For more than 130 years, from 1839 to 1973, Biggar Gasworks made coal gas for the town and surrounding district. It was one of the first small-town gasworks to open in Scotland, and among the last to close.
The gasworks passed into state care soon after its doors shut, to be preserved as a lasting reminder of an industry that benefited all of Scotland’s citizens.
Another Scottish first
In the 1780s, Archibald Cochrane came across coal gas while heating coal to obtain tar, for use in preserving ships’ timbers. He was able to use this ‘waste product’ to light some rooms in his home at Culross, Fife.
Experimenting with coal gas was one thing. Solving the technical and commercial problems of creating a large-scale industry was an entirely different matter. Step forward another Scot, William Murdoch, from Ayrshire. In 1806, while working for the Boulton & Watt Company, he designed the first large-scale installation, at a Manchester cotton mill.
In 1812, Friedrich Winzer, a German, established the world’s first public gas undertaking, in London. By 1815, the Chartered Gas Light & Coke Company had laid 26 miles of gas pipe. Glasgow got its first supply in 1817, Edinburgh in 1818. Biggar was among the first small towns to convert to gas, in 1839, the year Murdoch died.
Industrial time capsule
Biggar Gasworks is remarkably complete – even the coal barrows and shovels remain. Buildings and equipment have been renewed and replaced over the years, but almost everything is in place.
You will find:
- coal sheds
- gas retorts
- gas meter
- office and showroom
The gasworks opened in 1839 and evolved over its 130-year life to meet demand and to keep pace with technological innovations.
The retort house built in 1839 is the oldest building on site. It was stripped of its coal-fired retorts in 1914 and ended up as the coal store. (At that time, the gasman was using 400 tons of coal per year to serve 320 consumers and power more than 100 street lights.) A new retort house, complete with purifying equipment, replaced the old one.
The building that now contains the visitor centre and display was put up in 1858 to house the gasman and his family. John Ramsay, from Carluke, was the first tenant.
The two gas holders originally installed in 1858 and 1879 were rebuilt in 1918 and 1939 respectively.
It is the only preserved gasworks left in Scotland.