Work in the gas industry has been described by a variety of authors and was hard, hot and unpleasant. Work in the retort house, the central process in the industry, involved the manipulation of burning coals and was thus inescapably so. Willl Thorne described vividly his work at Saltley Gas Works in Birmingham and his brief period of work at Old Kent Road followed by a move to Beckton ... 'the work was hard and hot ... -it was gruelling, agonising ... working for twelve hours a day in heat and steam'.
Thorne, of course, as an activist working to improve conditions had an interest in stressing the horrors: but outsiders were even more shocked. As illustrations of work in the early days of the gas industry we have Gustave Dore's prints of work in the Lambeth Gas Works - where wretches in rags slump exhausted near the smoking retorts. Flora Tristan's described the Horseferry Road works of the Chartered Company in the 1830s: 'the work demanded of them is more than human . strength can endure ... the heat was suffocating ....the air is horribly tainted ...at every instant you, are assailed by poisonous fumes ... the entire premises are very dirty ... this is even worse than the slave trade.
While Flora wrote of her impressions following a brief visit to view the retort houses; other writers described work on the basis of careful studies. They highlight particular problems - the system of alternating twelve hour shifts - which culminated in the union's fight for the eight hour system, the wage levels, Sunday working and the seasonal employment of extra men in the winter.
There is no doubt that Retort House work was hot and demanding. In 1863 Zerah Colburn described those works in some detail. He gives as his main impression that of the extreme heat and the consquent strain on the workforce: 'the work is tiring ... in the hottest of the works the men frequently strip to the waist and work, every article reeking of sweat'.
Retort House work consisted of putting dirty coal into a hot retort, waiting for it to burn out and then remove the hot and dirty coke at the end of the process. The coke would have to be 'quenched' with water and then removed and the process started again. The resulting gas theb went through a series of processes to remove impurities and was then held in a gas holder before being piped to the customer. Most of these process were noxious and dirty and resulted in sometimes dangerous by-products which themselves were processed for sale.
Doubtless early gas engineers put safety and pollution control low on their lists of priorities - workmen too were no doubt often careless of their own safety - for instance an explosion in Bermondsey which killed several members of the public was caused by workmen looking for leaks with a naked flame.
By the 1880s working conditions were probably rather better than those described by Flora Tristan - at the very least some smells and dirt had been controlled through public pressure. The open sheds which she described as rest places for the men were enclosed and often provided with washing facilities together with newspapers and other recreational means. Some works provided canteens. It should be noted that the complaints made by workers' in the 1880s did not focus on the physical unpleasantness of the work but on the length of shifts and the regulation of tasks. It must also be admitted that work as heavy, demanding and difficult as gas stoking could only be done by the exceptionally big and strong man. In 1889 the Times reporter watched the police marching replacement labour in to the South Met. works; his first thought was to assess them as potential gas workers in terms of brute strength: 'the natural thing to do was to study the physique of the new arrivals - the vast majority were capable labourers and many of them were obviously powerful men'. The physical conditions in which retort house staff worked should not be under-estimated in their physical unpleasantness - but those involved in it may also have had considerable pride in their own abilities to endure it.
Such hard work in great heat inevitably led to a lot of drinking and inevitably a proportion of what was drunk was beer ... 'the old men [men working before the 1889 strike] drank beer and were drunk at work but they were not drunkards ' said a witness to the Royal Commission of Labour. Colburn says that the gas workers drank 'skilly' - water with oatmeal in it - and George Livesey tried to promote the consumption of this at the Old Kent Road Works. The first resolution of the Gas Workers Union embodied the principle of no substitution of labour - men should not do the jobs of others - the only exception was to be when a labourer was 'drunk for the first time'.
'Stokers' has become a synonym for 'gas worker' but it is important to remember that stokers were only one of several sorts of labourer working in the retort house and that retort house workers did not in any way comprise the majority of gas industry workers. Popplewell writing in 1911 says that retort house workers accounted for only about a third of the total workforce - the other two thirds being made up of general labourers, specialist craft workers and 'outside' men. Retort house workers were the key sector for without them gas could not be made, but in arguments about the eight hour day and Sunday working it must be remembered that for the majority of gas workers such conditions did not apply.
Skilled craft workers may well have enjoyed the conditions general to those who practised their particular trade in other industries - blacksmiths, carpenters, and so on. 'Outside' men worked often unsupervised in the freedom of the streets - lamplighters, fitters working on domestic premises, collectors - as well as labourers who worked in the streets in gangs supervised by foremen. The industry employed its own specialists - men who made and repaired meters and other equipment. In the 1890s South Met. had workshops where domestic appliances were made. Some men were employed to watch process equipment - to stand by in order to act in case of emergency. Other men were labourers employed outside the retort houses but doing equally hard and heavy work - but not in conditions of great heat - whippers unloading coal from boats, men with considerable industrial muscle - in 1872 South Met. erected machinery to unload steamers 'because of difficulty and delay in discharging ... due to the action of the coal whippers'. Other specialist workers were seamen and lightermen employed directly by the Company, and in addition an army of semi-specialist workers in other processes concerning by-products.
South Met. was a large company in the 1880s and its workforce was large and specialised. This situation obviously did not apply throughout the industry, in Wandgas magazine, Joe Emmett, an old gas worker in the Wandsworth works, describes how work varied - they were 'one day or two stoking, changing over to helping in the yard and finishing up with a bit of piece work.
Even in the 1900s some gas works were very small. The South Met.'s house journal Co-partnership Journal describes a works so small that it only had one employee ,whose wife, at Sunday lunchtimes put the baby's pram on top of the gas holder to increase the pressure! South Met. had never been as small as that but it had grown comparatively fast. A photograph of the 1870s shows the administrative staff as five people who had between them to carry out all the administration - purchase and sales procedures and at the same time supervise a continuous process industry. Many of the workforce would have had experience of many different tasks in the works.
It can however be generally assumed by the 1880s that tasks were regularised and followed an established pattern, and that this must remembered when discussing complaints on the pace of work - work had become less varied.
Gas compamies often recruited workers from the same families. Sons followed fathers and the house magazine of the Company gives numerous instances of family involvement through generations. In the 1970s South London SEGAS workers still maintained this tradition of gas families who worked for SEGAS and before that South Met. for generations - and a tradition of suspicion of 'outsiders' to the industry. A boy might start in the works in his early teens and graduate to retort house work when he was strong enough; in old age he would be given lighter work - house journals of the various companies give many examples of such progressions. Some boys would pass to skilled work or to an unskilled specialisation, the exceptionally bright boy might pass to clerical work and in the very rare case progress to management.
Gas managements of the 1880s were staffed by men who had risen from the 'boys' of the 1840s and 50s, some of them achieved directorships. George Livesey in his road from 'boy' to Managing Director had the advantage of being the manager's son and also coming from a family other members of which were involved in the industry. It should be noted, however, that without ability he may not have reached this level - as indeed his brother Frank did not, despite an expensive education denied to George.
Some full time retort house workers would be recruited from the pool of 'wintermen' many of who would hope for a full time job 'in the works' should a vacancy become available. It is, however, in the pool of 'wintermen' that one of the main problems of the industry arose. It is obvious that gas is more in demand in winter than in summer and works had to take on extra men in the winter to meet extra demand. Popplewell, in Seasonal Trades, is entirely concerned with the effects of seasonality in the industry and gives several sets of figures for seasonal workers in 1910. For example, a works which made 27,334,000 cubic feet of gas in June employed 5,461 workers to make it - in December that works would make 51,760,000 cubic feet and need 6,430 men. He says that managements would often save maintenance work for the summer so that retort house workers, not needed to make gas, would be employed on that. Those laid off for the summer would be given first refusal to come back next autumn and indeed might be included in welfare schemes in the works and treated in many ways like permanent workers. Workers in these circumstances might often have regular summer jobs to go to and both Colburn writing in 1863 and Popplewell in 1911 mention brickmaking in the Sittingbourne area as a traditional summer job for ‘wintermen' from London gas works. Note that Sittingbourne was an area from which South Met. hoped to recruit 'blacklegs' in the autumn of 1889.
Seasonality has been taken up by historians of the gas industry. E.J.Hobsbawm has argued in his article on British Gas workers that it was a major reason for the delayed success of unionisation in the gas industry until 1880. This point was taken up and extended by Joseph Melling.
Both of Hobsbawm and Mellint rest their cases upon the assumption that wintermen were drawn from a pool of casual labour. However at South Met. and other companies – ‘wintermen' were employed casually but on a regular basis. South Met. treated them as employees, albeit irregular ones.
Evidence is inconclusive that seasonal men acted as strike breakers and retarded unionisation. Seasonality does not appear to have been a factor in either 1872 or in 1889 - in 1889 the strike breakers were men from outside the area, not regular winter men. Both strikes took place in mid-winter when wintermen would have been at work for the company,
Strikes were obviously better held in mid-winter because then demand was at its highest and the Company more quickly in difficulties, but at South Met in 1889 wintermen must have come out with the regular full time men - which implies that seasonality was not a factor in retarding unionisation.
A further point, of paramount importance in any discussion of gas workers conditions, concerns the level of wages. Wage levels among retort house workers were generally higher than for similar labouring work - Popplewell quotes for 1906 an average wage as between 30/- and 35/- and in London sometimes over 45/-. Compared to the respectable workers described in Round About a Pound a Week in Lambeth in the same period - retort house workers in London were doing well. Throughout the 1889 strike the issue of wages was not raised by the Union.
In an discussion on gas workers conditions before 1889 theeight hour day is usually to the forefront. A system of twelve hour shifts was generally in use before that time and the industrial movement of 1889 was largely organised around calls for a change. Work in the retort houses was divided into two twelve hour shifts, one on and one off, for seven days a week. Once a month the shifts were changed over involving one set of men in a gruelling eighteen hour change over period. Gas was necessarily made in a twenty-four hour continuous process and with inadequate storage techniques the rate of make must be constant and roughly equivalent to demand. From the 1870s the problem of long shifts and lack of breaks - in particular the lack of a Sunday holiday - increasingly concerned both managements and workers.
In May 1871 South Met. Directors minuted an attempt to reduce labour in the retort houses on Sundays on religious ground. In 1905 an old gas worker described the ending of the eighteen hour change over period in South Met. and how it was brought about in the 1870s by creating more storage space for gas through larger gas holders - thus more gas could be stored to cover Sundays and allow workers to go to church. He cired Robert Morton, a management associate of Livesey in the Phoenix Company, as being instrumental in this changeover.
Although eight hour shifts were worked in some gas works for many years before 1889, twelve hours were still general in London. It is important to realise that eight hour shifts do not automatically mean less work. The system is a re-arrangement of tasks so that less men do more work for a shorter time. The workforce is divided into three shifts instead of two and men perform more highly differentiated tasks. On the twelve hour system there were often long breaks with no work to do which made the pace easier and often more acceptable to the older men. George Livesey claimed that the workforce had been offered the eight hour system before 1889 by management - although this instance is not minuted. It had been rejected because the workforce wanted 'the big shilling' earned on a twelve hour shift.
In discussing the changeover to eight hours in 1889 the professional journals give no solid reasons for advantages to management yet in 1889 most managements seem to have given way to union demands with very little argument - indeed some, like Gas Light and Coke Co., said they welcomed the change: 'there has been no fight with this company on the question of the eight hour system - as a matter of fact the system was brought in some years ago and declined. As soon as it was suggested we did so'.
In 1889 and again in 1890 South Met. balloted its workers over which system should be run in individual works. The 1889 ballot produced a response for the eight hour system in all works but in 1890 Rotherhithe workers opted for twelve hours - and remained on this system for some years.
Works like Old Kent Road in the years before 1880 were small. Wives and children brought dinners in to men working on shift, children could play in the works, workers in the breaks of long shifts could swim in the - as yet - fairly unpolluted canal and put out lines to catch fish for breakfast. They might have allotments on site and grow vegetables and flowers. At Fulham works a woman carrying in her husband's dinner was shot by a poacher who mistook her for a duck. George Livesey remembered that as a small child he climbed up and down scaffolding erected for the erection of a new gasholder. But in the 1880s at East Greenwich workers' children were stopped from playing on site when a young boy was killed by locomotive he was chasing
It was after 1880 as the company expanded that this was changed - with increased public transport and the building of the Greenwich foot tunnel workers did not need to live locally and the loss of the sense of community is part of the new situation which co-partnership tried to meet.
In 1889 union men complained of a harder work load - was this really so? Hobsbawm's case is that an accumulation of small changes meant that by 1889 workers really did feel that they had reached the point at which the work load was becoming oppressive.
In the period from 1870 to 1880, company amalgamations proceeded apace. In London small companies became big ones with many works, divided by years of custom and practice, not united under one management. In this period the numbers of customers rose and output grew to match - along with this the numbers of workers grew - and the domestic atmosphere of small works went. Small works were being phased out and replaced in importance by large ones - Beckton .... East Greenwich.
George Livesey certainly thought that increasing depersonalisation in the industry was a major problem for management - 'We seem to be at the parting of the Days, if they have not parted already - the days of small industries and the old relationships of master and man are gone past recall and the Joint Stock Company on a large scale uith capital and labour holding diverse yg views, to put it mildly, is now a reality. The old 'friendly relationships' were gone in contrast to the aggravated and strained relationships of the late 1880s. This problem could be solved, said Livesey, by co-partnership.
Will Thorne. My Life's Battles
Jean Hawkes. The London Journal of Flora Tristan.
Zerah Colburn. The Gasworks of London. London 1865.
Sterling Everard. The History of the Gas Light & Coke Co. 1949.
Royal Commission of Labour. Group C.
Minutes of Gas Workers Union.
F. Popplewell. Seasonal Trades. 1912
South Met. Director's Minutes
E.J.Hobsbawm Labouring Men. 1964.
J. Melling. Industrial Strife and Business Welfare Philosophy
Maud Pember Reeves. Round About a Pound a Week.
Industrial Co-partnership. 1911