Some people loved it while others loathed it. The ‘it’ was the Sterling Cables Tower and for nearly a century it was a feature of Newbury’s skyline. Now it is no more. A gas works in Newbury was established in the 1820’s by Joseph Hedley of London. The purpose of the works was to provide gas street lighting in Newbury and Speenhamland. This began on December 29, 1825. However, the first public building in Newbury that was lit by gas was the Waterside Chapel and this occurred in 1827. The Chapel was situated at what is now the Waterside Centre.
The site of the gas works was to be found at the Cheap Street end of King’s Road. By 1880 the demand for gas for use in the home and at work was such that a new and larger gas works was needed.
This was built at the corner of King’s Road and Boundary Road. Two years before, i.e. in 1878, the Borough of Newbury Corporation had purchased the Newbury Gas provision from the Gas Company for the sum of £10,438. The new works was constructed in 1880-81.
For around 40 years the Chairman of the Corporation’s gas works was Alderman Charles Lucas and thanks to the skilful and competent way he carried out his responsibilities, the gas works by 1925 was in a strong financial position.
Indeed it was in July 1925 that the Mayor Alderman James Stradling opened a new vertical retort plant which replaced one that was deemed unsatisfactory. The town grew in size and hence so did the demand for gas, particularly during the Second World War. Consequently, in 1947 a larger retort house was constructed next to the one already there. In addition a new gas holder was built on land between Hambridge Road and the racecourse.
The gas industry was nationalised on May Day 1949, thus bringing to an end 70 years of town ownership of an important utility. Alderman H R Metcalf who in 1949 was chairman of the gas committee, a post he held for nearly 21 years, was not pleased with this decision of the Attlee Government.
As a result the Southern Gas Board, which had been established, was responsible for further modernisations. However, in 1959 it was announced that because the town was to be joined up to a new grid system the King’s Road gas works would have to close. This happened in July 1959.
In October 1959 the King’s Road works site was put up for auction at the Chequers Hotel. After this the site became the home of several businesses, and one of the best known of them was the Sterling Cable Company which specialised in the manufacture of high quality cables for oil rigs, oil refineries and airports.
This business had premises in Aldermaston as well but in the early 1990’s it closed down. The Company had a Tower Works factory on the King’s Road site in Newbury. The King’s Road site then became a small industrial site which caused it to become known in the town as the Sterling Cables Industrial Estate even though the Cables manufacturing business had ceased to operate on the site in 1983.
The site contained several businesses of varying sizes, including Sterling Garages, but the potential for this site as a centre of small business excellence was not realised. Indeed, the fact that the Tower was allowed to fall into disrepair is indicative of the sad decline of the site as a whole.
The estate was to be replaced by housing as a result of planning permission being granted for the demolition of the buildings on the site, the demolition of the Tower and for the construction of eight blocks of flats. In addition a new road is to be part of the development.
The Tower then which dominated the Newbury skyline was something which could not be ignored, whether one loved it or hated it. Indeed, it was only after it had been demolished that it was discovered what a rare piece of industrial architecture it was. Professor Russell Thomas, an historian of the gas industry, told the Newbury Weekly News that ‘This was the last remaining gas house vertical retort works of its kind in England and was a unique part of gas heritage’.
Many will miss the significant and important building and not only people, but the birds that for years had made it their home. It is hoped the new buildings on the site will be fine examples of modern architecture and become equally as lovable as the Tower which is no more.