The Settle Coal Gas supply, retorts and stumps

Michael Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Many local residents and visitors have walked by the curious stump on the footpath starting on the road to Buckhaw Brow near the Hartshead Inn going down to Giggleswick Church past the graveyard. There is a very similar stump on the path from Settle Bridge by the riverside leading to Queen’s Rock in the river. This one is said to have been removed from the weir in the river bed. But what are they?

A few enquiries led to the suggestion that they came from gasworks. Brayshaw and Robinson [1932] note that an attempt to provide gas for Settle was made in 1824 when individuals were canvassed asking how many lights they would like so that the size of the apparatus for making gas could be determined [Local Notes, Brayshaw, c.1903]. John Tatham and Sons (Castleberg Outoors, see 2015 Journal) and J. W. Hartley subscribed and provision was made for about ten public lights to be paid for by public subscription. This attempt does not seem to have been implemented. In 1851 the Vegetable Gas Light Company (set up in 1830) from Hull (S.T. Halsted, T. Horncastle, J. Watson, tar and turpentine distillers) tried to set up works behind the Spread Eagle Inn (near Victoria Hall on land leased from T. Briggs). There is no evidence that this came about but they must have set up a plant elsewhere since the Settle Chronicle of 1854 criticizes the siting of the four lamps close together in Settle and the poor quality of the gas (costing 12 s per 1000 cubic feet), the four street lamps having been funded by individuals. It is thought that this effort did not last long, but by 1857 Settle had a proper gas supply provided by the Settle Gas Company (a joint stock company) who had acquired the undertaking and lease of the Vegetable Gas Light Company - with four retorts, 63 meters and the service pipes. During 1881 a gasworks was built close by the river on Sowarth Green and was modernized in 1900 with horizontal retorts 21 feet long and 19 inches by 9 inches cross-section. Gasholders were erected in 1882, 1900 and 1925. The Settle Gas Company was incorporated in 1896 to supply gas to Settle, Giggleswick and Langcliffe and continued until 1949 on nationalization of the gas industry.

The parish vestry and later the parish council negotiated annual contracts for gas supply to street lamps with discord arising from arguments over price discounting. The use of gas for street lighting was discontinued after about 1937 and no lighting was allowed during World War II. In World War I gas was supplied by Haigh Bros. and E.H.Ellis for gasbags on cars.

Bill Mitchell [1993] supplies further information. Mr Hassel of Hull, of the Vegetable Gas Light Company, built his gasworks on Bond Lane (where Settle Coal and Coke Co. are situated). The gas ‘smelled most viley’ and when the gas worker thought he had supplied enough gas for local needs he went home. It is presumed that anaerobic (oxygen-free) decomposition of vegetable waste was the source of a gas containing some methane. John Tatham was involved in a successful venture in 1856, using coal instead of vegetable matter to minimize the unpleasant smell and improve the quality of the gas. A gasholder was erected in the yard near Victoria Hall, but later moved to Upper Settle. The disposal of liquid effluent into the river was not a good idea.

When coal is heated in the absence of air the volatile chemicals can be driven off leaving a solid residue of coke. In the chemical industry, a retort is an airtight vessel in which substances are heated for a chemical reaction producing gaseous products to be collected in a collection vessel or for further processing. The gas released from coal is combustible, but when it cools down ready for storage and distribution, tar oils condense out - these chemicals can be utilized for other purposes including making disinfectants. Early versions of coal gas plants contained a set of horizontal iron or ceramic tubes (retorts), closed at one end, packed with coal and heated externally by burning, with air, more coal or the coke residue raked out from the retorts. The opening end (covered by a hinged door) held a valve and pipe to lead the gas off for treatment and storage, and provision for raking out the coke. (Diagrams are available on-line for coal gas horizontal retorts).

The stumps found locally are indeed made of iron as proved using a magnet. They are both hemispherical at the top but oval at the exposed part at the bottom. There are two indented regions on one side but only one on the other. It is not known how deep they are buried. Currently they are about 115cm high, 50cm wide, 40/35cm thick at the thinner section, and 45cm (18 inches) diameter at the top. The strange shape could be explained by gradual distortion on repeated heating of such a cast iron cylinder supported horizontally at two points on brickwork in a furnace, the top then sagging accordingly. The temperature for coal gasification is about 350 to 750oC. Iron melts at well over1000oC but loses strength markedly as temperature rises above 500oC. The stumps are considered to be hollow: if the stumps were solid they would weigh one to two tonnes so are unlikely to have been moved very far or even at all from their original home. One cannot imagine what such solid objects could have been used for.

There is another stump in Bentham, on the Bentham Heritage Trail footpath going a short way east past St Margaret’s parish church. It protrudes about 140cm above ground and is about 45cm diameter with a roughly hemispherical top. There are several deep slots in one face which are hard to explain, but might be where horizontal supports have bitten into the retort. The now-missing information board suggested it was used for charcoal manufacture, maybe for gunpowder manufacture, which is consistent with coal gas production if wood had been used. It is known that gunpowder production required pulverized charcoal and that heating of wood in retorts gave a better, more uniform product [Crocker, 1999]. The Lancashire Gazette of 2/11/1867 notes that the Bentham Gas Co. was set up to provide a Gas Works with a capital of 1000. By 1872, the High Bentham Gas Co. Ltd. was selling gas at 6s.8d, in 1873 7s.6d per 1000 ft3, in 1893/4 5s/1000 ft3; the Gas Co. Ltd. was still in operation in 1930/31. The plant was probably situated behind the Kidde factory alongside the railway line. Gas House Lane runs off the High St. down to the site. It is possible therefore that the retort/stump in Bentham came originally from this gas works.

Ingleton Gas Company was set up in 1866 in works next to the mill which burned down in 1904. John Coates already had a gas works adjoining the mill so he leased the equipment for 20 years from 1866. The gas was considered to be of poor quality and expensive at 7s.6d/1000ft3 (then 4s elsewhere). In 1900, when electricity became available for lighting the gas company replaced its obsolete equipment with a new retort and purifier and charged 5s/1000ft3. The last use was in 1956 and the gasholder and buildings were then demolished [Bentley, 1976].

Brian Skipsey believes that the retorts/stumps seen in Settle were used for charcoal production. Information came from the Huntsworth golf club green-keeper at the time when the Giggleswick Tarn was drained. Trees on Buckhaw Brow are pollarded and were used perhaps 100 years and more ago to provide wood for charcoal. There is a coal seam nearby, above the golf course, (in ‘Coffin Wood’, alias Cave Hole or Cave Ha’ Wood presumably) thus providing a source of fuel, although admittedly of poor quality. The Settle Coal Company was set up to mine this coal. The retorts would presumably have been sealed but with a vent hole or pipe to allow gases to escape. It is imagined that they were placed horizontally to make it easier to support the retort and add and remove contents. The temperature required for charcoal manufacture is 300 to 700oC.

Humphries [2003] notes a payment to Stavely Coal and Iron Co.of Derbyshire in 1883 for a Gas Retort for the cotton mill in Bentham - maybe this was the source of the retorts used locally since they were in the business of iron castings.

The editor of Historic Gas Times, Barry Wilkinson, has provided the answers [2015]. The stumps are the remains of iron gas retorts used for making gas from coal in the early days of gas-making, in the 1800s. The weakness of cast iron at the high temperatures required for making gas led to distortion of the retorts and eventual scrapping. Most were recycled as scrap but they have been found in many areas being re-used as farm gate posts. Iron retorts were replaced with fireclay types which were more successful. They may have been used for making charcoal, but the traditional method was slow heating of suitable timber in stacks. The late Ken Golisti, Archivist to the Gas Board, researched in detail the development of gas production in Settle from early days to about 1971. His notes are partially incorporated into this article.

Acknowledgements Ken Waters, Barry Wilkinson (Historic Gas Times) and Kerry Moores (National Grid Information Records Management) were most helpful in finding information.


  • Bentley, J., 2008. The History of Ingleton, Ingleton Publications
  • Brayshaw, T and Robinson, R.M., 1932. A history of the ancient parish of Giggleswick, Halton, London
  • Crocker, G., 1999. The gunpowder industry, Shire, Princes Risborough
  • Humphries, M., 2003. Quarries, coal, clay and cloth. Nineteenth century industry in the Wenning and Greta valleys. Ewecross Historical Society
  • Mitchell, W.R., 1993. A popular history of Settle and Giggleswick, Castleberg, Settle
  • Bits, Scraps and All Sorts from Giggleswick and beyond, 2004. Ed. N. Mussett, Kirkdale Publications, Giggleswick
  • Wilkinson, B., 2015. Editor, Historic Gas Times, Personal communication.
  • Biggar Gasworks Museum:

Gas retort
Giggleswick stump
Bentham stump

Gas retort

Giggleswick stump

Bentham stump