At one time, every town and city in the United Kingdom had its own Gas Works producing Town Gas from coal. The process was originally developed by the inventive William Murdock. Murdock worked for Boulton and Watt in Cornwall supervising the installation of steam pumping engines in the mines. Murdock is celebrated too, as the first person to light a factory using coal gas. The advantages of the process were quickly seized and gas supply companies were set up all over the country. Coal gas was used both for lighting and heating until the coming of electricity, a short but important part of industrial history.
Town or coal gas was produced by slowly roasting coal in retorts, long tubular ovens, to drive off the volatile gases. Other impurities and by products such as ammonia, coal tar and coke were sold on to other users. The gas produced was stored in Gas Holders which are still a feature of the urban landscape in many parts of Britain. The largest Gas Works in the British isles was at Beckton in London, but this site was cleared when natural gas became available from the North Sea leaving Fakenham Gas Works as the only complete Town Gas works now remaining in England. At its heyday it only served 600 customers and has a charm of its own.
Fakenham Gas Works is also a Scheduled Monument. It retains many original features, buildings and equipment used to make gas from coal, including retorts, condenser, washer, purifiers, station meter and gas holder. There are exhibitions of gas lighting, irons, cookers, fires, geysers and meters and a lively video film.
Fakenham Town Gas Works was first constructed in 1846 and appears on the First Edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The existing works date mainly from 1910 with some subsequent replacements and additions. The Works was decommissioned in 1965 and closed except for showroom and was re-opened as a Museum in 1987.
When you have visited Fakenham, take the long distance Town Gas Works Trail to see the other remaining sites in Biggar Scotland, "Flame" in Northern Ireland and at Dunedin, New Zealand. The former British Dominions and Colonies are rich in the remains of our industrial heritage.