.) it is also clear that he was concerned with the lives of future residents – ” hardship centres around the lack of practical things, such as space, sun, air hot water, cooking facilities and so on. If these things are not remedies in the new home…then it is no great change for the better.” He goes on to explain that a “type plan” for three and two bedroom flats. The bedrooms would be all on one side of the flats allowing them to be smaller and the living rooms bigger with light on the bedrooms in the morning and the living rooms in the afternoon. Above the ground floor the flats all had balconies with built-in flower boxes. The kitchens were equipped with “drying balconies” and of course Ascot Water Heaters provided constant hot water. (Fry emphasizes these, but then they were the publishers.). Fry also emphasizes the “more civilised” internal staircases (“a nice feeling of going up your own staircase.”)

Kensal House 1936 p68

[1936. Note the balconies]

The consultant to the project, Elizabeth Denby describes it as “the first urban village to be built in Britain“. The design committee also had responsibility for ensuring the new residents settled in and that rent and fuel costs remained reasonable. She remained on the new estate for a while in her consulting role. She reports on the success of the Club Rooms and the social club which took in members from the surrounding area, and took particular pleasure in the enthusiastic take-up of the gardening facilities. “On a sunny evening or at the weekend each balcony was its tenants leaning elbows on the rail, smoking, gossiping,  happy, like a group of cottagers perched above each other on a steep cliff. The possession of canaries by some of the tenants intensifies the country illusion.” Again, you can see a degree of condescension in her surprise that working class people responded to improved living conditions by looking after their new homes but the scheme was well-intentioned and did succeed in showing the way forward for planners.


Kensal House 1937 K70-565

Both Denby and Fry mention the light available in the new flats – big windows, airy spaces, the feeling of a garden. This was an idea that was taking hold in the sun-worshiping 1930s. Sun lounges, gymnasiums, fresh air and exercise. I’ve encountered that enthusiasm for the outdoors in various spheres such as the Bauhaus houses in Chelsea and the dancing philosophy of Margaret Morris.

As it grew older Kensal House got a little worn down, as I saw it in the 1970s but its fortune revived and the atmosphere of pleasant living in a garden-like environment is still visible in a set of photographs from 1992.

Kensal House 1992 K-191

This one and the one below show the same walkway between blocks, possibly even the same trees.

Kensal House 1992 K-197

So that little pocket of 1930s optimism remained.


Kensal House 1992 K-192

The gas lamps have been replaced as in this view of a grassy knoll, but the sense of separateness is still intact.

Kensal House 1992 K-193

Behind this picture you can see the same water tower from last week and the site of the Sainsbury’s super store as it was.

Kensal House 1992 K-194

The fenced gardens and the curved facade.

Kensal House 1992 K-196

The shaded lane between the blocks.

Kensal House 1992 K-198

Kensal House (a Grade II* listed building) is still in the architectural text books, still praised as an example of well designed urban development. So Fry and Denby and their committee could claim to have done something useful and interesting on a small slice of industrial land.


A little while ago I worked with the SPID Theatre Company on a project they were doing with residents of Kensal House so thanks to them and the residents’ group who visited the library during the course of their project. Read more at their website: spidtheatre.com/wordpress where you can download a brochure about Kensal House.

Gas works: Ladbroke Grove 1970

Where the Grand Junction Canal and the main line railway to Paddington diverge from their parallel course there is a teardrop shaped  patch of land bounded on the east by Ladbroke Grove. In 1845 the Western Gas Company built a gas works there facing All Souls Cemetery on the other side of the canal. When North Kensington was developed for housing in the second half of the 19th century the Gas Works sat waiting at its northern edge. And there it stayed as London grew around it. In 1936 the Gas and Light Company built a progressive housing development on the Ladbroke Grove edge of the site powered by the wonder of gas, Kensal House, but more of that another day.

Today only a couple of gasometers remain overlooking the cemetery. Most of the site is taken  up by a Sainsbury’s super store. But in 1970 although gas production had ceased the owners seem to have been wondering what to do with the gas works, and denying rumours that the whole site would be given over to housing.

That’s the history bit. And possibly the reason why these photographs were taken. They show the Gas Works in a half way state, not shut down but not quite working either.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-594

For the uninitiated like me this is just an inexplicable tangle of pipes, doing something impressive no doubt, but I like it simply because of the shape. The lure of the industrial landscape can be just as strong as the desire to see a famous church or museum.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-599

You expect to see people on those gantries checking pressure gauges for signs of the chemical activity within these giant units.

Here are more of those pipes, and a ladder waiting to be climbed.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-608

See another ladder leading to a door on the right of the picture. What was inside that narrow tower that meant you couldn’t have a door at the foot of the structure?

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2177-B

Two of the gasometers, showing their 19th century origins in the ornate ironwork.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2182-B

This picture shows the link to the railway, and the first sign of human life as two men point out something to each other. We’ll see them again.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2180-B

Here is the basin which linked the works to the canal. I imagine coal or coke being moved on conveyor belts up these covered structures (I don’t know the correct term for them). You see signs of decay and disuse here. The water is still and silent.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2183-B

There are those men again in front of one of the older buildings on the site. One of them wears a brown work coat over his suit. He’s the one who knows the works. The other may be a visitor.

There are further signs of the age of the works in the already abandoned sections.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-600

Crumbling brickwork and growing weeds – as much picturesque decay as in any gothic folly.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-609

Continuing that idea a silent interior space as quiet as a cathedral, bright light visible through the arched windows.

The size of the pipes induces its own kind of awe.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-610

I spent a brief summer working at Shotton Steel works in North Wales an installation as large as a small town it seemed at the time with internal bus routes to take you to the various outposts. It was particularly striking at night, maybe even beautiful. Perhaps it was there I developed a liking for these industrial structures, or perhaps it’s something we all have.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-612

Beyond this ramshackle storage unit the trees, possibly in the cemetery.

Below there are other signs of the world outside glimpsed under the gantry.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2176-B

Among the quiet buildings there are some surprises:

Gas works 1970 665.7 K70-611

Some kind of crane on rails I think looking like a forgotten half-folded Transformer.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2179-B

So let’s leave these sleeping giants and withdraw along the access road.

Gas works 1970 665.7 K2175-B

“Things were melancholy and industrial” as Paul Haines and Carla Bley once said.


There are other pictures of the gas works in earlier days in our collection so we may be back here again. Next week another forgotten building.

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