Gas for commercial vehicles in the 1930s

In this blog we look briefly at a failed attempt by Chesterfield neighbours Bryan Donkin and the Chesterfield Tube Company to enter the commercial vehicle gas propulsion market.

We looked at the history of the former Chesterfield Tube Company in our blogs back in April and May 2022.

Front cover of the Chesterfield Tube Company booklet.

In our April blog we briefly mentioned the following: ‘An attempt in 1933, pioneered by the Tube Company and Bryan Donkin, to introduce compressed coal gas as a means of propulsion for cars and lorries was unsuccessful because of the lack of filling stations and the taxation of road vehicles by weight.

We thought we’d share these photographs with you, which are taken from a 26-page booklet produced by the Chesterfield Tube Company in 1933, promoting the idea and the trials that were then taking place. They are presented courtesy of one of our members, but we believe there is a copy in Chesterfield Local Studies Library. The booklet must have been popular at the time, as it was reprinted a year later.

The tube company were interested as the gas was compressed into cylinders – hopefully produced by the company. Donkins were interested in the compression of the gas (they produced compressors) and in the filling station’s other apparatus.

The publication goes into some detail about how the experiment came about. One of the drivers was that coal gas was, at the time, being wasted in coke production, particularly in south Yorkshire and more locally. There was a failure to capture this gas and use. Issues around explosion fears, robustness of the traction cylinders to be employed, conversion of the petrol vehicles alongside ‘cruising range’ were all explored, in an upbeat publication.

The converted ex-petrol Chesterfield Corporation bus. This was a 1925 Bristol, number 65 in the fleet, originally with 31 seats, but with 32 by the time of the conversion. Road trials commenced in October 1932. The vehicle is seen here at the British Industries Fair. The gas charging station doors are conveniently open on the bottom photograph revealing the Bryan Donkin compressor set.

Illustrated in the booklet were a Chesterfield Corporation bus – having been converted – along with one of the  tube company’s own lorries, a Whitwood Chemical lorry (not illustrated here), a Chesterfield Corporation refuse lorry and a gas department lorry.

As we stated, the experiment petered out. Today the production of coal gas is now non-existent.

The illustration captions from the booklet have been retained in the selection reproduced here.

The converted Chesterfield Corporation refuse lorry is splendidly illustrated here. At this time these lorries would mainly have removed coal ash from open fires. In this pre-plastic packaging era most rubbish would be burnt on open fires, with food waste going on the garden compost heap. Many local people nick-named these lorries ‘dust carts’ as that is generally what they carted away – dust or ashes, unless these had been used on the garden footpath. As if to emphasise this the slogan on the vehicle reads ‘Reuse your ashes and save cartage on 3000 tons of cinders per year’.