Entrance to Newbury Gas Works in 1925
Newbury’s skyline is undergoing a major change with the demolition of the Sterling Cables tower in Kings Road, currently under way. The landmark has been visible for longer than most Newbury residents can remember.
A company was formed to build the first Newbury Gas Works on a site close to the junction of Cheap Street and King’s Road West (then called, unsurprisingly, Gas House Lane).
Newbury and the adjoining hamlet of Speenhamland saw its first gas street lighting on 29t December,1825. The first public building in Newbury to be lit by gas was the Waterside Chapel, in 1827, located where the Waterside Centre is now.
In 1878, the borough of Newbury Corporation purchased the Newbury Gas undertaking from the Gas Company, for the sum of £10, 438. Two years later a new site was purchased, at the other end of Kings Road West on the corner with Boundary Road, and the new works constructed in the period 1880-81. This is the site of what later became known as the Sterling Cables tower.
A report written by WR Davey, Engineer and Gas Works Manager, on the 1925 inauguration of the Gas works’ new vertical retort plant talks of poor workmanship on the 1880 works, much of which had fallen into serious disrepair within a twenty-year period.
In the early 1900s, new buildings were constructed to a higher standard. In July 1925, the new vertical retort plant was opened by the Mayor Alderman James Stradling.
Alderman Charles Lucas was chairman of the Corporation’s Gas Committee for around forty years, and his labours and foresight were held to be largely responsible for the strong financial position of the Gas Works in 1925.
As the town grew in size, demand for gas increased (especially during the war years) and in 1947 a larger retort house was constructed next to the existing one, and a new gas holder was erected on newly purchased land between Hambridge Road and the Racecourse. This had a capacity of 750,000 cubic feet, almost double the capacity of the other two existing gas holders, and was about 120 feet high and 111 feet in diameter.
The NWN reported (17 July 1947) “It is to be painted a greyish colour so as to blend with the sky and ground”.
The following year, one of Newbury’s most conspicuous landmarks, the 120 feet tall, spindly chimney disappeared from the skyline. Visible from nearly every part of the town, the local newspaper was of the opinion “there will be no regrets at its disappearance”.
It had been in place for 25 years, and apparently never worked satisfactorily. Said the NWN “To gas engineers who went through the town by train, Newbury was the place with the gas works that had a chimney secured by guy ropes“.
The Gas Industry was nationalised on May Day 1949, putting an end to 70 years of town ownership of one of its most important utilities.
Alderman HR Metcalf, at a Newbury Town Council Meeting, voiced his displeasure at the decision, referring to “half-baked theorists, who without any possibility of redress, are taking from local government things which have been built up by energy and initiative of a completely unselfish kind. The gas industry will now be run by highly-paid members of Boards instead of by people like ourselves for nothing” he said.
At the time Alderman Metcalf had been chairman of the Gas Committee for some 21 years.
The Southern Gas Board took over, making further modernisations over the next ten years. Then in May 1959 came the shock announcement that the town was to be joined up to a new “grid” system for gas supply, and the Kings Road Gas Works, a significant local employer, would close in July of that year.
The Kings Road works was sold by public auction at the Chequers Hotel in October 1959.
Thereafter the site was home to a number of local businesses, perhaps the best known being Sterling Cable Company, which manufactured cables for the oil and petrochemical industries worldwide.
The Aldermaston-based company, which closed down in the early 1990s, had a Tower Works factory on the Newbury Kings Road site. This led to the area being referred to locally as the Sterling Cables Industrial Estate, despite the fact that cable manufacture at the site ceased in 1983.
Sterling Garage, traded from the Sterling Estate from the 1990s; now the company trades from new premises in Faraday Road.
(the site in 2005)
The Kings Road site is now destined for housing to be built in eight blocks between three and eight storeys high - soon to provide a new landmark on Newbury’s ever-changing skyline.