Canvey Island Made History

Methane Gas Terminal

During the 1950’s it became apparent that there was a need to find new energy sources. The ever-increasing demand from industry and the domestic market, for both gas and electricity, required larger, more efficient plants to be built. Using mainly coal and oil products to produce gas and generate electricity, both of these products were becoming more expensive and supplies less reliable. One commodity which was plentiful, but largely wasted, was natural gas.

Gas platform

This gas, which was present in oil-fields and gas-fields, was usually flared off as a waste product. There were also large gas-fields around the world, but it was not a viable proposition to transport gas at this time, as the only means of storing it was in a compressed state. It had,however, been discovered that by cooling the natural gas to a temperature of -160deg. Centigrade (-259deg. Fahrenheit) at atmospheric pressure, the gas would condense into a liquid, reducing its volume by 600 times.

The gas in its liquid form is known as L.N.G. (Liquid Natural Gas/ Methane) and is one of the cryogenic liquids. The storage of this low temperature required materials that would stand such extreme temperatures, and at this time aluminium was chosen for tank and pipeline constructions. America had been liquefying natural gas and transporting it around the Great Lakes in purpose-built barges, for some time. A British Engineer, realising the potential of using this product in the United Kingdom, a feasibility study took place.

Due to its location and the deep-sea mooring, Canvey Island was chosen to be the site of a pilot scheme, the first in the World. L.N.G. was to be transported by sea from Lake Charles in The Gulf of Mexico, to purpose-built tanks at the Canvey site. Whilst under construction, a pipeline was laid from Canvey to Romford Gas Works, where the imported gas would be used as a feed-stock to make town gas at a calorific value of 500 Btu’s, the current C.V. of the gas that time. The Canvey pilot scheme was located on land owned by North Thames Gas, which had been purchased originally by the old Gas Light and Coke Company about 1930 to build a Coal Gas Plant. The land, however, until the Methane Scheme, had remained as farmland.

The construction of the pilot scheme was completed in 1959 and consisted of a pipeline on the now unused Texaco Oil Terminal jetty, two 1000 tonne double-skinned aluminium tanks, with perlite insulation between inner and outer tanks. Liquid gas pumps, suitable for the low temperatures, an evaporator to return the L.N.G. back to gas vapour and a steam boiler-house were installed. In America , a cargo vessel was converted to carry the L.N.G. in two aluminium tanks, insulated between the tanks and the ship’s hull with bolster-wood. The ship, formally known as the “Normarti” was renamed “Methane Pioneer”, the conversion being carried out in a shipyard at Mobile, Alabama.

During 1959, seven cargoes of L.N.G. were transported to the new Canvey Methane Terminal. The gas was evaporated and successfully sent to Romford Gas Works, where it was successfully reformed into town gas. At that time, it must be remembered that natural gas from the North Sea had not been discovered in usable quantities. The experiment to transport this coldest of liquids by sea, had been a success and with government approval, a contract with Algeria was made, to import 700,000 tonnes of L.N.G. into the U.K. for industrial and commercial use.

Methane Terminal 1979

In 1962, work started to construct the permanent L.N.G. Terminal which consisted of six double-skinned storage tanks, each to contain 4,000 tonnes, of L.N.G.  plus two single-skinned L.P.G. (Liquid Petroleum Gas) tanks, a purpose-built jetty, evaporators, generator house and other ancillary equipment were installed. At the same time, at Arzew in Algeria , three 18,000tonnes above-ground tanks were constructed, and  one 18,000 tonne Inground tank to store the gas, prior to transportation to the U.K. The natural gas feeding the liquefaction plant at Arzew came from gas-fields at Hassi R’Mel in The Sahara Desert.

Methane Progress 1979

Two purpose-built ships were commissioned to carry the L.N.G. from Arzew to Canvey, these being “The Methane Princess” and “The Methane Progress” the first being built at Vickers Yard at Barrow in Furness and the second at Harland and Wolfe Shipyard in Belfast.At the same time, a pipeline from Canvey to Leeds, was constructed with off-takes to various Gas Works, plus a number of Industrial customers for their process plants. By 1964, the work was completed and on the 12th October of that year, the first 12,000 tonne cargo of Liquid Methane, the coldest cargo in the World, arrived at the Canvey Terminal from Arzew in North Africa.

The L.N.G. was evaporated in a number of ways including using sea-water drawn from the Thames. As well as the L.N.G. storage at the Canvey Terminal, there were two Continuous Catalytic Reforming Plants each designed to make15 million cubic feet of town gas at a calorific value of 500 BTU’s per day. The Reforming plant used a fuel to make the gas was a distillate (LDS), supplied by ship and a pipeline linking the Canvey Terminal with the Shell Refinery at Shell Haven, Esso storage at Purfleet and North Thames Gas Board stations at Romford, Bromley and Beckton.

After the conversion of households to natural gas, the Reforming Plants made a lean gas to dilute the Algerian Methane, which had a C.V. of approximately 1300 Btu’s to be compatible with the North Sea Gas at 1035 Btu’s. The two Reforming Plants required a large volume of distilled water to make superheated steam for use in the process. To supply this, each plant had an “Aiton Plant” which made distilled water from raw water drawn from the River Thames, heated by waist heat from the plant and flashed under vacuum. Each “Aiton Plant” was capable of producing 24,000 gallons per day.

In its heyday the Canvey Terminal employed approx. 250 personnel, had 6 x 4000 tonne above ground LNG tanks, 4 x 21000 tonne inground LNG tanks, 2 x 4000 and 1 x 10000 tonne LPG tanks, 3 Steam Boilers, numerous specialist pumps, evaporators, 4 compressor houses, evaporators, large generators to supply the Terminal’s needs if required, a jetty and 5 large seawater pumps and a Liquefaction Plant to re-liquefy Boil Off gas from the LNG. It was however mainly used to Liquefy North Sea gas for storage. There was a large amount of ancillary equipment including the Terminals Own fire station with 3 Rolls-Royce driven fire pumps and a Fir engine equipped with dry powder.

High Speed Gas 1979

With the discovery of North Sea gas it was decided to build a national grid of gas pipelines all over the UK and convert every household and industrial user over to Natural Gas (Methane). Once again Canvey made history by being the 1st place in the UK to be converted. With the National Grid now in place a new control centre was set up at Hinckley in Leicestershire and again Canvey was used to recruit and train personnel, a number of local people relocating to the centre.

Due to problems with high running costs being incurred by the Inground Tanks it was decided to fill these in greatly reducing the Terminals storage capacity. The Terminal had become a plant only required on line at times of high demand which were becoming fewer due to the milder winters. A decision was taken to close the Terminal as it was thought there would be no need to import gas into the UK again in the foreseeable future, (this has since proved wrong and LNG, is imported once again into the UK at Isle OF Grain and 2 Plants Dragon & South Hook LNG Terminals at Milford Haven in Wales). British Gas closed the Terminal in 1994, was purchased by an LPG operator a couple of years later, converted to store and distribute LPG and is currently owned by Calor Gas.

From Canvey’s 1959 experimental project there are now 26 LNG Liquefaction Plants in 15 Country’s around the world with another 7 under construction and 24 more planned. There are also 60 import terminals in 18 Country’s.


You can see a film about the gas and Canvey here

Comments about this page

  • Brilliant! Thanks Rod. A most comprehensive history of the Canvey methane terminal and it’s contribution to the national economy.

    Thanks for the ”Can we have our shell back, please.” story too. Graham.

    By Graham (19/07/2010)
  • I worked on the construction of part of the pipe from Canvey to Romford, I think it was 1958. My work was on the link from Canvey to Coryton. The steel pipe was welded together to form a length of about 400 yards, then sprayed with cement to protect it from corrosion. This length of pipe was then pulled by winches across the creek to Coryton, ready to be joined up to standard underground pipe.

    By mikey (26/07/2010)
  • My late father worked for North Thames Gas, and I still have a copy of the monthly staff magazine that describes the natural gas project and the then proposed Canvey gas terminal. It includes a map of the projected natural gas pipeline that was intended to link Canvey with a possible second terminal at Liverpool, and showed storage tanks that were wholly above ground level rather than the buried ones that were actually built, thereby causing the Canvey “permafrost”. Before the pipeline grid was completed, North Sea gas was discovered, and so the pipeline network had to be redrawn to include East-West lines linking the original North-South lines with the East Coast gas terminals. We were living in West Ham at the time, and I well remember the embankment of the Northern Outfall Sewer being dug up to install the gas pipeline. I well remember thinking that the pipes looked as if they were cement-coated. A school friend later became a chemist at the old West Thurrock power station. In the early 1970’s, they arranged to take considerable supplies of the Algerian gas from Canvey (which was not directly compatible with the North Sea Gas, and which NTG were still obliged to buy under their long-term contracts with Algeria) for heating their steam boilers instead of the usual coal or oil. A special pipeline, which happened to run though farmland behind his house, had to be laid to connect Thurrock to the pipeline from Canvey. A pressure-regulating station was located within earshot of his house, and when supplies started, it made a lot of noise. For some reason the authorities seemed reluctant to acknowledge the new pipeline’s existence, because when complaining about the noise, he was fobbed off with an excuse that did not mention it. Only when he said that he knew exactly what the cause was as he was involved in the project, was its existence admitted and something done about it. He told me that, when running on Algerian gas, they achieved an efficiency of nearly 40%, the highest in the country at that time. Despite this, and possibly for political reasons, Thurrock was later closed, one reason that I read being that it could only run on coal and oil!

    By Ronald Camp (31/01/2014)
  • Thanks to Rod Bishop. I read with interest his great coverage on the various gas systems and their development following my own last involvement with The North Thames Gas Board on Canvey in 1953 and when our family moved to Canada. Having spent my working life in the Gas industry I was able to follow the terminology and other details. Our family located in Winnipeg,Manitoba where I soon gained employment with the local gas company. I was there when Natural Gas (mostly Methane) arrived in Winnipeg by way of pipeline from Alberta in 1957. It was not liquified, but travelled in pipelines at high pressure and as a vapour. The pressure was regulated down outside the city and delivered into the grid system with a CV of about 1000 B.T.U’s per cubic foot.

    By Gerald Hudson (31/01/2014)
  • Very interesting and comprehensive record. From late 62 I was a site engineer straight out of university working for Peter Lind the contractors who designed and built the jetty. My first job was as a junior on site supervision and I worked at Canvey throughout the jetty construction until it was completed in 1963. The jetty approach and head was built by floating craft( an Admiralty Pontoon) driving Rendhex steel piles with precast concrete structure. The precast beams and slabs were built onshore and taken out to the required location by tug and Thames barge. The work was delayed by the very severe winter of 1963 when the temperature remained below freezing from January to March. There were small icebergs in the Thames. No concrete could be poured for weeks but the piling continued. I see from Google Earth the jetty is still standing today!. Once the jetty was completed I went on, along with many of the workforce from the jetty construction, to the foundation piling for the 400MW Kingsnorth Power Station on the Medway. 15,000 concrete piles cast and driven in 15 months.

    By Andrew Elcock (31/03/2014)
  • I was a little girl when Natural Gas was introduced to the Island. Our cooker, a Newhome, was converted by engineers so that it could burn the new gas safely. Ha, ha. When my mother lit the gas burners in the oven to cook our Sunday roast the insulation in the oven walls caught light. Thankfully my mother quickly stopped it turning into a disaster and we had to eat veg without the roast!

    By Janet Walden (10/11/2014)
  • I used to work in the Low Temperature Engineering Section of British Gas in the late 70s and was involved with the filling in of the in-ground tanks. They were a problem because they could not be filled more than 25%. This was because the boil-off rate would exceed the capacity of the compressors to deal with it and there was also the problem of the permafrost which was solved by installing the world’s largest “radiator” that circulated warm oil through a pipe grid in the ground. This was installed as the ground heave threatened the above ground storage tanks. The plan for decommissioning the tanks was to freeze any remaining gas in them with liquid nitrogen and then filling them in with sand from memory. I left British Gas before the decommissioning was started so don’t know how it all went.

    By Rod Harper (08/04/2020)
  • I think our bakery was the first commercial enterprise to be converted to Natural Gas in 1959, it must have had some significance as North Thames Gas had a photographer around to record the event. I’ll have to have a look thru the old photos to see if I find a copy.

    By Graham Stevens (10/04/2020)
  • Sorry another mistake, must have been the early 60s however I have found the photo of the testing of the ovens, not at all flattering of the surrounding s in our old bakery.Today Environmental Health would have a fit and put us in ‘lockdown’ straightaway I have a feeling the Gas Board reps were a bit surprised too as they all turned up in lovely white coats.

    By Graham Stevens (11/04/2020)
  • I have managed to unearth the copy of my late father’s magazine, the September 1962 issue of “Thames Gas”. According to the article, evidently written before the discovery of North Sea Gas, the original plan was merely to use the cheap imported Algerian gas to enrich gas of low calorific value so as to bring it up to the level of coal gas, thereby reducing the cost for customers. Imported gas was, initally at least, only to have been supplied to eight of the twelve gas boards, and would have represented about 10% of total gas consumption.

    The subsequent discovery of large quantities of North Sea Gas evidenly resulted in abandonment of the original enrichment plan in favour of wholesale conversion to natural gas, and a re-design of the embrionic national gas grid, originally going from South to North, to add East to West pipelines.

    By Ron (22/07/2020)
  • Very interesting I worked on the MV methane progress in the early 70s got a travel pass from Birmingham to Tilbury meal at the flying angel Club and got Sean’s at the doctor’s Transported to Canvey Island dropped half a mile away from the ship they couldn’t get any closer for they are loading and it was dangerous hasn’t got a clue what I was signing onto enjoyed every minute of it ten day round trip from Canvey to Algeria and back remember having all metal objects taken off me at the gates put in a jiffy bag and returned when I was on board thay didn’t won’t any sparks.

    By Ian JACKSON (26/10/2020)
  • Met my husband to be in The Haystack in 1968. He was a seaman on the Methane Princess. Happy days

    By Jay (02/01/2021)
  • When the terminal was first built in the 1950 two above ground storage tanks were built. Aluminium Plant & Vessels and Wessos of Darlington was the constructors of the tanks. Wessos was partly blown down one night due to a strong gale. Dose anyone remember this incident??

    By John Smith (14/01/2022)
  • I worked as a supervisor for W C Deane Ltd (Twickenham) a structural pipework subcontractor for the APV co Ltd, who were the Main Contractor.
    We installed the initial pipework supports across the site, down the side of the access road, onto the Regent Oil terminal jetty
    Later a new NTGB jetty was constructed and we installed much larger pipe supports along the jetty and alongside the access road to five newly constructed liquid storage tanks.
    The initial import of liquid methane from America was in the ‘Methane Pioneer’ (A converted cargo ship where stainless steel tanks were installed on a huge bed of balsa wood) which then discharged at new the North ThamesGas Board [NTGB]) terminal.
    Prior to this contract all NTGB pipe supports were constructed from heavy grade mild steel channel sections bolted together.
    I redrew the structures as welded tubular supports (welded pipework was our speciality) pointing out that there was less surface area, and they would be much easier to maintain in the aggressive sea atmosphere , which was accepted and all future NTGB pipe supports were tubular welded.
    I travelled weekly from Twickenham to site, attended a site meeting, and aligned and levelled the structures for a period of about 18 months for both the initial and second contracts.
    We were pipework contractors who laid down several welds, one over the other, and our welders worked on pipework carrying water, steam and oil, and were all qualified to ASME 9 standard, so the structures did not fail due to imperfect welds.
    Later other contractors’ structures rusted internally, so plugged sockets were then specified on all tubes to ensure weld soundness by pressure testing.

    By Ray Grace (24/09/2022)
  • I worked for WC Deans and along with Jim Thomas and others I took the first load of welded tubular supports to the site with Bill Pollington the firms lorry driver If my memory serves me right were you married to Mr Deans daughter and worked in the drawing office at Twickenham. I have photos of the sight and people at work including Jim Thomas, unfortunately I have been unable to attach them

    By John (Harold) Smith (17/11/2022)
  • You can add your photos as a new page

    By Janet Penn (17/11/2022)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.