At the beginning of the 20th century, the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company was expanding its operations rapidly to meet the increasing demand for gas from a growing population. The Poole gasworks was at East Quay, where all the available space had been utilised and there was no further room for expansion. Other departments were housed at Beech Hurst, former home of Philip Budge, solicitor and three times mayor of Poole. This fine Georgian mansion provided a rather grand location for the company’s district offices and showrooms. Behind Beech Hurst was a wide stretch of marshy land bordered on the north by the Poole to Bournemouth railway line. This area, known as Pitwines, was once bisected by the medieval town wall and ditch on its way to Parkstone Bay, and was used as a dump for the town’s waste in Tudor and Stuart times. In the 1920s it was already the site of a gasholder and was large enough for the needs of company’s development for many years to come.
The outbreak of the First World War put all plans on hold. Men hurried to enlist, including many from the Gas and Water Company. The town had to adjust to women working in various unfamiliar roles, and female gas fitters repairing gas fires, cookers and water heaters. In the difficult post-war world, development plans could at last be revived. The company proposed to increase their capacity by building what was virtually a complete new works at Pitwines. In 1923 the Co-Partner, the company’s works magazine, announced that ‘the ensuing six months will see Pitwines a veritable hive of activity’ and admitted that it was only just in time as a hard winter would ‘very severely tax our existing gas manufacturing resources’.
By the following year, the company were able to list the major contracts that had been awarded. Most important was the retort house itself which was to be supplied by the Woodall Duckham Company. Harold W. Woodall had been the Engineer and General Manager of the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company in the early years of the century with Arthur Duckham as his assistant engineer. The two men formed a partnership to develop systems for the continuous carbonization of coal using vertical retorts. During the war, Harold Woodall joined the Dorsetshire Regiment and later became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. Arthur Duckham chaired an advisory committee to the Ministry of Munitions and was granted a knighthood at the end of the war. In 1920, they set up a private company which was to become a leading supplier of vertical retorts. Another important contractor was the Mitchell Conveyor Company which would supply the coal handling cableway bringing coal from the Poole works at East Quay to Pitwines and capable of handling 100 tons per hour. They were also contracted to provide the handling system for coke, ash and breeze (fine coke), a ‘telpher’ or automatic aerial conveyor using a trolleys.
The reinforced concrete structures such as the main block of buildings and the coal store and coke hoppers were to be built by T. Vale and Son and the plant for producing water gas by Humphreys and Glasgow, an international firm. There were also contractors for boilers, exhausters, condensers, scrubbers and washers, the relief holder for the water gas, storage tanks, railway sidings and a railway weighbridge. Such a complex site needed detailed planning and drawing but by June 1924, the bulk of this work had been done. The raft foundation of the retort house had been laid, starting with a framework of 42 tons of steel rods to reinforce the 5,000 tons of concrete cement. The reinforced concrete stanchions supporting the retort house (some weighing 168 tons each) would interlock with the steel framework and the finished house would measure 116 ft. x 51 ft.
By the end of 1924, some of the buildings were taking shape including the coal store, water gas relief holder, coke bunkers and retort house. The unstable ground of the site posed problems and meant that the foundations for many of the buildings had to be supported by 14 in. square piles 30 ft. long. It had also proved difficult to recruit the number of scaffolders, carpenters and other skilled workmen needed. Nevertheless the company had made progress, levelling and laying roads and building the supports for the cableway and telpher systems. The completion of the railway sidings meant that construction materials could be brought on site more easily and the company had acquired a 5 ton locomotive hand crane to work with their existing petrol driven 45 h.p. Caledon shunting locomotive. The main block of buildings was also rising from its foundations. Here would be housed the boilers, water gas plant, producers and gas engines for producing electricity as well as the fitting shop and messroom. As it would be the main aspect of the works visible from the railway, it was designed in a plain but elegantly imposing style.
That winter there were south easterly gales and serious floods. At Christchurch a gas holder under construction, estimated to weigh 300 tons, was ‘floated off the foundations and moved a considerable distance.’ At Pitwines some parts of the site were flooded but the ground which had been raised to 7 ft. above Ordnance datum was still 6 in. above the water. The company described this as ‘very satisfactory’ while sincerely hoping that such exceptional weather conditions would not occur again in the near future.
On 5th June 1925 a distinguished party consisting of the directors and officers of the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company, including General Manager Mr. Philip G. G. Moon, the mayors of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole and other civic dignitaries and members of the Southern Association of Gas Engineers and Managers (of which Mr. Moon was President) toured the Pitwines works. The party then went to the Branksome Tower Hotel for lunch where they were entertained with a selection of music played by the Gasworks Band, followed by speeches. In a toast to the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company, with which he had previously been associated, Sir Arthur Duckham called it ‘one of the most progressive in the whole country’.
Gas manufacture finally commenced at the new Pitwines Gasworks on the 4th December 1925. It was only just in time to maintain gas supply in the severe wintry weather. The start of the generating process was the cableway, 1230 ft. long, bringing coal in skips from East Quay via two-storey ‘protection’ bridges over South Road and Green Road to Pitwines. The design of having the out-going skips travelling above incoming ones rather than side by side was to ‘reduce the width required for the cableway, and therefore the number of cottages which had to be demolished’. To have open 9 cwt. skips of coal passing over at chimney level every 32 seconds cannot have been very pleasant for nearby householders, especially on washing days. At the new works the coal was delivered either to the hoist of the retort house or to the coal store. The cableway was also used to transport coke, ash and breeze between the two works.
The heart of the works was the 87 ft. high retort house containing 24 Woodall Duckham vertical retorts each of which could carbonize 7 tons of coal in 24 hours in a continuous process. Coal was fed into the retorts from bunkers and supply hoppers on the top of the building and then heated by 4 producers (furnaces) in an oxygen free environment to release its volatile components, leaving coke as a residue. Gases, ash and coke were continually removed while coke to fuel the producers was fed in through chutes. The carburetted water gas plant was located in the main block of buildings. The process involved passing steam (produced in the plant’s water cooling system) through hot coke to produce water gas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Oil was added in the carburetting process to enrich the gas. The water gas was valuable to the supply because it could be produced more quickly and flexibly than coal gas. The output of the plant was 2,000,000 cu ft. of gas per day or nearly as much as the retort house. Both the coal and the water gas then had to undergo further processing in the condensers and scrubbers to remove unwanted elements such as tar, ammonia and sulphides. The three exhausters, supplied by George Waller and Sons of Stroud, were used to increase the gas pressure usually before scrubbing or at another part of the process. They were designed to be used on any gas main by operation of the appropriate valves and were powered by two vertical 43 h. p. steam engines.
The water gas plant and the exhausters were located in the main block of buildings which also housed the boilers producing steam and two gas producers supplying the gas engine dynamo plants to generate electricity for the whole works. Other areas of the buildings were used for a fitting room, messroom and stores. The massive reinforced concrete coal store measured 315 ft. x 100 ft. and when full it could store 14,750 tons of coal loaded to a depth of 20 ft. It was serviced by a 3 ton revolving jib crane which ran along a central gantry. The telpher which transported coke, breeze and ash around the works consisted of a track 1,448 ft. long, supported at a height of 56 ft. above the ground. The whole site was incredibly complex but processes were integrated as much as possible to save and recycle energy and produce saleable end products. Many different forms of power were in use, gas, electricity, steam, petrol, gravity and compressed air. End products included coal gas, water gas, coke, breeze, ash, steam, electricity, tar, gas oil, asphalt, ammonia and sulphate.
In 1928, the company built a new gas showroom, specially designed to compliment and not to obscure the Georgian splendour of Beech Hurst. The Pitwines works operated for 50 years until the coming of natural gas made coal gas redundant. When the plant came to be demolished in the 1970s, the buildings resisted the efforts of the demolition crew to take them down. After learning something about the works’ construction, this does not surprise me, and it can be regarded as a tribute to the expertise of the 1920s engineers. Beech Hurst survived its noisy neighbour and still graces the upper end of High Street.