Back then we didn’t have natural gas. Instead we made our own gas by chucking coal into a retort and cooking it. The stuff which came off was deadly poisonous. But we weren’t there to sniff it. It powered our gas cookers. No-one had gas central heating. It was all solid fuel. At the beginning of every winter, grimy faced men would come round and deliver a ton of coal into the shed in our back garden.
There were no gas bills. It was all pre-pay. When the money ran out so did the gas. That was until Mum pushed half a crown into the gas-meter and re-lit the stove. A half crown was equivalent to 25 pence in new money. It was enough to buy 20 cigarettes or half a gallon of petrol and keep the gas running for the next couple of days. People were also different.
They were slimmer than most people are today. There were no pot bellies. Because we walked everywhere. Yes-we might take a bus or train if they were not on strike. And they were always on strike.
One day I took a tour of our local gas works which was situated behind a big yellow wall fronting Southend Seafront. Across the road and extending about 200 yards into the Thames Estuary was a short pier. At the end of it were two small white steam-cranes. We peered inside the one which was working, as it lifted coal from a barge and loaded it onto a wagon. The driver said it was oil-fired. The second crane, which sat silent, was coke fired. We walked back along the pier and into the gasworks building.
Through the sweltering orange half-light, we saw bare-chested men shovelling coal in to the retorts. Coal dust hung in the air.
Next was the pump house, where a massive rumbling steam engine drove gas along the network of pipes into our homes.
Within a year, the gasworks had closed. It was 1967. The men were laid off. Natural gas had arrived. Other men came to our homes and converted our gas cookers to the new fuel. Even then it all seemed to me too good to be true. Cheap gas from the sea? What would happen when it all ran- out? As it must run out at some time? Would we then have to build new gasworks and go back to making town gas? It’s the big unanswered question. Within a couple of years the buildings themselves were demolished and all that remained were a couple of large gasometers and the remains of the pier.
If you would like to know more about our industrial heritage and the way we lived, please take a look at, ‘British Imperial and U.S. Customary Units Explained’. See the enclosed link. Thank you/