AHSS 2: Gas, pollution and heritage

Doctoral Training Alliance Future Societies logo

Applications have now closed for our 2021/2 Vice Chancellor's PhD Scholarships. We will contact applicants in due course.

This scholarship has been developed in conjunction with The DTA Future Societies programme, which will support solutions-driven research that tackles the world’s most pressing challenges, with projects guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Faculty: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Supervisors: Prof John Gardner, Dr Will Tullett and Dr Jon Davis

Interview date: 17 May 2021

This PhD will study the history and heritage of gas infrastructure in local communities between 1800 and the present.

Gas light changed Britain when it arrived in the early nineteenth century. In 1807 London began to be lit by gas. Other cities, factories, places of entertainment, lecture theatres and homes followed. Relics of that technology can still be found in the form of old street gas lamps and gasometers in British towns. The gas was created using coal at gas plants which were located in working class areas. These produced pollutants that adversely affected people living nearby rather than the wealthier consumers of gas lighting.

The research project is arranged around four principal areas. The first will trace how working class communities responded to gas infrastructure in their midst. One route into this are the early Mechanics' Institute - many of which became red brick universities. They frequently asked questions pertinent to the working-class communities they existed in and which engaged with issues of industrial pollution. Essay questions set by the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute between 1823 and 1835 speak to the conditions people working and living in industrial areas faced, such as on ‘the Manufacture of Gas for Lighting towns and factories, as regards economy, quality, and the means of protecting from offensive effluvia those who live in the neighbourhood of the works where the Gas is made’. This research will address gaps in studies into the agency of working class people on tackling pollution.

The next two sections of the PhD will focus on a range of responses to gas infrastructure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Responses will be found in historical and literary documents to include: local government records, literature, and visual records of gas infrastructure. These will evidence community responses to the technology in the period. The third section will combine written and industrial sources with oral histories of people who lived alongside the infrastructure of the gas industry before its gradual shift to natural gas from 1967 onwards.

The final section will examine gas infrastructure as a form of built heritage, and what role these buildings and industrial relics play in present communities and consider the implications – environmental, social, economic, and cultural – in which gas infrastructure is being reused, recycled, or demolished.

By examining the historical relationship between working class communities and the infrastructure of gas, the postholder will situate nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas about health, pollution, and environment alongside the responses of local people living in the vicinity of gas infrastructure. Assessing perceptions of risk – and therefore safety – will be part an important part of this research. Examining responses to gasworks and gasometers from the neighbourhoods where they were built and survived into the mid-twentieth century will contribute to current debates about the perception of safety and risk in relation to major technological and energy infrastructure projects (5G phone networks and nuclear power offer two pertinent examples).

This project will also probe the relationship between community, inequality, and gas infrastructure. The latter parts of the research will also involve considering how the built heritage of gas has or has not been preserved, recycled, or adapted in an inclusive manner today (turning these sites into parks, museums, or the bones around which luxury flats are built offer very different examples).

In the 1800s action on pollution came from new educational centres, such as the Mechanic’s Institutes that served working class communities. They pointed towards the concerns of future societies by concentrating on the needs and desires of their members and the communities they existed in. This research will examine how emerging struggles against pollution were tackled by the people suffering from that pollution in the past, and how that informs questions of individual and collective agency today.

Sustainable futures are not just about innovation. In order to build sustainable futures we must consider carefully how to maintain, recycle, and sometimes preserve the relics of past energy eras. By analysing the relics of the Anthropocene’s own energy infrastructure from the 1800s onwards, the student on this project will be helping us to understand how the remnants of our current energy systems will look in 50, 100, or 500 years’ time.

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2021/2 this will be £15,609 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.