South Metropolitan Gas Co., East Greenwich

holders in blackwall lane
The two gasholders from Blackwall Lane

The gas works has been seen to dominate the peninsula – in fact it was not built until the 1880s and was thus quite a later comer. In the history of the gas industry East Greenwich was very late, it was, in fact, the last to be built in London. It was the new, super big, works built by the South Metropolitan Gas Company.

South Metropolitan Company dated from the late 1820s and was based at the gas works in the Old Kent Road. From the 1840s it had been managed by members of the Livesey family, first Thomas, and then his son George. When East Greenwich gas works was built George Livesey was the Chairman of the company – perhaps unusually for a company chairman his first job had been as a fourteen year old Office boy at the Old Kent Road gas works. He was to stay in the company he started with. South Met. Gas company was to become what the two Livesey’s father and son were to make it. The building of East Greenwich was, in many ways to be the pinnacle of their ambitions.

George Livesey appears to have been uneducated in the sense that he did not go to school. His childhood in the Old Kent Road left him with fond memories of local men and women, and those who worked for his father. He signed the ‘pledge’ of temperance in his early teens along with a group of young gas workers and, through them, began to attend prayer meetings. At the age of seventeen he attended what was to be the meeting which set up the Band of Hope in London. It was to become a parallel career for him and it is always important to remember that behind the elite gas manager was an activist in the grass roots temperance movement. The politics of total abstention in London are convoluted with many variations of organisation. George seems to have a member of most of them and also maintained an association with many others – Lord’s Observance, Good Templars. Somewhere along the line he picked up ideas from Christian Socialists, embryonic co-operators, and most significantly the Italian patriot, Mazzini. If some of his rhetoric sometimes seems inconsistent to us, it never did to him. He was a strange mixture of the fanatic and the pragmatist. Good at everything he did, and almost too clever to be able to control himself.

statue 4
Livesey’s statue, by Pomeroy, stood in the Old Kent Road works and was later moved to the now defunct Livesey Museum. Its current whereabouts – and its safety are now unknown. It appears to be owned by London Borough of Southwark

the 1870s George Livesey had moved the company onto the national stage. Through his negotiating coups South Metropolitan had taken control of a number of other local gas companies thus giving them a near monopoly in the area. The contemporary press reflects the star like status of George Livesey.

In the 1860s, before amalgamation, the two biggest gas companies in North London had both built large out of town works to provide bulk supply and enable them to close down small uneconomic works. It was high time South Metropolitan did the same and in the early 1880s the site on Greenwich marsh was chosen.

The South Metropolitan Gas Company obtained the Act of Parliament necessary to build the works on 140 acres of Greenwich marsh in December 1880. Discussions with the local authority on the new plant and its layout agreed that the purifying plant, thought to be the smelliest part of the works, should be placed on the northern most tip of Blackwall Point. This would ensure that smells were kept from Greenwich, while wafting over the Isle of Dogs.

A number of other people had plans for Greenwich peninsula in the 1880s. The gas company were aware of schemes for docks and a railway, planned by the South Eastern Railway. The executors for Coles Child, who had recently died, wanted to build housing. Mrs. Fryer, with a parcel of land next to the proposed works thought so too. Both thought the gas works would not make a good neighbour.

For George the works was to be more than just another gas supply factory but was to embody the ideals which he had cherished from boyhood. Within a few years of its opening a dramatic episode in industrial relations was to change both George Livesey and the South Metropolitan gas company in fundamental manner.

South Met. rose to become the most powerful gas company in London and this led to bitter disputes with the giant Beckton based Gas Light and Coke Company – a dispute which Livesey continued at their company meetings and one aspect of which reached the House of Lords. The East Greenwich works, begun in the early 1880s, can be seen as a gesture towards them. Those big gas holders were well visible from Beckton.

By the late 1880s things were changing in London. Arguments about the government of London had led to the abolition of the Metropolitan board of Works and, in late 1889, the election of the first London County Council. They put forward ideas about public ownership of gas – an aspect which, naturally, Livesey did not approve. Rather than oppose this he began a long campaign about the abolition of the coal tax. 1889 is, of course, the year of the great Dock Strike and the ‘new unions’. There had been trade union organisation in the gas industry since, at least, the 1830s, The bitter London dispute of 1872 had led to legislation making strike action illegal for gas workers , the industry was, however, one to which the ardent trade unions of the late 1880s looked to organise. Will Thorne and the gas workers union has become well known as icons of labour history.

The story of the 1889 gas workers dispute had popularly been much misunderstood. Thorne and the early union campaigned for the ‘8 hour day’- in itself a rearrangement of shift patterns. In the detailed accounts of negotiations it is clear that, as usual, Livesey and South Met. were going to go their own way. Livesey was determined that ‘outsiders’, the union, should not have any power in his works. In a visionary episode on Telegraph Hill in Nunhead he decided to instigate a profit sharing scheme among the South Met., workforce. In this, and in the events which followed, it is sometime difficult to reconcile the deeply religious temperance worker with the draconian way of dealing with events, the grey areas of truthfulness and the very fuzzy boundary between idealism and pragmatism.

The Gas Workers Union objected to the profit sharing scheme because it included an anti strike clause. They threatened action but, because they were unable to strike without breaking the law, persuaded the workforce to hand in their notices. Livesey set up siege conditions at the works, marching in ‘replacement labour’ recruited from a wide area and often with the help of some extremely unsavoury professional strike breakers. The new workers came in by railway and East Greenwich were marched down from Westcombe Park Station inside a police cordon and to the jeers and threatened violence of the watching crowd.

Will Thorne, was not active among the union leaders, having disappeared in the direction of Manchester, were he stayed until it was clear that the company had won the dispute. Once inside the works the new workers were not allowed to leave,. Those that did get over the wall found a hostile reception and fights and scuffles constantly broke out in Blackwall Lane. ‘Old’ workers held a bonfire party outside the Pilot where they burnt an effigy of Livesey as the guy. Rumours of poor conditions inside the works, and, in particular, lice, began to spread. The two great gas holders were watched constantly. Should gas pressure fall then the company would have lost because contracts with local authorities – largely sympathetic to the strikers – would be broken. It did not fall and, in effect, Livesey had won. He kept the ‘new’ work force, – since the action had not been in effect a strike, there was no need to take anyone back and great hardship ensued among those who now had lost their jobs.

Once the dispute had been patched up, as far as was possible, Livesey began to expound on his ideas. Any worker with ideas about trade unions was best advised to keep them to himself. The profit sharing scheme began to evolve into something which Livesey called ‘co-partnership’ and a whole structure of participation and involvement began to be built. Workers could take grievances to ‘Co-partnership Committees’ which could also recommend changes in a wide range of working practices, and involved themselves in decisions on the various funds – pensions, sickness and so on – managed by company representatives. Co-partnership committees were elected by the workers but also had an equal representation from management. In the 1890s Livesey managed to get the company structure altered to allow for three board members to be elected by the co-partners in the workforce. This move was bitterly contested by .some shareholders and members of parliament. It was down to Livesey’s determination that it was achieved.

Livesey was nothing if not thorough. Other industrialists – and he was much copied – who tried to institute schemes if this sort usually comprised at some stage. He was always prepared to follow through the logic of what he had done so long as did not involve giving away any aspects of real power. In the years that followed he lectured and wrote constantly about his system. He usually tailored what he said to his audience, variously selling it as a means of overcoming ‘industrial unrest’ or, elsewhere as a beacon of co-operative working. Immediately after the strike his only associates appear to have been those industrialists who described themselves as ‘The Liberty and Property Defence League’ – the liberty and property in question being their own – and the ‘Anti-Picketing League’. He soon dropped them and was to move towards associates with whom he, probably, felt more at home – a group of idealists on the fringes of the Co-operative movement. Although it took a very long time before he was forgiven for what he had done to the strikers in 1889 he was eventually listened to – albeit with reservations. The temperance movement largely ignored his strike breaking activities. He was to be National President of the Band of Hope and continued to speak on platforms throughout the country for them and for related organisations. It is worth remembering that they continued to receive with enthusiastic audiences – bands, flowers and acclaim. The knighthood – and his place on innumerable worthy causes and commissions after 1900 – may well have been as much to do with his important role in temperance as his activities in 1889.

war memorial
The war memorial now stands in its own park area in John Harrison Way

And so, how did all this effect East Greenwich. It was, after all, the biggest and newest of the South Met. Gas works. Apart from the works itself there was a very obvious amount of space in which to put a great deal of social actitvties. Alongside the main gate in Grenfell street was built the Livesey Institute – a meeting room, hall and Theatre to act as a social centre. Alongside it was the bowling green, and, after the First World War, a War memorial – which still stands in front of the English Partnerships Portacabin in Grenfell Street (it is now in John Harrison Way). The large area to the south of the works was largely turned over into allotments but also included a number of sports facilities. The company house magazine, Co-partnership Journal , lists one by one the opening ceremonies together with details of the matches and completions which took place there.

George Livesey died in 1908 and his place as Company Chairman taken by Charles Carpenter, an enthusiast for chemical weapons – a trade soon added to the East Greenwich repertoire. Livesey, who was childless, left much of his fortune for the benefit of workers at South Met. His name was to be sacrosanct in the company for many year after, and partly explains the exclusivity which gas workers felt up into the 1960s. Along with the rest f the gas industry South Met,. was nationalised in 1949 but retained much of its previous geography and company identity although managed from Croydon. Gas workers art Old Kent Road and East Greenwich felt – knew – that they were an elite. Even those workers who were enthusiastic trade unionists and deplored the old company’s policy towards unions, could be heard to speak in praise of Sir George and his co-partnership – ‘it was a jolly good, even though I know what he did was all wrong’ they would say. East Greenwich gas works closed in the early 1980s, to the sadness of many who worked there.

Return to East Greenwich Gas Works

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3 thoughts on “South Metropolitan Gas Co., East Greenwich”

  1. I have a Long Service Certificate that was presented to Thomas George Tabor in January 1939 in recognition of faithful service during the 25 years completed February 1938 and as a mark of appreciation and goodwill. It is beautifully illustrated, framed and was presented by the South Metropolitan Gas Company. It belongs to an elderly friend of mine who is in a rest home and no longer wants it (hasn’t space for it). Do you know of any organisation that would like it as it seems such a shame to throw it in the rubbish?

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