By Prof. Russell Thomas, WSP.
Prof. Russell Thomas from WSP, has a long standing interest in the history of the gas industry and has published many articles with both industry and historical journals. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War we asked him for his reflections on the contribution of the gas industry to that conflict and to ensure the industry continued to make its vital contribution to daily life on the home front.
Few people are aware of the long-established roots of the British gas industry, which date back to the establishment of the world’s first gas company, the Gas Light and Coke Company, in 1812. Gas was manufactured by heating coal in big ovens called retort at a gasworks, a process which continued up until the 1970’s.
Over its 200 plus years, the gas industry had witnessed many wars, but it was the First World War that had the first major impact on the industry, as it did on all aspects of British life. The gas industry was damaged by Zeppelin attacks and naval shelling, but it was the constant drain on the labour force which impacted the industry the most.
With the call up of men to military service, the industry was impacted directly and through the call up of professions which had supported the gas industry such as coal mining. Many workers were even encouraged by the gas companies through generous allowances to sign up. In London about 3000 workers from the South Metropolitan Gas Company signed up for military service during the war.
The shortage of miners and enemy attacks on coal carrying ships made coal more expensive and harder to obtain. Lucrative continental markets for by-products such as coke and coal tar were lost, but it became apparent that the UK had become dependent on Germany for the chemicals derived from coal tar, the war effort now required. These by-products were vital for the manufacture of explosives, dyes and fuels and required a massive investment in the chemicals industry.
Gas utilisation by those industries involved in the war effort increased and the national importance of the industry was recognised and gas workers had become exempted from military service in 1916. But, this alone was insufficient and the gas industry then looked to increasingly to female employment. Firstly, female workers were employed in the offices and showroom, they were later employed as gas meter readers and within the chemical laboratories. As the war progressed female workers had taken some of the most arduous of tasks from loading coal in the retorts houses, shifting sacks of chemicals and repairing the gasholders. Florence Burgess took over the running of the Sidmouth gasworks when her husband was called up. As the men returned from the war, this brief example of workplace equality ended, but not without proving a few points first.
The Gas industry supplied its own share of decorated heroes to the war effort, most notably three members of the City of Leeds Gas Department, Billy Butler, Wilf Edwards and George Sanders, each of whom won the Victoria Cross for bravery in enemy action. Sadly, many never returned, such as second-lieutenant Samuel Glover, an employee of the British Gas Light Company at Norwich and the son of its Gas Manager, Thomas Glover, who is remembered on a company memorial for the British Gas Light Company, now held at the Fakenham Gas Museum in Norfolk.