One of international cricket’s most memorable landmarks is undergoing a transformation.
The famous gasholders at Surrey’s ground, the Oval, are set to become a multistorey tower block of homes after more than 100 years of dominating the skyline at vital Test matches.
While the storage cylinders were in operation, crowds at the ground – and watching on TV – could see the massive pale blue silos and their rusting iron skeleton looming over the smooth grass of the pitch. Gasholder No 1 was built in 1853.
It is Grade-II listed because at the time it was the largest one in the world, and because its designers, Frank and George Livesey, from Southwark, are renowned as being among Britain’s most important Victorian industrialists.
The structure is 135ft high and was officially called Kennington Holder Station by its owners, Southern Gas Network. The Phoenix Gas Company bought the site in 1845 and adapted the circular reservoirs for gasholder tanks and erected five gasometers between 1847 and 1874.
The gasometers were decommissioned in 2014. Surrey County Cricket Club unveiled development plans beside the site – but the Health and Safety Executive and the London Fire Brigade both said it was a hazardous site. Historic England decided to grant Grade-II listed status to just one of the Oval gasholders – No.1, which is now 127 years old.
The Oval itself was at the centre of international sport in England for more than 20 years. Charles Alcock – the main instigator of international football and cricket, as well as being the creator of the FA Cup – was also secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club.
Under his management, Kennington Oval effectively became Britain’s national stadium from the 1870s. It hosted not just cricket but also football, rugby, ice skating, lacrosse and even baseball. It staged FA Cup finals and internationals from 1872 through to the early 1890s.
It was also the home ground for a number of the public school old boy teams which dominated football in its early days, including Wanderers and the Old Etonians.
On Saturdays in winter, two football matches were often played simultaneously in different parts of the outfield, and the ground was frequently reduced to a quagmire.
The Oval bore little relation to the ground we know today. When the first FA Cup final was played there in 1872 it was simply an enclosed field, spectators kept back from the pitch by a thin rope, with a small, squat pavilion providing the only seating.
Towards the end of that decade Alcock began to erect terracing to accommodate growing crowds, but initially this consisted simply of shallow earth banks.
Throughout the 1880s the ground struggled to accommodate much more than 20,000 people. The Pall Mall Gazette gave a vivid description of the overcrowding at the 1889 FA Cup final between Preston and Wolves.
“Every window which commanded a view was converted into a private box, and every roof had its little band of onlookers,” it wrote.
The cricket pavilion was “thatched with spectators” and the gates had to be closed long before kick-off. Outside there was chaos. “The roads were blocked and it was absolutely dangerous to life to attempt to cross, for the horses were frightened, the crowd was mad, and confusion reigned complete,” the Gazette reported.
The gates had to be reopened to prevent a riot and in the end about 25,000 people were somehow squeezed inside.
It was clear the FA Cup had outgrown the Surrey ground and by the mid-1890s Alcock was looking for an alternative venue. In the end, Alcock moved it to Crystal Palace.
Berkeley Homes said when it applied for planning permission that it wanted “an innovative mixed use development” which will “present the opportunity to open up a largely closed-off site for the first time in over 100 years.”
Its proposals said: “The scheme aims to celebrate the rich industrial heritage of the site by retaining and refurbishing the iconic Grade-II listed gasholder.
“The landmark will continue to be a feature of the Oval and Kennington area and will provide the centrepiece of the development.” Exhibitions gave residents the opportunity to view the proposals and discuss them with members of the project team.
The listed gasholder will stay in place amid the Oval Village redevelopment, of which the first phase, Phoenix Court, is now on sale. Berkeley said: “The historic site’s restoration and redevelopment marks a new phase in its history where old will blend with new to create a new London community fit for the 21st century.
“The development, Oval Village, aims to transform the area into a cultural hub for residents and visitors, opening up the village with communal spaces for all to enjoy.
“The development will see a new London community benefiting from fresh co-working space, a community centre, 100,000 sq ft of commercial space and a residents-only leisure facilities.”