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How Sudbury Gasworks in South Derbyshire was saved

The gasworks have been restored to its former glory Photo: James Boon Architects
The gasworks have been restored to its former glory Photo: James Boon Architects

Janine Sterland discovers the restoration story behind a rare piece of Derbyshire’s social and industrial heritage.

The words ornate and decorative may not usually be associated with an industrial gasworks building, yet Sudbury Gasworks, in South Derbyshire, is a rare exception.

Originally used to manufacture gas from coal, brought down from a mine which the Vernon family owned in Poynton, Cheshire, to supply Sudbury Hall and the village, the gasworks were – and remain - a fine example of Victorian industrial innovation.

‘Whilst the gasworks is a decorative building featuring intricate Victorian brickwork techniques, it was also functionable,’ explains architect James Boon who, as part of the gasworks’ restoration project team, knows the history and architecture of the site well.

‘It’s been very rewarding to play a small part in saving such a beautiful and interesting building.’

This privately owned building, commissioned by the 6th Lord Vernon, was mainly used to power lighting due to being safer, cheaper and easier to use than candles and oil lamps.

As a result, the gasworks provided a source of power for the Sudbury Hall and other places in the village including the church, kennels and estate properties.

Great British Life: Sudbury Gasworks, circa 1970s Photo: Sudbury Local History GroupSudbury Gasworks, circa 1970s Photo: Sudbury Local History Group

‘Although a large gasworks may employ up to 300 people, smaller gasworks, such as this one, could have been manned by a single man, sometimes with part-time labouring help to function’ adds James.

Developed by William Murdoch in the 1790s, this process of power proved a success, with a resulting network of gasworks powering many major towns and cities across the country - in the 1930s there were over 1,000 gasworks countrywide as well as smaller estates and villages, such as Sudbury.

There are also connections between the Gasworks and nearby Sudbury Hall with both having links in terms of architectural design in the form of architect George Devey who designed the former in 1874 and, as a result, there are distinct similarities between the buildings.

‘A key feature on both buildings is the use of diaper brickwork, the diamond pattern picked out in the bricks using darker bricks to contrast the red,’ explains James.

‘Although this is an obvious and distinct feature of the building now, at the start of the project the brickwork and pointing were in very poor condition due to the requirements of the building changing over time.’

As gas production ceased at the site in the 1932, the building was repurposed as a smithy, a store by a local farmer and for pottery making, with two pottery kilns functioning at different times during its history.

‘By the later 20th century the property fell into disrepair with no one using the site,’ adds James.

‘Without regular use and maintenance old buildings can swiftly fall into a poor state as this one did, sitting unloved on the edge of the village.’

Great British Life: Sudbury Gasworks, circa 1970s Photo: Sudbury Local History GroupSudbury Gasworks, circa 1970s Photo: Sudbury Local History Group

With a roof covered in tarpaulin amongst other structural issues, its restoration required substantial funding and, with its heritage status, the project gathered momentum as well as support from various influential experts, including primary funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

‘Numerous funders have supported the project over the years,’ says Lucy Godfrey, project manager and the first chair of Sudbury Gasworks Restoration Trust.

‘As a building of aesthetic, architectural and historical interest it is also of importance to social historians and industrial heritage enthusiasts.

‘Apart from Sudbury, there are only two known examples of country house estate gas houses that have survived relatively unaltered and although the building was in a terrible condition, there were important features still in-situ, such as the ironwork in the roof of the former retort house.’

READ MORE: Why you should visit Sudbury in the Derbyshire Dales

Having been on the District Council's Buildings at Risk Register since 1989, surveys carried out by structural engineers revealed more about the construction and condition of the unique fire-proof roof structure of the retort house.

‘As well as its status as a rare Grade II listed industrial building, Sudbury Gasworks is important to the community because of the potential it offered,’ adds Lucy.

‘The previous village meeting room had issues that limited its use and the gasworks presented a wonderful opportunity for a new community meeting place.’

In 2013, the owner of the building, the Sudbury Estate, arranged a community consultation event facilitated by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to gather the local community and key stakeholders.

Great British Life: The internal scaffolding in the retort house is removed to reveal the amazing results of the work Photo: James Boon ArchitectsThe internal scaffolding in the retort house is removed to reveal the amazing results of the work Photo: James Boon Architects

The aim, explains Lucy, ‘was to reach an agreement regarding the opportunities for the regeneration of the building that would be sensitive, appropriate, and achievable as well as benefiting the local community.’

‘The consensus was that the building was very much at risk and needed to be rescued and that it could be brought back into use for the benefit of the community of Sudbury in a variety of ways,’ says Lucy.

‘A committee was elected in September 2013, with me as chair, to consider the governance model for the body that would take the project forward. It was a catalyst year for the gasworks and Sudbury Gasworks Restoration Trust started their work to rescue and restore the building.’

The project itself has been an amazing opportunity to showcase contemporary architectural design within a unique historic building.

‘There weren’t many surviving photographs photos of the gasworks to refer to before it fell into such poor condition, or that could show what it was like before key changes took place,’ reveals James.

‘However, there was enough surviving evidence to help guide the design, repair and restoration into a modern structure which remains in keeping with the look and feel of the original.’

With a number of experts and historians, including Sudbury Local History Group, supporting the project and providing guidance on how it would have looked and worked, key designs were developed to complement the historic elements of the site including a glass link which, James says, was designed to touch the original gasworks as lightly as possible.

‘This crosses the old with the new with a freestanding structure that is independent of the main building.

Great British Life: The Gasworks from the north, taken in February this year Photo: James Boon ArchitectsThe Gasworks from the north, taken in February this year Photo: James Boon Architects

‘The new in this case is the main hall, a new circular construction that sits on the footprint of the old gas holder, clad in metal, so to appear as a modern interpretation of the original holder.

‘We originally wanted to express a decorative roof structure but decided to keep this plain, with a simple central rooflight lantern so to not compete with the historic ornate retort roof of the gasworks.’

In contrast to the scarcity of historic photographic reference points, a student from the University of Derby spent time on site photographing the construction process, leading to surprising results.

‘During this period, he found a number of interesting items including bottles, telegraph line indicators, shoe soles and various other metal artefacts,’ reveals Lucy.

‘As the works continued, we also found pottery pieces from the potters who worked there, with some now displayed in the building.’

As well as these discoveries which document the gasworks’ past, a key aspects of the project, Lucy feels, has been the importance of engaging volunteers and trustees, with all being local members of the community.

‘One particular group is ‘WELLIES’, which stands for Wellness, Education, Learning, Laughter, Inspiration, Environment, Skills,’ she says.

‘The organisation provides activities for people recovering from mental ill health and activities include work with animals, plants, creativity, and the countryside.’

With the local WELLIES team involved since the start of the project, their dedication, Lucy says, has contributed significantly the success of the Sudbury Gasworks project.

Great British Life: The Gasworks as it appears today Photo: James Boon ArchitectsThe Gasworks as it appears today Photo: James Boon Architects

‘The team worked on a range of outdoor tasks including clearing the woodland area and the development of a woodland walk.

‘They have also constructed bird houses, a bug hotel and a log seating area for storytelling. It’s been fantastic to see volunteers developing new skills and heritage building skills, which have contributed to the restoration of the building.’

In partnership with Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust (DHBT) the project also offered a chance for people to learn the heritage building skill of torching.

‘Torching is made from a mix of lime mortar with horse hair and is found on the underside of tiles or slates to keep them in place and to prevent strong winds from lifting them,’ Lucy explains.

‘The technique was believed to have previously been used at the site because of the fireproof construction, and so it seemed fitting to continue this skill within its restoration.

‘In partnership with DHBT, our contractor H.A.Briddon, and heritage roofer Richard Jordan, six people were able to find out more about the technique and even have a go themselves!’

Feedback from the volunteers has, reveals Lucy, been very positive – little surprise given how involved they have been in such an important and interesting restoration project which will now benefit the surrounding community they are part of.

‘It was really rewarding to see so many local children attending the first major event at the gasworks,’ she concludes.

‘It was a special moment seeing the building having life within it once again and all generations using and enjoying it; we hope this continues for a long time to come.’

To discover more about Sudbury Gasworks, including future events, visit:


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