The first general ordinary meeting of the shareholders of the Solihull Gas Company Ltd was held at Solihull Town Hall, The Square, at 10am on 20th October 1869. The limited liability company was formed by a number of local people who wanted gas and the company started with capital of £2,500.
Land was purchased in Wharf Lane and the gas works was built on this site adjoining the canal – presumably to keep the smell and smoke away from residential areas. There were very few houses in the vicinity at the time – the whole area around Lode Lane and Elmdon Heath was farmland.
Solihull first lit by gas
The Illustrated Midland News reported that the town of Solihull was lighted with gas for the very first time on Friday 26th November 1869. At this time, gas was only supplied to the village of Solihull – an area bounded by the High Street, Poplar Road, Warwick Road and New Road.
In 1875, Birmingham Corporation took over the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Company and entered into an agreement with Solihull Gas Company that the latter were not able to extend their gas mains beyond 2000 yards of the Public Hall in Poplar Road without the consent of the Corporation.
In August 1875, builders and contractors were invited to submit tenders for the construction of an additional gasholder tank at the Gas Company’s works in Wharf Lane.
A gale in January 1884 caused one of the gasholders at Solihull gas works to blow over. The gas escaped and the village was plunged into darkness, although newspapers reported that the manager turned on the reserve supply within minutes (Cheltenham Mercury, 2nd February 1884).
The Solihull Gas Act 1886
In January 1885, the Solihull Gas Co. Ltd brought before Parliament the Solihull Gas Bill, in which the company sought to become a public company before further increasing its capital to £7,000 . The Bill received a second reading in March 1885, before going before a Select Committee of the House of Commons on 11th March 1886. The company wanted to expand its gas supply to serve Solihull, Olton and Shirley.
The manager of the works, Thomas Burrows, told the Select Committee on 15th March that the company used best Eckington screened coal and that he was able to produce an average of 8,500 cubic feet of gas from one ton of coal.
The Solihull Gas Bill received its third reading in the House of Lords on 18th May 1886 and was passed, being enacted as the Solihull Gas Act 1886: An Act for incorporating and conferring powers on the Solihull Gas Company.
By 1886 there were 161 gas consumers plus 49 street lamps in the High Street, Poplar Road, Warwick Road, Mill Lane and Drury Lane. Gas lighting was usually installed in public houses and village schools.
In July 1886, the new Solihull Gas Company began laying a gas main as far as “Blossom Fields” with the intention of eventually laying the gas main to Shirley. This was reportedly complete by February 1887 and an issue of Debenture Stock was made to raise further capital.
Coal would arrive by canal barge and be taken into the Retort House where gas was produced by baking coal in “retorts” – tunnel-shaped ovens built in fireclay or silica bricks. As the gas cooled, condensation took place and liquid formed containing ammonia with globules of tar. The tar was separated and many believed that breathing in fumes from the tar tank helped those suffering from chest complaints such as asthma, whooping cough, and bronchitis.
Alan Sadler in his book Gazed at in awe says:
quite a number of people, usually children with their parents, would come at the week-ends or in the evenings to clear their lungs. They would lean over the edge of the steel tank and breathe in the tar fumes.
Visits to Solihull Gas Works for this purpose by a young Wystan Hugh Auden were referenced in a number of his poems including: Solihull Gas Works (1924); Letter to Lord Byron (1936) and Prologue at 60 (1967).
In July 1934, Solihull Gas Company took over the Knowle and District Gas Company’s business in its entirety – numbering some 800 customers – with Solihull having about 7,000 customers. Shortly after this, the company obtained Parliamentary approval to extend its area, supplying the greater part of Hampton-in-Arden, Lapworth, Barston, Tanworth-in-Arden and a considerable portion of Balsall. The Knowle works in Station Road, Dorridge closed in 1937.
Until the 1940s practically all street lighting in Solihull was by gas. In the early days each gas light had to be lit individually and switched off the next morning. Later on, each street lamp was fitted with a clockwork time clock, although the lamp-lighter still had to change the times on the clocks at set intervals and to change the mantles when needed.
The Bill for Nationalisation of the Gas Industry came before Parliament in 1948 and was enacted as the Gas Act 1948. The last General Meeting of Solihull Gas Co was held on 19th March 1949 and the company was one of 74 different undertakings that were handed over to the West Midlands Area Gas Board when Nationalisation commenced on 30th April 1949.
A dinner was held at Solihull Council House, Poplar Road, on the evening before, attended by 90 gas company employees, to mark the occasion. The Solihull Gas Company was dissolved on 1st May 1949.
Midland Research Station
A new Midland Research Station opened in Solihull in 1955 on land in Wharf Lane which had been purchased in 1938 by Solihull Gas Co for its own expansion.
The building was called the Davy Building. Research began into various ways of producing gas from petroleum products and, in particular, the use of gas in industry.
In January 1993, it was announced that the Midland Research Station would close in Spring 1993, putting 440 jobs at risk. British Gas said that the workers would be offered jobs in Loughborough, where the research operation would move to. The intention was also to close the London Research Station and to centralise research and development on one site. (Birmingham Daily Post, 22nd January 1993)
Anchor Inn and West Midlands Gas Board
The Anchor Inn was a public house from the early 1800s until the 1930s. Authority was given in April 1936 for its licence to be transferred to a new hotel in Haslucks Green Road. Following the closure as a pub, the building, which was situated on the Grand Union Canal, was taken over by Miss Tighe (hairdresser) before being demolished to make way for the Headquarters of West Midlands Gas Board.
It was announced in October 1961 that the site in Wharf Lane had been chosen for the HQ, in preference to a proposed scheme of a tower block of offices in Broad Street, Birmingham. The Solihull site was chosen as it was half the estimated cost of the Birmingham scheme and had more space, including for car parking.
The new HQ opened on 20th October 1962 – exactly 153 years after the first meeting of the shareholders of Solihull Gas Co. When the Gas Board office opened, it replaced 10 separate buildings in various parts of Birmingham and was apparently the largest single-storey open-plan office building in Europe. The gas works at Wharf Lane was demolished shortly after the opening of the new HQ building. (Birmingham Daily Post, 18th October 1961).
On 26th April 1965, the Minister of Power, Frederick Lee M.P., opened a new control room at the West Midlands Gas Board HQ in Solihull. The control room directed the production of gas in 16 gasworks and its distribution through nearly 10,000 miles of mains to over a million customers in five counties. (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27th April 1965).
In 2001, British Gas moved to Blythe Valley Business Park and, in 2004, the 10-acre Wharf Lane site was purchased from SecondSite Property Holdings (SPH) Ltd (later National Grid Property Holdings Ltd) by Taylor Woodrow Developments Ltd. After remediation works, the Wharf Lane site was developed for housing.
British Gas showrooms
The British Gas showroom in Solihull town centre was at 23, Mill Lane, Solihull adjacent to Woolworth’s. There was also a showroom in Shirley.
The Gas Shop, 183 Stratford Road, Shirley ceased trading at 5pm on Saturday 16th September 1989, with the announcement advising customers that payments of gas accounts and any queries regarding service or sales would be dealt with by the Mill Lane store.
In 1995, the former British Gas showroom in Mill Lane was rebranded as The Energy Centre. It closed on Saturday 26th October 1996 and relocated to 58/60 Drury Lane, next to Beatties – opening on Saturday 16th November 1996.
It was announced in July 1999 that the 243 British Gas Energy Centres, acquired by Centrica in 1997, would all be closing following losses of millions of pounds over two year, and difficulties in competing with department stores and out-of-town retailers.
Other British Gas sites in Solihull
On Thursday 21st May 1992, the Birmingham Daily Post announced that contracts had been exchanged which would allow British Gas plc to take over the corporate headquarters of National Home Loans in Homer Road, Solihull. The £14 million state-of-the-art building (51 Homer Road), complete with atrium and fountain, had opened in 1990 and National Home Loans held a 125-year lease.
British Gas had already occupied part of the four-storey office block by May 1992 and hoped to complete occupation by August 1992. The lease from National Home Loans was for five years and the rent agreed was just under £2 million per year for the 90,000 sq ft of office space.
It was announced in 1992 that the national headquarters of British Gas would be moving to Birmingham Business Park in Bickenhill. However, the Office of Fair Trading told the company that it had to split its operation and separate the transport and trading segments by the end of 1993. As this had to take place before the Birmingham Business Park HQ planned completion in 1994, the company put the business park plans on ice and decided to keep the two sites it had in Homer Road.
The Solihull Times 3rd February 1995 noted that British Gas was Solihull’s third largest employer, after Jaguar Land Rover and the Council and described the three-year transition of the company from March 1994, with British Gas being split into five business units:
- Business Gas
- Public Gas Supply
Solihull would be the national HQ for Transco, whilst the Wharf Lane office became an area office for Public Gas Supply, and 51 Homer Road was a centre for Information Services.
In 1998, it was announced that British Gas would be moving 500 Transco employees into the seven-storey former Inland Revenue offices at Chadwick House, Warwick Road, Solihull. Transco became part of Lattice plc in 2000 and merged with National Grid in 2002.
In 2001, British Gas moved from Wharf Lane to Blythe Valley Business Park and, in 2005, it was announced that 1,100 jobs would be lost from the site where customer accounts were managed. The company planned to outsource roles to India and said that new billing systems meant that it did not need anything like the number of back office data processors.
Gazed at in Awe by Alan J. Sadler (available to borrow from Solihull Libraries)
Damson by the Pound by Stanley J Beavan (available to borrow from Solihull Libraries)
History of the Midlands Research Station 1951-1993
© Solihull Council, 2022.
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