The plant was opened in 1870 by the Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC). The name Beckton was given to the plant and the surrounding area of east London in honour of the company's governor Simon Adams Beck. It came eventually to manufacture gas for most of London north of the Thames, with numerous smaller works being closed. Its counterpart south of the river was the South Metropolitan Gas Co's East Greenwich Gas Works on the Greenwich Peninsula.
After the Second World War a major reconstruction project was undertaken by the civil engineer T. P. O'Sullivan of Brian Colquhoun and Partners. Following nationalisation in 1949 the plant was owned by the North Thames Gas Board. After closure the residual site passed to British Gas and Transco.
The discovery of natural gas in the North Sea meant that manufactured gas became uncompetitive. The Beckton works closed between 1969 and 1970, when the last trainload left the associated chemical works.
The works lay within the London Docklands area and parts were redeveloped by the London Docklands Development Corporation.
The works covered a 550 acres (220 ha) site to the south of the Northern Outfall Sewer, between Woolwich Manor Way and the Thames. The company had considered several sites for the works. The site to the west of Barking Creek was selected as it was possible to build deep water piers in the Thames, enabling direct unloading from steam colliers bringing coal from mines in the North-East of England. There were two piers, for importing coal and exporting by-products. In the 1930s an annual average of a million tons of coal mainly from Durham was unloaded at the main pier, with a further 750,000 tons transhipped to barges for other works. The GLCC had a fleet of seventeen coastal colliers ranging from 1,200 to 2,841 gross register tons, and also chartered larger ships as needed. At this time the plant had a coal storage capacity of 250,000 tons.
The plant had an extensive internal railway system of between 42 and 70 miles (between 68 and 113 km) and featured some unusual elevated sidings that also ran out on a number piers into the Thames. The Beckton Railway provided a link to the national network at Custom House, used for passenger traffic to the works and for transport of by-products such as coal tar. This was leased and operated by the Great Eastern Railway from 1874. There were no intermediate stations between Custom House station and Beckton railway station, which was at the entrance to the works. The line closed to passengers following bomb damage in 1940, the freight line finally closing in February 1971.
Following the invention of coal gas early in the 19th century, it was discovered that numerous organic and inorganic chemicals could be obtained when purifying the gas. Processes began to be developed to recover these, and a major branch of the British chemical industry – the coal tar and ammonia by-products industry – came into existence. By 1876 a nearby company, Burt, Boulton and Haywood of Silvertown, was distilling each year 12 million imperial gallons (55,000 m3) of coal tar to manufacture ingredients for disinfectants, insecticides and dyes. Sulphur from the gas works was the raw material for local manufacturers of sulphuric acid needed by other nearby companies producing products such as fertilizers. Subsequently the GLCC decided that it would carry out the processing of by-products itself, rather than sell them to independent chemical companies. A purpose-built chemical works, Beckton Products Works, was constructed in 1879. It was the largest tar and ammonia by-products works in the UK, possibly in the world. Besides millions of gallons of road tar, products included phenol, the cresols and xylenols, naphthalene, pyridine bases, creosote, benzene, toluene, xylene, solvent naphtha, ammonium sulphate and ammonia solution, sulphuric acid, picolines, quinoline, quinaldine, acenaphthene, anthracene and dicyclopentadiene. Since the Products works was dependent on by-products of gas manufacture it could not long survive the introduction of natural gas. The last train carrying chemical products, a load of pitch, left the works on 1 June 1970.
The toxic spoil heaps from the works are known ironically as Beckton Alps. Originally covering an extensive area to the west of the works, they have been landscaped and much reduced in size. From 1989 to 2001 a dry ski slope, opened by Diana, Princess of Wales, was operated on the small remaining section (grid reference TQ431820), though the nickname pre-dates this. The site is the highest point in Newham, and a Site of Borough Importance for Nature Conservation, Grade II. It is said to be the highest artificial hill in London.
A proposed £35m replacement the SnowWorld indoor centre to be built on the site has run into financial problems. It has since been acquired for development as a hotel.
The A13/A117 road junction is also named Beckton Alps.
During 2013 the sheets of corrugated iron situated on top of the former dry sky slope were painted in the colour of the Lithuanian national flag (the site is adjacent to London's largest Lithuanian supermarket) but later covered up with the St George Cross in retaliation.
The Gasworks, Products Works and Alps were used as a location for TV and cinema filming on a number of occasions. In the 1960s comedy films and TV programmes, such as Michael Bentine’s It's a Square World were shot here. The mounds of chemical waste were used to portray mountaineering scenes. In 1975 the film Brannigan starring John Wayne used the location. The opening sequence of the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only was filmed here. The scenes involved Roger Moore as James Bond attempting to regain control of a helicopter operated by remote control by his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The gasworks buildings were also used in a number of scenes representing a dystopian 1984 London in the 1984 film version of the George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1986, the film Biggles: Adventures in Time used the gasworks as a location for a weapon testing ground.
Patrick Keiller's 1997 film Robinson in Space visits Beckton, including 'East Ham Churchyard' ("the largest in England" noted the narrator Paul Scofield) opposite Beckton Alps. Asylum, a 2000 film of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit for Channel 4, was partially shot at Beckton Alps while it was still a dry-ski slope.
In the final hour or so of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick's 1987 movie portraying the Vietnam War, Matthew Modine (Private Joker), Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother) and their platoon go into Huế, a Vietnamese city, to clear it of Viet Cong and snipers. Kubrick had the whole gasworks selectively demolished and the art department then dressed the 'set' with latticework and appropriate advertising hoardings to make it believable. At one point the soldiers enter a building to flush out a sniper. This building was one of several located between the central buildings of the old gasworks and about 200 yards from the river Thames. The final scene sees the soldiers marching off into the (London) sunset against the silhouettes of the burning gasworks' chimneys and buildings, singing the Mickey Mouse March from the US children's TV show. In the film a period of several days takes place in the protagonist's lives as they travel through the industrial quarters of Huế city; in reality the action took place within just one square mile.
British pop/rock trio The Outfield filmed multiple sequences for the video to the band's 1987 hit 'Since You've Been Gone', from their album Bangin', at Beckton Gasworks.
The video for Loop's 1990 single 'Arc-lite' was filmed on the set of Full Metal Jacket. The gasworks was used as the main background scene for the Oasis video 'D'You Know What I Mean?', as it shows the band members playing on a concrete slab within the gasworks. The videoclip for Marcella Detroit's 1994 single 'I Believe' was shot in this location. Also, the 1995 TV series Bugs episode 'Out Of The Hive' shows the entire works in a scene where a car drives off an unfinished bridge in flames.
Derek Jarman's 1986 promotional video for The Smiths 'The Queen is Dead' single was partly shot at Beckton Gasworks.
Part of the 1985 Max Headroom TV Movie 20 Minutes into the future was shot at Beckton Gasworks.
Virtually no trace of the old gasworks now exists. Bisected by many roads, including the A1020 Royal Docks Road, a small area of the waste tip and some gas holders remain, separated by a mile or so of redevelopment. Parts of the site are occupied by an industrial estate, the Beckton Retail Park and Gallions Reach Shopping Park.
Part of the extensive industrial railway route has since been used for the Docklands Light Railway between Beckton DLR station and the Royal Docks Road. The site also houses the Beckton DLR depot.