South Metropolitan Gas in the Second World War

Food Containers for Patriots

East Greenwich, S.E.IO.

article taken from a Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich booklet on Greenwich industries in wartime

EARLY in the war the South Metropolitan Gas Company like so many other undertakings possessing workshop facilities, turned to the production of war materials, and the skilled operators, who in peace-time were engaged in the manufacture and repair of meters, cookers and water-heaters, devoted their energies to the making of components for aeroplanes, tanks and guns. In addition, many women were taken on and did valuable work. Besides the thousands of small components supplied to Government specifications there were some articles of outstanding interest.

In 1942 an urgent request came from the Air Ministry for 100 base-plates for the universal mounting of 20 mm. guns and the Company’s workshops were given four weeks to complete the job. The order was accepted and delivery made with two days to spare, and the guns were rushed to the Middle East, where they played an important part in airfield defence during the campaign in North Africa and icily. Since that date hundreds of these base-plates, as well as gun-bases for Browning machine guns, have been made by the Company.

Petrol and oil pipes for aeroplanes and tanks, gunner seats for four-engined bombers, which were developed by the Company’s staff from basic designs supplied by the Air Ministry, and fuselage parts were’ among the many articles made in the Company’s workshops, besides all the necessary jigs and tools. , Outstanding in interest, because of their appeal to the adventurous instinct, were the containers used for dropping by parachute food, arms and supplies in Burma and to the Maquis and other patriots in Nazi-occupied Europe. Much of the experimental and designing work on these containers was done by the Company’s staff, and over 55,000 were turned out in the Company’s workshops.

The balloon-barrage, that vital link in the air defence of London and other target areas, also owed something to the work of the gas industry. Coal-gas itself was often used instead of hydrogen for filling the balloons, and a number of service pipes were run to balloon sites on the Company’s area of supply. When a balloon has been in operation for some time, air may slowly leak into it and form an explosive mixture with the hydrogen or coal-gas. In order to make an easy check on the percentage of oxygen in the balloon by taking a sample, the Company’s chemical research staff designed the Metro Purity Meter, a piece of apparatus which was manufactured in large numbers in the workshops, and which was subsequently adopted as the standard throughout the British Empire and Allied Nations.

The chemical staff of the Company also gave a considerable amount of assistance and advice in connection with the manufacture of flares for airfield runways, smoke screens, camouflage paint and other products in which their specialized knowledge of coal tar products, and of combustion, was invaluable.

Although a small section of the Company’s engineering shops was transferred from London, most of this war production was carried out at the Company’s works at Old Kent Road and East Greenwich-target areas high on the list for enemy attention. It is interesting on this point to note that an aerial photograph of South-East London, taken by a German airman, with a number of important areas labelled, was recently reproduced in the daily Press; among the labelled keypoints were the gasworks.

While the Company was thus employed on this special manufacturing effort. there was still its main job to be kept going-the job of maintaining the supply of gas to the homes of South London, to the hospitals, rest centres and hostels and to industry. The maintenance of a gas supply was an important factor in sustaining the morale of the people and in keeping the general health np to a high standard. The difficulties under which this job was carried out can be well imagined, and, indeed, were daily, apparent to everyone in South London. The magnitude of the task can be gauged from the fact that during the 1940:41 blitz there were 2,622 breaks in 1,700 miles of mains, and 30 million gallons of water were pumped from the Company’s mains.

A subject about which there had been much apprehension on the part of the uninitiated was what would happen if a bomb hit a gasholder. During the war the Company suffered many such incidents and, as the expert had already known would be the case, there was no explosion; at the most a suddenoutburst of flame which might extend over a considerable area and which, as on September 7, 1940, when the Headquarters Offices were set on fire, might cause some-fires.

In, this short survey it has not been possible .to pick out more than the salient points of the Company’s activities during ‘the war, but it’ does give some idea of its contribution to the war effort both in its normal sphere of gas supply and in a number of activities not usually associated with a gas company.


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