Cities of Science London

Switch to:text only

The highest artificial hill in London
The Beckton Alps

The Alp is a heap of industrial waste. It is all that remains of a vast gasmaking plant. The London Docklands Development Corporation created this monument to an extinct industry in 1983.

The great gas works
Simon Adams Beck was governor of the the largest gas works in Europe when it opened in 1870. When fully developed the works ran all the way from where the alp now stands down to the river covering an area greater than the City of London.
In those days gas was manufactured by heating coal. It was a dirty, smelly business. Like all industries of this kind it was based in the east end so that the smoke and fumes were carried away from the fashionable west end of London by the prevailing winds.
The Gas Light and Coke Company's chose to build the huge Beckton gasworks just to the west of Barking Creek because it was close to the new docks. The Victoria Dock had opened in 1855 and the Albert Dock in 1880. The steam colliers bringing coal from mines in the North-East of England were able to unload their cargo with the help of hydraulic cranes instead of an army of dockers.
Chemicals from coal
Heating coal produces a tarry mixture of chemicals as well as gas. By 1876 the nearby company, Burt, Boulton and Haywood were distilling each year 12 million gallons of coal tar to manufacture many chemicals which could then be turned into disinfectant, insecticide and dyes. Sulfur from the gas works was the raw material for local manufacturers of sulfuric acid needed by other nearby companies producing products such as fertilizers.
The end of coal gas
The discovery of natural gas in the North Sea meant that manufactured gas became uncompetitive. The Beckton works finally closed in 1967.
Snow at Beckton?
From 1989 to 2001 a dry ski slope ran down the Beckton alp. This has now been swept away.

Submitted by: Andrew Hunt, 18 January 2007

Find out how London Docklands Development Corporation created this hill. Scroll up for details of what the "hill" was like before.
Find out more about gas lighting in London from this historical web site.
For a detailed history of manufactured gas in the United States visit one or the other of these two web sites.

See also: Fuels and energy

Project sponsors:

City sponsors:
ASE London Region
Nuffiled Curriculum Centre