Lighting the Night – Belper Gas

‘Our Favourite Things’ is a new project for Strutt’s North Mill in 2019 as each month we feature an item from the museum’s collection on our website. These have been chosen by some of our volunteers as their ‘favourite thing’ from our collections. This month we feature an early 19th century piece of gas pipe.

Although this lump of cast iron archaeology is not the most glamorous of objects, it is a link to the time when enterprising industrialists were first trying to illuminate the hours of darkness and having gas piped into your home was then as modern as an electric car or the latest smartphone.

The development of the factory system presented mill owners, like the Strutt family, with a number of challenges. Employees in the new factories worked fixed 12-hour shifts starting early in the morning and during the winter months both the start and end of the working day would be in darkness. This gave factory owners a problem: how to provide sufficient light to enable their employees to be productive throughout the whole of the working day?

One option was to use candles or oil lamps. Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford probably employed these, shown in a painting by Joseph Wright of the mill by night, with its windows delineated by a yellow glow. But the light provided was dim and expensive, while small portable lamps were also a fire hazard.

A possible alternative had been developed by the engineer, William Murdoch, in the 1790s through his experiments with coal gas. This was produced by heating coal in a sealed oven known as a retort, this released a flammable gas that could then be piped to where it was required. Initially this was used for lighting with gas jets (normally just an open flame) being installed to light buildings.

Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night by Joseph Wright, c.1782.

In 1822 the Strutts built a gasworks in Milford, now the site of the Hopping Hill Meadow housing estate, and pipes were laid to their cotton spinning mills in Belper and Milford. The gas was stored in a gasometer at the back of Belper West Mill, measuring 15 metres (49 feet) in diameter and 3.7 metres (12 feet) high. It held approximately 700 cubic metres (7,600 cubic feet) of gas. These structures were once a common sight in the industrial landscape of Britain but most have now been demolished.

The section of pipe shown above was part of this first pipe network which was used until 1835 when it was replaced by a larger pipe, probably due to increased demand. The pipe remained buried until the 1970s when it was unearthed during road works. It is thought Duffield resident and noted industrial archaeologist, the late Frank Nixon, rescued it and presented it to Derby Industrial Museum. Recently it was considered that Strutt’s North Mill would be a more appropriate home and the pipe has returned to Belper.

The gasometers by the railway sidings close to Goods Road, Belper. The bridge carrying the A6 over the track is visible in the background

Above and Left: The section of cast iron gas pipe showing the socket joints used to link together two sections of pipe.

 

Gas lights, or jets, were mounted on walls or hung from ceilings to provide light. At first these jets would have been naked flames as the small cloth gas mantels with which some older reader may be familiar, did not become available until the 1880s. The Strutts also sold gas to other businesses in Belper, Mr Ward’s hosiery warehouse being an early customer.

Together with lighting the workplace, gas lamps were also provided in some of the streets of Belper. George Benson Strutt (son of Jedediah Strutt, the founder of the Belper mills), paid £32.19s.8½d for 23 street lamps which were lit for the first time on 30 September 1835. Henry King was appointed lamp lighter for the town.

Gas was also piped into homes and used for lighting, cooking and heating and this extra demand led to the construction of a new gasworks next to the first railway station on Goods Road. The old Milford gasworks was subsequently closed and the original Belper gasometer was demolished around the turn of the 20th century when electric lighting came into use in the Belper and Milford mills. The electricity was generated by water turbines installed at both the Milford and the Belper mills in the early 1900s. However, town gas continued to be used for domestic purposes and remained so until the advent of natural gas from the North Sea between 1968 and 1976.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the time available for work was governed by the sun. But with the birth of the factory system, the introduction of artificial lighting to extend the working day made a pivotal change to how people lived their lives – one that we still live with today.