The History of Gas Usage in the UK

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The earliest records we have of gas in the UK were made in 1667 when Thomas Shirley described an inflammable gas seeping from a coal mine in Wigan and as early as 1727 a gentleman by the name of Carlisle Spedding heated his office with methane gas from the coal mine. But it was not until 1801 that gas lighting went on public display in Paris. In 1806 gas lighting was used in a cotton mill and by 1807 Pall Mall was lit by gas street lighting.

Until the 18th Century companies that used gas lighting had their own individual gasworks. It was a German man, Frederick Winzer who had the idea of holding the gas in one large central gasworks. The first distribution main was in Pall Mall in London in 1807 and in 1814 the first gas street lights in London were introduced. This gas came via 26 miles of underground piping.

In earlier times gas was made using coal or oil and the machinery within which it was produced was called the gasworks. Initially making gas by burning either coal or oil was backbreaking and slow work but due to the development of the industrial age better and quicker ways of producing gas were introduce

As the gas industries developed the smaller companies formed conglomerates and the gasworks grew accordingly. The gas mains were usually made from cast iron and the gas that flowed through them was under medium pressure. The market for gas grew in the 19th century and distribution and gasworks grew with the demand. New materials were used for the piping including tin plate wrapped in Hessian, steel piping and cast iron.

By the 1960’s the demand for domestic gas was huge and as a result 3,000 miles of high pressure gas pipelines was laid underground from the sea where natural gas was found, into the governor stations where the pressure was reduced and it was siphoned off into homes around the country. 

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Natural gas has always been around and of course caused many problems in the mines. However, for the purposes of domestic use it was superior due to its cleanliness (no carbon emissions) and more importantly that it contains, no carbon monoxide, which was (and still is) a very dangerous gas which causes many fatalities due to the inability to see, smell or taste it.

The discovery of North Sea natural gas meant that Britain was assured of energy for many years to come however it also meant that the original pipes laid for town gas all had to be removed and replaced with new pipes. Natural gas had different qualities to town gas and this meant that all appliances and delivery systems had to be converted. The country was divided into sectors and an army of gasfitters went to work converting one sector at time, burning off the town gas from the pipes and fitting every house with new fittings. Over 40 million appliances were converted from 1967 to 1977 and cost British Gas £563 million. Although this was an amazingly large and expensive project it had the benefit of safety checking every gas appliance in the country. As a result deaths by burns or inhalation of gas went from 1,270 in 1963 to 745 in 1965 to just 271 in 1970; a significant reduction and saving of lives.

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Gas has been widely used in the UK for domestic heating since the 1950’s. The use of gas grew so much that by the 1960’s the UK was importing 300,000 tons of gas per year from Africa. This abated when natural gas was found in the North Sea and over the next 10 years British Gas converted houses for use of natural gas from previous town gas. In the 1970’s area boards were unified under the name of the British Gas Corporation and the boards became responsible for 12 regions throughout England and Wales.

In 1986 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government privatised the British Gas Corporation and introduced the Gas Act and floated its shares on the London stock market. It was at this time that an industry regulator was introduced to protect customer needs (Ofgas). In 1996 the market was opened up to competition and because of this British Gas went through major restructuring separating operations into 5 divisions:

  • Domestic gas supply
  • Business supply
  • Transporting and Storage of Gas
  • Service and Installation
  • Retail

Following restructuring they then separated into two companies, one of which was named Centrica which took responsibility for gas supply in the UK and gas production in the North and South Morecombe gas fields.

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The other was BG which took responsibility for gas transportation, international exploration and this group has now broken down to numerous subsidiaries.

Despite all of this restructuring and changing, the introduction of competition into the market, one wonders whether there have been any improvements of services to the customer. An article published in the Guardian in 2006 suggests that this may not be the case.

British Gas offers a service called homecare whereby customers can purchase insurance for gas and electrical appliances with a guarantee that they will be provided with an excellent service should their appliances (in particular, boilers) break down. This insurance costs approximately £200 per year.

In the winter of 2006 an employee of British Gas turned whistleblower and disclosed some of the information included in internal memos to call centre staff. This shed some light on the chaotic state of such a cumbersome national corporation struggling to service its customers and yet still pushing staff to sell policies which they could then not service. Staff cancelled call outs and elderly people were left for days in freezing homes which put their health and sometimes their lives at risk.

British Gas, at the time, had 3.5 million customers nationally and call staff were asked to only book non-urgent appointments for callouts. A shortage of engineers meant that people were waiting in the cold without services for days. The whistleblower stated that one in four calls to British Gas were complaints and yet there was an understanding amongst staff that jobs would be on the line unless a certain amount of homecare policies were sold. It seemed that whilst customers were experiencing really poor service, British Gas was making millions and not fulfilling its obligations of service.

There have been many changes to gas provision over the years in the UK however there has always been dissent regarding the vast sums made by the corporation, this in turn has allowed people to look critically at what services they receive for their money. Whilst there are a lot of complaints online about British Gas one must remember that with 3.5 million customers there will always be a chance of things going wrong and in the long run we all benefit from reasonable prices and clean heating.


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