Oral History

J.T. Gallagher remembers the old Hinckley Gas Works

Interviewers: Mr. D. J. Wood (DW)

Interviewed: Mr J. T. Gallagher (JG)

Date of Interview: 15th November 1984

What became known as Hinckley Gas Works started as the Hinckley Gas Light and Coke Company in 1843. It changed hands or names in: 1881 - The Hinckley Local Board, 1894 - Hinckley Urban District Council, 1948 - West Midlands Gas, 1963 - The Gas Council, 1973 - British Gas.

DW. You started working for the Gas, when?

JG. In 1926 on distribution, which was main laying, service laying? Then I went on to the gas fitting. I went on the works, as a work's maintenance fitter. I was works' foreman for a time, but you see, as you went along I wasn't just that! Anything else that came up, if they thought I was suitable to do it. In those days there was no demarcation line. You just did your job and if something outside your particular trade or profession came up, you did it, you were expected to do it.

DW. You had to be a 'Jack of all trades?

JG. That's it.

DW. When you said you went in on works' maintenance, what sort of things did you do?

JG. I think we'll start at the beginning - coal conveyors.

DW. That's the buckets that used to run up the side of the building?

JG. That's it. Next after the conveyers, maintenance on coal hoppers; that is the bunkers above the retort houses. Maintenance on retorts. We are coming down now; we are going to start making gas. Maintenance on the extraction of gas from retorts, that is the exhausters that extract the gas. Then you see the gas works had all their own services. They had their own water, gas and electrical systems. In addition to this, it required various people and pieces of equipment; pumps, pipes, control valves. Any type of job that came up, even down to blacksmithing all this was involved in maintenance.

DW. What, sort of conditions did men work under in the retort houses or in the boiler houses?

JG. Retort house conditions were as good as they could be, taking into consideration the type of work it was. In the summer time it was exceptionally hot. This was the big disadvantage; the heat in the summer, apart from this it was reasonable conditions. Conditions as far as the boiler house was concerned, were ideal, it was good. Fuel was delivered to them, and all they had to do was to make sure water was going in the boiler. The fuel was going in and they maintained the required pressure.

DW. They didn't handle the fuel then, it was fed automatically?

JG. It was physical work, yes.

DW. What sort of wages did they get?

JG. At the time I'm speaking of 1926, wages for a yard man would be about eleven pence an hour (nearly five new pence). Shift men would be on another two pence an hour (one new pence). Charge hand, one and two an hour (six new pence).

DW. So round about three pounds a week?

JG. Yes, something like that. Yes, fitters would be getting somewhere around three pounds and five shillings, something like that.

DW. How did that compare with wages outside the gas industry?

JG. The shoe - about the same. Other industries - higher pay. In hosiery factories, all the workers got higher wages, in fact considerably higher. The wage fitted in pretty well for the type of work they were doing at that time. Just a general picture.

DW. Of course, a lot of the workers had houses provided, didn't they?

JG. Were they around the Brick Kiln area, and were they rented? They were rented to them.

DW. At a subsidised rent?

JG. No, no. At the going rate whatever the going rate was. You're thinking of the houses in Granville Road, aren't you?

DW. Would it be Granville Road, or Brick Kiln Street?

JG. Brick Kiln Street was never tenanted by gas workers except one house, or the two right at the top near the masts. There were two houses there, the only two owned by the Gas Department. The works' foreman or general foreman lived in one and Billy Price lived in the other. Brick Kiln Street was privately owned till many, many, years later when the Gas bought one side that was the side of the gas works. It was still the Gas Works' property until later years.

DW. I heard a tale about how people used to bring the children suffering from whooping cough to the gas works. Tell me about this. There was an underground tar well and the children with whooping cough were brought down by their mothers and just held over the well. To get the fumes from the gas tar, that's all it was. They were under the impression that it would help their breathing?

JG. That's right. Yes.

DW. Did it?

JG. Some said it did, some didn't know, and some were doubtful. I don't know. They did it regularly, there were often women down there with children, but how effective it was, I wouldn't know. Well, they believed in it and it was because they believed in it they though it would be doing them some good.

DW. Let's move on to when they started to modernise a bit.

JG. Modernisation? Well, you see, you have to go back a bit first to what it was like before modernisation. The retorts were all horizontal retorts, that is they were flat. There were beds of them and there were ten in a bed. There were about forty retorts altogether. Coal was shoved in at one end by a great big pushing thing. They pushed it through and it came out as coke at the other end. That was very hard work. That was the operation when I came.

DW. The coal wasn't burned then, but baked like a cake?

JG. That's it; to a high temperature to just take off the gas and other products, but that was very hard work. When they built the new, modern retorts they took the very hard work out of it. They did leave some hard work but not so much as it was before. Eventually the old retorts were demolished and the new ones built in their place. That was the second vertical retort house built in place of the original one.

DW. Tell me about the gas works managers. Mr. Lee, I understand, was a devout and religious man and he wouldn't ask anyone to do anything he couldn't do himself?

JG. Very true to a point. He was a very devout and religious and very fair man. He treated everybody with some respect, a lot of respect.

DW. What about the one that followed Mr. Lee?

JG. He was a marvellous, wonderful fellow. Even if he thought you couldn't do a job, he would show you how to do it, and if he could do it he would do it. He had a very wild nature and was very outspoken, but he got results. I don't think many people liked him, but I liked him anyway.

DW. The sort of man that would call a spade a spade?

JG. Very much so.

DW. So much for Mr. Britton. Now, Mr. Rimmer?

JG. Now he was something between the other two. He was a very calm man that thought deeply about anything and everything. George Rimmer would take every precaution, and make absolutely certain that once he'd made a decision, it was right.

DW. Can we now look at the war period? Did this bring any problems, or any amusing experiences?

JG. Well yes, it did to start with, for the main difficulty was fuel supplies, that is coal supplies. We had difficulty with labour for so many people had gone into the forces. As I was saying earlier, a man had to turn his hand to anything that was going, that is if he was capable of doing so. It was hard work, long hours and a bit worrying at times, but we came through all right. Amusing incidents? We had our own Home Guard, and they issued us with rifles.

DW. Without bullets?

JG. No. With bullets. We used to mount guard, and we had an ex sergeant-major in charge of us. He used to issue the rifle out to us and count our bullets out to us and then take us Pt our posts. He would expect us to be there when he came back in the morning. Now, Albert Price, he had a rifle and when it came to checking in bullets in the morning, Albert couldn't find one (a bullet was missing). He was searching round, and he said 'I don't know where it is'; he was strutting about with the rifle and the thing shot off. Luckily, nobody was killed. Another man was said to have shot at a gate post, he though it was a German in the night - a man named China Gee. Now, whether it's true or not, I don't know, but it's a story that went around.

DW. I did not realise that the gas works had its own Home Guard. Was this separate from the working week, or were you expected to put so many hours in? How did it work?

JG. You were expected to work X number of hours a week on top of your work. That is, we did Home Guard and Fire Watch Duty and this was on top of our own work. There was a small payment of course, I forget how much it was. Half a crown (twelve and a half new pence) a night or something like this, but this was additional and on a semi-voluntary basis.

DW. If you'd worked eight or twelve hours a day, which you say you had to because of shortage of labour, surely you didn't work twelve hours and then stay up all night, then go back on another twelve hour working day?

JG. Well, we were expected to and we did it, but we did have an arrangement. Normally there were four on. We had an air raid shelter with bunks in and two slept and then we'd change over, so we did fit some sleeping time in. I didn't mind it too much at that time; I managed to get through very well. The older men - it came a bit hard on them.

DW. Now a lot of people think of the gas works as just producing gas and coke, but there are many other by-products aren't there?

JG. Yes, yes indeed. During the war, the main by-product was Benzole and that was a rough petrol type of liquid. It was taken to the distillers where a good motor fuel was taken out. What was left over was recycled and a long list of chemicals etc. were taken out. Tar was treated in a similar way which went away to the tar distillers. They in turn distilled it and got out about twenty-five different things from it.

DW. Where you there when the gas works closed?

JG. Yes, in fact I was one of the last men there.

DW. Can you tell me about the closing down, or the winding up of the gas works?

JG. Closing down? Well, redundancy was coming into the picture at that time.

DW. What year was this?

JG. Shortly after nationalisation this sort of redundancy was coming about because it was obvious that the gas works was going to close down. Every man was interviewed and was offered a job not necessarily in Hinckley. There were some jobs going in Coventry and some in Birmingham. We were all offered jobs except the one who didn't want to move away. He finished with some sort of compensation. The office staff, the majority of them went to Solihull. They had extra pay for a year, but at the end of the year the payment ceased, this was understood at the beginning. While they were being paid to go there it wasn't too bad, with all the travelling involved they expected this. Then each of them started to look for their own jobs and gradually they faded away.

DW. So there weren't many who moved nearer to their new job then

JG. No.

DW. Were they offered a resettlement payment?

JG. No, that wasn't considered. At the time of the closedown, there were seven of us left. Those seven of us kept the gas works working up to the day it closed down. There was Mr. Rimmer, Jack Good, some others and myself; I can't think who they were. In the end there was just me left.

DW. Were they knocking the buildings down while you were there?

JG. I was there all through the knocking down business.

DW. So you would remember the fire?

JG. Oh that was nothing. I mentioned to you earlier about the purification plant. The purification boxes had to be emptied frequently when they had absorbed as much Sulphur as the material would absorb, then they had to be emptied and replaced with new stuff. Previously it had to be sent away for processing and recycling to a chemical works. The last few hundred tons or whatever it was, was just dumped. Peculiar stuff - when it's exposed to air it will not burst into flames, it just smoulders. This is what the fire was, and all you'd got to do with that was put something over it, but it scared the people who came there. They didn't know what to do with it, which shows that they didn't know much about gas production. I didn't know there was a story about that though, I didn't think it was that important.

DW. No, that's not the fire I meant. The one I am talking about was reported in the Hinckley Times, and was started by a spark from a gas cutter. There was also a photo of the chimneystack coming down.

JG. 'Yes, I saw that coming down... .a very efficient job. Have you ever seen a chimney coming down?

DW. Only on television.

JG. It's quite simple to do. Blow one side out and the other will stay up, then fall away. That was the latest, the new idea of knocking chimneys down. I had a job to knock a chimney down at the gas works. The two houses that I spoke of at the top of Brick Kiln Street that used to be a dye house and dye works there.

DW. Belonging to...?

JG. Marchant, where Beasley's old factory is, a little bit further east. I helped to knock a chimney down, the old dye works chimney. We didn't have experts in those days. I helped to fell this chimney and the method then was to cut a piece out of the bottom of the chimney and put a timber strut in, cut another piece out and another strut in. You went half way round it with the struts, then you set fire to them and they came down like that.

DW. Very clever.

JG. I was very interested to see how the chimney was going to fall and where the chimney was going to fall to. As we went along I began to get the idea that I knew what was going to happen, it was going to go so far round and then fall into the centre of the piece that had been cut out. Do you know, he gauged it to a foot.

DW. Is there anything else we can cover which we may have missed?

JG. What about the social side?

DW. Was there a social club?

JG. We had a social club.

DW. Where was that?

JG. It was centred in a pub, The Prince of Wales. We didn't have our own club, actually our headquarters was the Prince of Wales and we used to have annual dinners, outgoings, darts matches, dominoes, and crib. We visited the pubs around the area and we took the children to the seaside at least once a year, sometimes twice. We also had a Christmas Club, which I was the Chairman of for many years. We had a good cricket team too; we had our own cricket pitch down the back of what is now the storage area. We had a nice pavilion there. We had our hard times but not many of us left, in the main I think most people who worked there enjoyed it.

DW. Was there a large labour turnover or did the people who worked there tend to stay there?

JG. Oh yes. You'd get the odd drifter that would come in and not stay long, and clear off again.

DW. Yes, I've been told before that gas people working at the gas works tended to run in families, the father would get the son in and the son would get his son in. One big happy family.

DW. Our thanks are due to British Gas for permission to reproduce this article.

Transcript by: Jean & David Wood.