Search This Blog

Sunday, 26 January 2020

South Met. welfare work


South Met. had policies towards its workforce which have been described as 'welfareist' or 'paternalistic' - what were these policies and why were they instituted? Was management trying to make the lives of their workers better? Or cynically putting in measures to stop strikes?

Work in the retort houses of the gas works was hard, hot and unpleasant. Trade Union leader, Will Thorne described vividly his brief period of work at Old Kent Road... 'the work was hard and hot ... -it was gruelling, agonising ... working for twelve hours a day in heat and steam'.[1] Outsiders were even more shocked. We have Gustave Dore's prints of the Lambeth Gas Works - where wretches in rags slump exhausted away from the smoking retorts. Flora Tristan 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 every instant you, are assailed by poisonous fumes ... the entire premises are very dirty ... this is even worse than the slave trade’. [2] In 1863 Zerah Colburn wrote about the extreme heat and the strain put by this 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'.[3]  Other writers highlighted particular problems - the system of alternating twelve hour shifts, the wage levels, Sunday working and seasonal employment, using extra men in the winter.

The work consisted of putting coal into a retort, waiting for it to char and then remove the hot coke. Thus would have to be 'quenched' with water, removed and the process started again. The gas made went through a series of processes to remove impurities, held in a gas storage holder before being piped to the customer. Most of these processes were noxious and dirty and resulted in sometimes dangerous by-products which themselves were for sale, possibly on site. Doubtless gas engineers put safety and pollution control low on their lists of priorities.

By the 1880s working conditions had probably improved - at the very least some smells and dirt had been controlled through public pressure. The open sheds used as rest places for the men were enclosed and sometimes provided with washing facilities together with newspapers and similar items. Workers' complaints in the 1880s did not focus on the physical unpleasantness of the work but on the length of shifts and the regulation of tasks. 

In the popular press - both in the 1880s and subsequently - 'stokers' is a synonym for 'gas workers'. Stokers – and other retort house workers - had to be exceptionally strong. In 1889 as police marched replacement labour into the South Met. works; they were assessed by the public and the press 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'. [4]

The physical conditions in which gas workers worked should not be under-estimated in their physical unpleasantness - but those who did this work may have had considerable pride in their 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 at South Met. before the 1889 strike] drank beer and were drunk at work but they were not drunkards [5]' said a witness to the Royal Commission of Labour, and this must be kept in mind when considering the temperance advocacy of some gas company managements. 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. Nevertheless such heavy drinking goes along with heavy work and beer consumption adds to the pride of men able to do both the work and take their drink. 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'. [6]

'Stokers' has become a synonym for 'gas worker' but stokers were themselves only one of several sorts of labourer working in the retort house and that retort house workers did not even constitute the majority of gas industry workers. In 1911 retort house workers were only about a third of the total workforce.[7] Without retort house workers gas could not be made, but the majority of gas workers had different working conditions according to what they did.  Skilled craft workers enjoyed the conditions general to those who practised their particular trade in other industries - blacksmiths, carpenters, stable hands, and so on. 'Outside' men often worked unsupervised in the freedom of the streets - lamplighters, fitters working on domestic premises, collectors - as well as labourers who working in gangs supervised by foremen. In the 1890s South Met. had workshops where domestic appliances were made. Some men watched valves and meters in order to act in case of emergency. Other labourers were employed outside the retort houses doing equally hard and heavy work - but not in conditions of great heat. There were also sailors and lightermen, as well as office staff and shopworkers, including cookery demonstrators. And an army of semi-specialist workers processing by-products.

South Met. was a large company in the 1880s and its workforce was large and specialized but they had grown very quickly from the situation described in Wandsworth works, 'one day or two stoking, changing over to helping in the yard and finishing up with a bit of piece work.’[8] A photograph of the 1870s[9] shows the administrative staff as five people who had between them to carry out the entire clerical - purchase and sales procedures and supervise a continuous process industry. Many of the workforce would have had experience of many different tasks in the works.

However by the 1880s tasks were regularised and work had become less varied. Works like the Old Kent Road recruited workers from the same families, sons followed fathers. The Company house magazine gives numerous instances of families with generations of work. 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. Some boys would pass to skilled work or to an unskilled specialisation, or even to clerical work and maybe progress to management. Gas managements of the 1880s were staffed with men who often been the 'boys' of the 1840s and 50s. Progress through ability was an available path.

More retort house workers were needed in the winter tan in the summer. Some full time retort house workers would be recruited from the pool of 'winter men’. However, the pool of ‘winter men’ was one of the main problems of the industry. Gas managements would often save maintenance work for the summer and retort house workers, not needed to make gas, would be employed on general laboring. Those laid off for the summer would be given first refusal to come back next autumn. Workers would often have regular summer jobs to go to, like, door instance, brick making in the Sittingbourne area. Sittingbourne was an area from which South Met. hoped to recruit 'blacklegs' in the autumn of 1889.

‘Winter men' were employed casually on a regular basis. South Met. included its winter men in some welfare arrangements on a special basis and treated them as employees, albeit irregular ones.[10] Seasonality does not appear to have been a factor in industrial action in either 1872 or in 1889. If it was in the Company's perceived interest to promote welfare then it was in the Company's interest to include the winter men in it - by 'attaching' them to the Company they could be made them more likely to act as strike breakers than to join the strikers.

It is noticeable that throughout the 1889 strike period that wages are not an issue discussed by the Union. Wages throughout London were maintained at level of parity by employers - companies informing each other of rises and adjusting rates accordingly. Wage levels among retort house workers were generally higher than for similar labouring work - for 1906 an average wage for all occupations was between 30/- and 35/- and in London sometimes over 45/-. Compared to the respectable workers living in Lambeth in the same period[11] retort house workers in London were doing well. Gas Workers suffered from long arduous hours doing hot and heavy work in a polluted environment - but for reasonably good money - many workers did worse for less.

In relation to gas workers conditions before 1889 the eight hour day is usually to the forefront. A system of twelve hour shifts was generally in use before then and it was the rallying cry of the industrial action of 1889. 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 grueling eighteen hour change over period. Gas was necessarily made in a continuous process and with inadequate storage the rate of make must be 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[12] and in 1905 an old gas worker described how the ending of the eighteen hour change over period in South Met. was brought about in the 1870s by creating more storage space for gas all those larger and larger gas holders where more gas could be stored to cover Sundays.[13] He also said this was done first by Robert Morton a friend of Livesey, and then manager at the Phoenix Company.

This easing of working, hours, however, only concerned Sunday working and although eight hour shifts were worked in some works for many years before 1889, twelve hours were still general in London. Eight hour shifts do not automatically mean less work since it is a re-arrangement of shifts and manpower 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.[14] It had been rejected because the workforce wanted 'the big shilling' described by Charles Carpenter was the money earned on a twelve hour shift. [15]

the professional journals give no solid reasons for advantages to management of a change to the eight hour system 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.”[16] 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. [17]

What had changed was the size and scale of gas works. Works like Old Kent Road in the years before 1880 were small and domestic affairs. Wives and children brought dinners in to men working on shift, children could play in parts of the works; workers in the breaks on the long shifts could swim in the - as yet fairly - unpolluted canal and put out lines to catch fish. They might have allotments on site and grow vegetables and flowers. After 1880 as the company expanded this level of domesticity was lost - with increased public transport 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 in effect an accumulation of small changes which meant that felt that they had reached the point at which the work load was oppressive. [18]

In the period from 1870 to 1880, there were many amalgamations. In London small companies became big ones with many works, divided by years of custom and practice, not united under one management. As the numbers of customers rose and output grew plus 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 so - '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 with capital and labour holding diverse views, to put it mildly, is now a reality”.[19] This problem could be solved, said Livesey, by co-partnership.


South Met.'s efforts in this direction have had considerable attention but it is known that other gas companies instituted welfare arrangements for their employees. Gas Light and Coke Co. had had sick benefit schemes since the 1820s.[20]

In South Met for instance, a superannuation scheme had been set up before 1870 - together with a sick benefit scheme and some sort of holiday provision with pay. It is likely that they were instigated by Thomas Livesey although it was also said that a scheme was set up in 1842 - two years after Thomas Livesey had come to South Met.  - both he and members of the Board believied that men could be improved by being encouraged to manage provision for their own benefit and futures... South Met’s records of its earliest sick benefit scheme are scanty, but in 1856 the Director's minuted that a sum of £20 was to be given to the sick benefit fund.  [21]

The South Met. superannuation scheme of 1855 was set up on the initiative of Thomas Livesey whose 'exertions in the matter' Gas and Water Times 'rejoiced with'.[22] Rule Number One of this scheme said that it was to 'provide a minimum pension in the event of incapacity in old age, not a competency to retire on'[23] and indeed Gas and Water Times reported that the directors hoped that their 'donations would be the foundation of a superstructure.' [24]That is the Company was giving a start to the scheme which they hoped the men would continue and manage for themselves, it was not to make them dependent.

In 1860 a Widows and Orphans Scheme was set up which provided money to educate orphans of dead employees and to provide a pension for widows.[25] It must be stressed however that other companies had similar schemes which were organised with the same view to independence among the workforce. For instance in 1878 the Phoenix Company gave the Bankside Works Sick Fund £15 to help it cope with payments during an epidemic of flu[26] although in normal times such funds should be self-supporting and not relying on donations.

In 1860 Journal of Gas Lighting published an article on 'Sick Funds for Workmen'.[27] They argued that the men should be encouraged to run their own funds 'to render themselves independent of eleemosynary in their seasonal afflictions and countless troubles that flesh is heir to'. South Met. had a record of consulting its men before setting such schemes up. Later it was recalled that George Livesey was at the meeting, held on the 1st December 1855, when the workmen unanimously agreed with the scheme[28] and once the shareholders' consent had been agreed at a Company Meeting the scheme proceeded. Officers did not however have such a scheme - the meeting held for them had turned the scheme down and it was many years before they agreed to participate. Such workers meetings were called by South Met. management on several occasions and are echoed in the 'Interview' called by George Livesey to explain the 1889 profit sharing scheme.

Where South Met. was most innovative, in all probability, was in the field of paid holidays for its workers. Authors of works concerning working conditions at a later period than the 1870s assume that paid holidays for working people were unknown until the 1930s. Although there is no originating minute for the holiday scheme in 1872 the Directors minuted that regular workmen should get 38 two weeks pay with a week’s holiday when it was taken.[29] In 1881 following amalgamation with Surrey Consumers and Phoenix Companies, the Directors of the new Joint Board minuted an attempt to rationalise holiday provision throughout the three companies: 'both companies had had particular holidays which were given with double pay. at Christmas .... and Easter. South Met.... gives in addition one week's holiday during the summer with double pay for workmen who have been 12 months in the regular service of the Company ... Vauxhall gives.. a day's holiday excursion, clothes and gratuities during the year'. [30]

Once South Met. had amalgamated with Phoenix and Surrey Consumers there was a move to rationalise welfare provision throughout the three companies to make them all the same. What is apparent is that Phoenix and Surrey Consumers had provided gifts in kind to workers whereas South Met. had given only holidays. The minute continues to abolish all gratuities and gifts and extends the South Met. practice of holidays with pay to all workmen with over a year's service. Abolished with the clothes and joints of meat at Christmas were all excursions and beanoes. This brings out an important strain in the South Met. ethic - temperance. South Met’s  welfare provision was austere and designed to make workers help themselves. Holidays with pay had the rider that the holiday must be taken at the seaside or in the country - and this was deliberately designed to keep the worker out of the Old Kent Road pubs and with his family. Gifts were charitable and therefore demoralising - beanoes by their nature involve drink.

South Met. was not the only gas company that sought to 'improve' its workers lives. In the late 1850s Phoenix laid on lectures for the men - but they only attended in ones and twos, even when the lectures weren't religious. But they did use the dining room. the washing facilities and the 'lobbies' equipped with papers and games materials. [31]

It was practical help which gained a response rather than 'improvement'. Journal of Gas Lighting quoted increasing numbers of instances of this type of provision in the 1880s. In the South Met. Livesey's management style from the 1870s was aimed beyond practical applications to improve working conditions to methods of manipulation of the men to make them help themselves.

George Livesey always attempted to build incentives into whatever provision was set by him and by 1889 a whole range of such measures had been  introduced. Incentive payments for good timekeeping, and forms of competition between gangs of workmen to produce high quantities of gas, are examples. Even Will Thorne, writing in his biography, remarks with pride how his gang at the Old Kent Road was always able to secure the bonus payment for high yield. [32]

[1] Thorne. My Life's Battles
[2][2] Hawkes. The London Journal of Flora Tristan..
[3] Colburn. The Gasworks of London
[4] Times 16th December 1889
[5] Royal Commission of Labour. Group C. Evidence of Marsh.
[6] Minutes of Gas Workers Union. 2nd May 1889
[7] Popplewell. Seasonal Trades
[8] Wandgas December 1905
[9] This picture was in the possession of SEGAS. No idea where it is now
[10] Popplewell
[11]Pember Reeves. Round About a Pound a Week.
[12][12] SMDM 7th May 1871
[13]  Co-partnership Journal October 1905
[14] quoted by Charles Carpenter in Industrial Co-partnership
[15] Industrial Co-partnership
[16] Gas World. 17th August 1889
[17] Industrial Co-partnership
[18] Hobsbawn, Gas Workers
[19] Livesey. Paper given at the Industrial Remuneration Conference.
[20] Everard.History of thr Gas Light and Coke Co.
[21] SMDM 26th March 1856
[22] Gas and Water Times. 15th October 1855
[23] Co-partnership Journal November 1905
[24] Gas and Water Times
[25] Co-partnership Journal April 1904
[26] Phoenix Company Minutes 21st March 1878
[27] Journal of Gas Lighting 5th June 1860
[28]Co-partnership Journal November 1905
[29] South Met. Directors Minutes 17th June 1872
[30] South Met. Directors Minutes 19th May 1881
[31] Journal of Gas Lighting 19th July 1859
[32] Thorne.

No comments:

Post a comment