Powering the City
|Gasworks and power station workers|
When the works closed, a natural gas pumping station replaced it. Only 12 men were needed to operate this new facility. This image shows gasworkers at Beckton feeding coal into the retorts.
This photograph shows the men from Beckton enjoying the annual Gas, Light and Coke Company's Sports Day with their families.
The company owners believed they could win the loyalty of their workers and keep trade unions out of the plant by providing such leisure activities and by introducing a profit-sharing scheme. This proved to be wishful thinking.
The arrival of unionism
One of the speakers at the meeting, Will Thorne (1857-1946), suggested that the workers formed their own union to protect themselves. Thorne told the assembled men that they could win an eight-hour day and a six-day week.
The Gasworkers & General Labourers Union
Within a few weeks Thorne had successfully negotiated an eight-hour day in the industry. As they previously did 12-hour shifts, this was a great advert for union power. The Gasworkers' Union soon had over 20,000 members.
Pay and conditions
Men would feed huge amounts of coal into the boilers in order to drive the steam turbines. The work was physically very hard, but after the growth of the 'New Unionism' in the 1890s, conditions did gradually improve. Even so, in 1893 a fireman at a station such as Canning Town or Deptford could expect to earn only about £1 10 shillings and 4 pence (£1.52) per week (£101 in today's money).
By the 1930s power station workers were relatively well paid. Working at the Deptford station (known as 'the Light' to the workforce) combined reasonable wages with security.
For a few lucky men and their families there was also the possibility of a flat in St Nicholas' House, built by the London Power Company.
But working at the plants could prove dangerous. In 1916 a man was killed during a Zeppelin raid and in 1940, during the Blitz, 27 workers were killed at the complex.
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