Over recent weeks there has been press coverage of the ghost in the Dome. George Livesey is a subject well known to me – of an undergraduate project and then an MPhil. I have written several articles and thought the Forum might like to know more about him.
There had to be a silly season story about the Dome site. If there has to be a ghost why not that of manipulative, irrepressible George Livesey. Anyone who reads through the otherwise dry as dust records of the Victorian gas industry will find that George enlivened proceedings very considerably – I think he really enjoyed upsetting things. A haunting of his old gas works is well in line with his normal behavior in life – and in any case there is no way he could have kept his nose out of the Dome. He always jumped in.
Until now I didn’t think I believed in ghosts – George is making me change my mind. He always challenged convention, so why not now, ninety years after his death?
I am sorry if the following account of his life is somewhat personalized. I have been working on George a long time now. I first came across him when I was set the 1889 gas workers strike as an undergraduate project. I read my way through the South Met Gas Company Minute Books to look for Will Thorne et al but it soon became clear that the most interesting thing about the strike was the Company’s Chairman. Livesey rampaged his way through South Met Board meetings at an astonishing rate. It was very exciting reading!
Most things written about Livesey have been about the great 1889 strike and such academic discussion as there has been has discreetly wondered if the whole thing was in fact simply a stitch up by Livesey. Anyone who could provoke thousands of workers to strike against better pay and conditions has to be a bit different. What none of the academics has noticed is that at the same time as his ex-workers fought the police in the streets and/or starved, that Livesey was addressing mass rallies of working class people in his other role of a leader in the Band of Hope.
In the context of the 1889 strike I have seen a number of agitrop productions in which he was portrayed as the conventional top hatted, cigar smoking capitalist. That, I can guarantee, he was not. His grandfather was a greengrocer in Bethnal Green. George’s father was manager of the Old Kent Road gas works and he was brought up in a house on site. He went to work in the offices there at the age fourteen. No one has ever provided evidence that he went to school. His education was in the gas works and with other boys in the Old Kent Road. As a teenager he attended a meeting to set up the Lonodn Band of Hope and he became an activist. These young men in the Victorian Temperance movement must have had much in common with the Socialist Workers of today. Selling papers on street corners, holding meetings, using every opportunity to get the message over. George stayed with it all his life and perhaps it was in the schismatical and proselytizing temperance movement of south London in which he felt most at home.
George’s father had taken over the fraud ridden, and recently explosive Old Kent Road gas works in 1840 with a mission. He intended it simply to become the most efficient gas works there ever was. He passed on to George this message and said that objectives could only be achieved with absolute probity. George’s version of truth was sometimes a bit varied but his reputation was absolute. He was to work for South Met. all his life.
His father died suddenly in 1870 yet the Board hesitated before appointing George in his father’s place. Probably with good reason. He was to take them to a lot of places to which they would probably have rather not have gone. He was appointed as both company secretary and works engineer. He was to say himself that this was useful since the Board could sack the engineer but could not get rid of the secretary without a vote among the shareholders. He set about selling shares to those members of his workforce who had been his boyhood chums.
Within two years of his appointment, without his Board’s consent, he had done a deal with the Board of Trade, which was to change the financial rules by which all gas companies worked out their prices and profits.
Soon no other gas company manager would speak to him and his own Board spent a lot of time trying to explain it all away. His message was ‘partnership’ – which meant that gas companies had to be responsible towards their customers (then mainly local authorities) and work with them. If they wouldn’t do this themselves they should be forced to. He put forward the idea of payment by results suggesting they start with his own salary.
It was just ten years between his appointment as manager to his retirement. In that time he propelled South Met from being a small backwater among London gas companies into what was probably the premier gas company in the world. Governments of the day were keen to persuade old small gas companies to become large efficient ones. George took this up with enthusiasm and had to be stopped by the Board of Trade from negotiating himself into control of the whole London gas industry. There were a number of other skirmishes. No cause was too obscure. George would take anything up.
He retired in 1881 and was elected as Company Chair shortly after the presentation of the silver teaspoons. His next mission was to build East Greenwich Gas works and to reform the rest of the gas industry and bring it round to his way of thinking. One of the things I like about George is that even as a major industrialist he was never too proud – he could still go to other gas company meetings and have a shout-up from the back. I admire his talents as a speaker so much. I have read my way through so many potentially boring transcripts of public enquiries, reports of company meetings and so on which were revolutionized by George. He had that ability to walk into a meeting, and say ‘Look, this it how it is’ and to change the agenda, to change how people think.
East Greenwich gas works, the site of this current haunting, was built in the 1880s. Being done by George, it had to be perfect. The two great gas holders symbolized it all. They were the biggest in the world, they were austere and ‘modern’ in design – shouting ‘progress’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘function’. Hopefully they would also annoy the management at hated Beckton.
After the 1889 strike he was politically suspect and was initially taken up by an unsavory group of ‘liberty and property’ protectors, who he quickly dropped. By the time he died some co-operators had begun to let him speak at their meetings. He was probably much more at home with them. He was however eventually knighted.
He had provoked the 1889 strike by instigating the third wing of ‘partnership’ – to include the workforce in with a profit sharing deal. His timing for this is very suspect despite his story of a messianic vision on Telegraph Hill – the only park commemorating strike breaking. Thorough to the last, George wanted Board places for workers despite it being against the wishes of the existing Board and the House of Commons. He set out to make South Met the perfect example of partnership between capital and labour, with every possible consultation and/or welfare arrangement. It all went smoothly as long as he got his own way all the time.
The scheme was based on share ownership by the workforce and he began to say a number of quite revolutionary things about property ownership.
Recent press coverage has remarked on the number of people who followed his coffin to Nunhead cemetery. Why not? He really had done the best he could for South London. Or he meant to – and I am sure people knew he really always intended to be a good man.
Why did someone so talented stay in South London? Perhaps that is why he has come back – he sees the Dome as being a chance for an appearance on the national and international stage? Perhaps his enthusiasm for everything he ever encountered has spilt over. If anyone had to come back to see what was going on it would have to be George. He just couldn’t stay away
This article was written in 1998 as part of a mail out for my then employers, Docklands Forum. It follows press stories that the Dome, then under still construction, was haunted. The story grew and grew after this leading to radio and TV appearances – and interviews with journals with a psychic interest!!!
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