The Gas workers of South London
“One Wednesday morning in October 1889, Charles Tanner the head foreman … said to me ‘the stokers are all in the Union and we have lost all authority in the retort houses … unless you do something to attach them to the Company we shall be completely in the power of the Union’… in a quarter of an hour the scheme was set out … and the same afternoon it was offered to the workmen. The Union men refused it… and on December 4th demanded that it be abolished … then the memorable strike began; thus was our co-partnership born.'”
So George Livesey, then Chairman of the South Metropolitan Gas Company, described events before the gas workers strike of 1889 and his Company’s formation of a profit sharing scheme — afterwards known as ‘co-partnership’. South Met. was the gas company which covered South, London in 1889 — it was innovative, ambitious and controlled by George Livesey.
Livesey had arrived at the Old Kent Road works aged four when his father was appointed manager. He became office boy at 14 and Managing Director at 50. His background was not that of a ‘capitalist’ but a professional manager from a family background of small business- men. He had a reputation as a brilliant, innovative gas engineer, an involvement in gas politics which had changed the financial structure of the industry, and a proven flair for administration and negotiation. A life long temperance advocate, he achieved a precarious balance between pragmatism and idealism. He believed in partnership and brotherhood but he intended to stay in charge himself.
This piece is about his attempts to mould the lives of workers in his industry. He did this by using the strike and that is a different story. (In essence it followed a summer of industrial unrest which included the ‘Great Dock Strike’ and a series of disputes in provincial gas works, culminating in achievement of the 8 Hour Shift System through the Gas Workers Union, led by Will Thorne).
The quotation at the start of the page illustrates the atmosphere of confrontation in South Met. at the time, and there is little doubt the strike was ‘really’ about the rise of trade union power on the retort house floor. The trigger was the inauguration of a profit sharing scheme — the Company had already granted the eight-hour day in its retort houses. The scheme was introduced together with the condition that participants must sign an agreement which would have had the effect of making strike action impossible. Essentially it was a dispute about the right to organise. Because the Company was able to use enormous numbers of blackleg workers housed in siege conditions the strike and the Union in South London was broken.
THE COMPANIES AND THE WORKS
First we shall look at South London Gas workers and put them into the context of their everyday lives. Who were their employers? Where did they work? The first gas works to open in South London had been Bankside in 1814. Early works were very small — and probably workers there would have been adventurous people prepared to put up with bad working conditions to be involved in this glamorous new technology. Through the next twenty years many gas works were built — but to quote the title of a recent article — many promoters of the early gas industry were ‘Rogues, Speculators and Competing Monopolies’. As Companies varied in their honesty towards the public so they varied in the treatment of their workers. Early companies were private concerns competing for custom with others. A constant debate — which persists to the present day — concerned the ownership and controls over this source of power. In the middle years of the century there was a movement towards ‘consumer’ companies which were to be owned by shareholders who were also customers of the company. This was followed by a movement towards public ownership where local authorities either acquired existing private concerns or started works of their own. The London local government was not powerful enough to overcome the private owners’ lobby and gas remained in private hands. This situation persisted until the formation of the LCC in 1889 which re-opened the debate on ownership with the election of Progressives committed to municipalisation. It is no coincidence that industrial disputes erupted in that year as it is also no coincidence that George Livesey’s solution included moves towards share ownership by the workers in the gas company in which they worked.
Where were the works? In the early 1820s the Bankside Works (on the site of the present Tate Modern gallery) belonged to the Phoenix Company which went on to build other works at West Greenwich (Creek mouth) and Vauxhall. In the 1850s the Surrey Consumers Company (Rotherhithe) was started. These companies bought out smaller ones — for example the Deptford Company itself a successor to the Greenwich Railway Gas Company was acquired by Surrey Consumers in the 1860s (its site, alongside the railway at Deptford, is still derelict). The Lewisham area was covered by the Crystal Palace (later South Suburban) Company at Bell Green and was only incidentally party to these events. The other – and ultimately dominant – gas company in the area was the South Metropolitan founded in the late 1820s and operating from its works in the Old Kent Road. In the late 1870’s Government intervention forced gas companies to amalgamate with each other in the belief that larger companies would be more efficient. South Metropolitan took over the Phoenix and the Surrey Consumers, closed down two companies in Woolwich and built the East Greenwich Works as a new ‘super’ works to supply a much larger area, using new technology and incorporating a chemical works to handle by-products profitably (including the biggest gas-holder in Europe, demolished in 1986). Our view of work in the gas industry has been shaped by pictures like that by Dore of the Lambeth Gas Works (1872) or by Flora Tristan of her 1840 visit to Westminster gas works ‘misery and apathy depicted on every countenance and apparent in every movement the poor wretches made’. In complete contrast to this are the almost lyrical accounts of life at the Old Kent Road written in the In
the retort house1900s by retired workers. The works was near the country side on the Surrey Canal; workers, they said, could bathe, fish and tend their gardens in slack periods. Children played in the works, and men’s wives brought dinners in — hot in a basin. This rural atmosphere can still be sensed looking across the Chaffinch Brook to Bell Green works. Whatever conditions were really like there was a deterioration in working conditions throughout the century as encroaching urbanisation, an escalation in size and increasing mechanisation destroyed the domesticity of a suburban works like Old Kent Road – an element which had made the exhausting work and long hours more bearable.
THE WORK AND THE WORKERS
What did gas workers actually do? Labour historians have sometimes used the word ‘stoker’ as a synonym for ‘gas worker’. ‘Stokers’ were some of the men employed in the retort houses. The number then employed changed with the time of year – a major feature of the industry was that many workers were only be employed in winter although they might well be seen as permanent employees albeit seasonal. A 1910 study cites about 1,000 stokers employed in June to about 1,500 employed in December in a total December workforce of about 6,000.
Stokers were those without whom the works could not function. It was a job with a measure of ‘macho’ glamour. Stokers needed to be big men at the peak of their strength. The work was heavy and undertaken in high temperatures. The basic tasks did not change in essentials until the 1900s. Will Thorne; writing about the 1880s could have been describing the 1820s. ‘Ordinarily the work was agonising —12 hours a day in heat and steam and draughts, bending and straining the back and arms, taxing the muscles until they became numb’. Twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, were usual and although work was not intensive throughout the shift, there was a fortnightly eighteen-hour changeover shift. Retort house work was not badly paid — a 1906 study reported 45/- a week as being usual in London (compare this with incomes described in Round about a pound a week for manual workers in the same area).
Retort House men were known as heavy drinkers and so was formed a strong link between temperance activists in both management and workforce. Management attempted to promote a strong Christian ethic — reinforced by the temperance movement deeply embedded in the local culture. This is the South London of Spurgeon’s Tabernacle, of the Band of Hope, and the Good Templars.
Who were the other gas workers? Many were general labourers — like coal porters. These had much in common with other port workers — were often organised by the same unions. Gas Company minute books record more disputes with coal porters than with stokers. In addition there were general labourers doing a variety of jobs and specialist tradesmen — carpenters, blacksmiths, and so on together with numerous specialist gas workers with skills relating to the processes outside the retort house. They became more important in the 1900s with new processes, mechanisation and diversification into chemicals. Companies also employed storemen, watchmen, office workers, etc. All until the First World War were men.
About a quarter of gas workers were ‘outside men’ — many of them lamplighters. The great-grandfathers of the men in the SEGAS van with their pneumatic drills on the street comer were around and about with their cart and shovels. Indeed in the ‘good old days’ of competition in the gas industry, in the 1830s and 40s, they may well have been engaged in some activity involving another company’s mains — like putting a lump of mud in them! A growing number of gas workers were engaged in work in customers’ houses — fitters, meter readers etc — a group which an employer must keep happy for good customer relations.
Gas workers were ordinary people living in South London — and part of the great increase in population in the area in the last century. Men travelled to London to get jobs. Some of them had worked in the provincial gas industry — Will Thorne, for example, came from Salford to the Old Kent Road in the 1880s as an experienced gas worker. Many returned to the country in summer — links with the Newington, Kent brickworks are well established. In obituary and retirement notices the South Met. house magazine (published in the 1900s) outlines details of the lives of workers who migrated to London in youth, worked as labourers, retort house men, acquired a skill on the district or in the chemical works and perhaps made it to a supervisory grade. Often their sons followed — gas was a ‘family’ industry. They had become South Londoners and part not just of a culture of pubs, knees-ups and the Old Kent Road but of aspirations to ‘better things’ — education, Sunday Schools, Institutes, better housing through Building Societies, security through the Foresters or Buffaloes. It was to these aspirations that management reached out in 1889 and on which they tried to build a structure which they hoped would change the world.
Gas Worker unionisation is too often described as something that started with Will Thorne in 1889. There is plenty of evidence of unionisation before that. Major disputes in the 1860s and 1870s ended in debacle — then as in 1889 industrial action originated north of the river. South London workers do not seem to have been so ready either to join or to initiate action.
A history of the 1872 strike has not yet been published. A cross- London union started in North London led to a strike of stokers about the right to organise. Both strike and union were smashed by management, followed by prosecutions of strikers and sentences of hard labour. Among others workers at Rotherhithe and West Greenwich came out. What happened at Old Kent Road is perhaps more interesting. South Met. had given wage rises to match those through- out London in the year before the strike, and had in addition given workers double pay with the weeks holiday ‘in order to attach them further to the Company’. They involved themselves no further in London-wide management discussions stressing that ‘the men in this Company’s employ have made no complaint’. Old Kent Road workers did not come out with the rest of London. It was usual in times of industrial dispute for the mains of gas companies in dispute to be connected to others who were not and there is considerable evidence that South Met. connected its mains to supply other Companies’ areas during this strike. There is also evidence that they disconnected them because of pressure from their own workers. This incident is illustrative of South Met. methods and also shows the existence of workers’ organisation within the Company.
Employers’ welfare provision in the last century is under-researched In the gas industry many companies provided welfare facilities and it was argued that workers should be encouraged to administer their own organisations – like sick clubs, “to render themselves independent of eleemosynary in their seasonal afflictions’. Employers financial support for these was sometimes necessary – for example the Phoenix Company were obliged in 1878 to supplement the workers sick fund during a flu epidemic. At Old Kent Road superannuation scheme had been set up in 1855 on management initiative which provided the initial finance and administration – ‘the foundations of a superstructure’. A meeting was held with workers to discuss this – it is interesting that a similar scheme for company officers was turned down at a meeting set up for them. In 1860 a Widows and Orphans Fund was set up to support the families of dead employees. It has often been assumed that industrial workers did not get paid holidays until much later, in some cases in the 1930s, but in 1881 when the three South London Companies amalgamated arrangements for holidays were standardised. Rotherhithe Consumers Co and the Phoenix had given in kind – double pay at Christmas and Easter; Phoenix had given clothes and gratuities worth about £3 each. and had paid for a beano. South Met. with its strong temperance policies abolished the beanos to substitute a weeks summer holiday for all workers ‘who have conducted themselves well during the past year with double pay after three years on condition that the holidays were taken in a visit to the country or seaside – to encourage them to improve themselves and stay out of the Old Kent Road pubs. In the 1850s lectures were laid on by the Phoenix for workers at Bankside – but only one or two attended ‘even when they weren’t religious’ – more popular were the washing facilities and the lobbies equipped with papers and games materials. The standards of these facilities have been questioned by subsequent commentators.
Gas was a continuous process industry which meant Sunday working. In the name of religion, Livesey had tried to cut this at Old Kent Road. Before 1860 management there had tried to persuade workers to take time off to go to church although men were not paid for these Sundays off. By 1871 Livesey was working with the Lords Day Observance Society and was trying to find ways to abolish Sunday working.
Livesey believed in incentives to self-help and betterment. So the wage structure at South Met. included a system of bonuses. The best retort house gang of the week with the highest output, for instance, got a payment. He wanted to install a profit sharing scheme for workers, often speaking on his beliefs in a partnership of capital and labour. If men were treated well they would work well and they must be rewarded for that. ‘The men must have the motive of self interest’. The Board were not impressed and refused to implement his ideas until in 1884 they agreed to a limited profit sharing scheme for officers and this was implemented.
The formation of the Union in 1889 was the chance which Livesey had wanted. The Board was persuaded that profit sharing might be the factor which would woo the men from the Union and the scheme was set up. The scheme was based on the relationship of Company profits to the price of gas. Gas companies could only put then- dividends up if the price went down — so too the bonus to the workers went up if the price went down. Those who joined first got a lump sum which they couldn’t touch for a given length of time. Men had to sign a 12-month agreement (which implied they could not strike); if this was broken the bonus was forfeit. A meeting was held between management and those who had signed from the start to discuss the scheme. Many objected to punitive clauses but others said that the 12 months agreement also gave them much needed job security. One worker called for an extension of the scheme to cover share ownership. This was Henry Austin, later to become a worker director.
After the strike the scheme was extended and over the years altered considerably. A consultative process was set up by which Depart- mental Representatives met regularly with management to discuss complaints and matters in the workplace. Workers were able to buy shares. Five years later the Company put in hand a scheme to reserve three Board places for directly elected members of the workforce. This met with considerable opposition — not just from members of the existing board but also from government bodies and the LCC. The Company began to extend the scheme in such a way that the workers’ lives were controlled by it. The scheme, described as a 14 ‘bulwark against socialism’ ran as a snakes-and-ladder like system of rewards and punishments — over the years it became harder and harder for workers to get their hands on any of the cash held in their name unless they were prepared to invest it in property. A company building society was started in which workers were encouraged to invest. However a bad or uncooperative worker could lose his bonus and agreement, and soon be on his way to losing his job. Up the ladder lay the possibility of a directorship and property ownership, down was degradation.
The Company extended its range of welfare benefits until the pro- vision covered workers’ lives ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Pension and sick schemes multiplied and flourished to include convalescent homes, dental and maternity schemes and so on. Wide social provision was made with most works having an ‘institute’ complete with theatres and extensive sports facilities. Once in the South London gas industry — and it was a firm in which son followed father — workers’ lives were taken care of.
The South Met. Share Register has never been released by the Department of Trade so it has not been possible to discover the extent of share ownership by employees by the time of nationalisation in 1947 but workers felt that it was their industry and that they had a chance of their views being represented in it.
Livesey was not involved in an intellectual debate on the future of the working class — but he was influenced by the general debate in the media of the time which saw many working class “people as ‘the dangerous classes’ and the conditions under which they lived and worked as morally degrading. Such ideas were influenced by Livesey’s own ideological background in the Church of England (St Jude’s, Brixton), the Band of Hope, the Lords Day Observance Society, etc. He said in 1888 that increasing urbanisation worked to the detriment of local workers — it was a process he daily witnessed.
Better paid workers were able to form institutions of respectability — Friendly Societies, Building Societies etc. By 1889 unskilled workers were being recruited into trade unions which also challenged workers’ loyalties to their employer. This challenge was also being taken up in political life through the formation of the LCC. Livesey, living and working in South London, could not fail to be aware of workers’ aspirations towards ‘respectable’ status. He wanted to mould workers to that Victorian ideal of ‘Christian observance, sobriety and thrift, orderliness and cleanliness’. We must not assume that they did not want to be so moulded.
George Livesey saw socialism as a great evil and undoubtedly had links with some of the more unsavory elements in anti-union organizations. He did have ideas which were more sophisticated than mere union bashing. His Anglican and temperance background was supplemented by his admiration of the Italian patriot, Mazzini In the years up to his death in 1908 – years in which copartnership spread widely in the gas industry – he wrote extensively on his ideas involving himself in the Labour copartnership movement. To quote some of his views:
“I do not think property is divided properly ~ the minority has nearly all the property and the majority are property less” ….. “the right to property is the foundation of liberty and if a man is not allowed to own the product of his labour he I not a free man. “thousands of millions of capital are invested in joint stock companies from the middle classes – the twentieth century should do as much for the working classes as the nineteenth for the middle Classes.
Eric Hobsbawn cited co-Partnership schemes as ‘outbidding’ the unions. In truth they could offer in terms of material gain more than any union – what they took away was the freedom to organise on the shop floor. Management would have argued that they substituted a different freedom and it is this argument that has become a paramount on in 1987- A hundred years later these competing definitions of freedom are still with us; the quotation above will find many echoes today.
This article first appeared in South London Record in 1988