It’s hard to credit that Alston’s streets have been lit longer by gas than by electricity - about fifty years longer, in fact; but, the gas was first lit in 1843, and even that was not the first time the town had had street lights.
A Mr. John Little of Raise House, who died in 1821 aged 47, was one of the largest proprietors of Cross Fell Mine, and in those days of individual civic pride, the rich in these parts were more or less honour-bound to share some of their wealth with the community. An old guide-book to Alston claims that Mr. Little paved the streets, was instrumental in bringing water to the town, introduced the town’s first printing press, and gave OIL lamps for the streets. It ought to be interesting to find out more about that. The fire risk, one would think, would be enormous, and susceptibility to vandalism an invitation. However nothing more is known about it, so there follows a big leap forward to nearer the middle of the century.
“Town gas” was made by the partial burning of coal in retorts, to produce coke and gas. Obviously, cities were the first to receive gas lighting - the Carlisle Gas Company was formed in 1818; then the bigger towns - Hexham was lit by gas on 16th January 1835 - and finally small towns such as Alston.
In 1842, when the population of Alston Moor was at its peak of about 6,000, the Alston Gas Light and Coke Company, a joint stock company, was formed; the Gas Works were erected, and Alston was lit by gas in May 1843, probably using coal from Blenkinsopp Colliery. The town was described as “well lighted with gas” in subsequent trade directories.
On Saturday 27th November 1875, five shares in the Alston Gas Company were advertised for sale in the Alston Herald and East Cumberland Advertiser, for an unknown price, on application to Messrs. Bainbridge and Millican, Solicitors, Alston.
At a monthly meeting of the “Inspectors for Lighting of the Town of Alston”, in 1871, it was ordered that, “owing to an increase being made in the price of Gas, the Street Lamps in future be extinguished immediately after 11 o’clock each night, but not before, and in consideration of which the Gas Co. will not increase the rate of charge for Gas”.
In 1901, gas retailed at 4s.2d. per 1,000 cu.ft., and the volume of gas produced in 1910 was 1,400,000 cu.ft., for a declining population, which was then at 3,075 for the whole Moor. In May 1911, the company was incorporated to become a Limited Company.
For the first twenty years or so, the Gas Manager, or Gas Maker, was Ralph Smith, and for the next fifteen or twenty years, the manager was William Walton, followed for another twenty or twenty-five years by Joseph Henry Pickering, and followed by Fred Nicholson, who was manager at least until 1938, then in 1940, Mr. L. Little was manager. All the managers lived next door to the Gas Works at ‘Gas House’. By 1948 the post of Gas Manager was vacant.
Electricity was “available” in 1938. By 1940, the chairman of Alston Gas Co. was Mr. H. Lees, of Hexham, who was also chairman of the Hexham gas company, and the Alston company was based there. In that year, 2½ million cu.ft. of gas were sold to 275 domestic customers, with no industrial users, 78 tons of coke had been produced and were for sale, and the price had increased to 6s.3d. per cu.ft. In 1948, 7.4 million cu.ft. were made for 292 domestic customers and 20 industrial and commercial consumers, with different charges, 8s.6d. and 6s.3d.
In 1947, the company was nationalised, becoming part of the Hexham Division of the Northern Gas Board, which, in 1951, had a larger storage tank built in Alston by a firm from Stockton.
1956 saw the closure of Hexham works, when it became part of a grid main, but Alston was too remote for inclusion. Here, coal-gas and coke production continued until 1960, when a butane/air plant was installed, the first in the Cumberland Division area, going into operation in June, with gas delivered by road tankers. This development meant the closure of the solid fuel retorts, and all customers’ appliances had to be converted.
The winter of 1962/63, gave the Gas Board some anxiety due to snow-blocked roads, but in the event there was never any need to restrict supply to customers. However, as a safeguard for supply against severe conditions in the future, an additional storage tank had to be installed. In 1964 a 7,000 cu.ft. gas holder arrived from the recently-closed gasworks at Seascale, but for transportation it first had had to be cut into four pieces, then welded together again on site in Alston. This was the holder’s third home, having originally been used in an engineering works at Stockton.
Due mainly to the high price of Butane/LPG (liquid petroleum gas) the Gas Board had supplied gas at a financial loss to Alston and towns like it. However with the availability of North Sea gas, (which Alston had missed out on in the 1960s) combined with technological advances, it became possible to pipe natural gas through polyethylene mains, and viable for Alston to be incorporated into the National Grid, supplying 2 to 2½ million cu.ft. per year. So, in 1987, the old railway trackbed from Haltwhistle was used for another purpose - that of providing a route for the new gas supply pipe, and the old works were finally closed and dismantled, 144 years after the first lighting up.