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Powering the City

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Gasworks and power station workers

Big employers

Beckton Gas works.
View full size imageBeckton gasworkers, c. 1960. © NMM
The Beckton and East Greenwich gasworks were two of the main employers in the eastern part of London - right up until their closure in the 1960s and 1970s. At its height, more than 5300 workers were employed at the Beckton site.

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.

Leisure time

Beckton Gas Works Sports Day.

View full size imageBeckton gasworks Sports Day. © NMM

Although the work at the East Greenwich and Beckton plants, especially in the early days, was dirty and noisy, the workers did have time to relax.

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

Will Thorne
View full size imageWill Thorne, General Secretary of the Gasworkers & General Labourers Union. © NMM
Despite the talk about profit sharing and good relations between the company and its workers, in March 1889 many men from Beckton were laid off. In response, gasworkers from all over the capital held a protest meeting on 31 March.

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

Gasworkers meeting on Peckham Rye.
View full size imageGasworkers meeting during the 1889 dispute. © NMM
Thorne, Ben Tillett and William Byford formed a three-man committee and that morning they recruited more than 800 members. The committee then formed what became known as the National Union of Gasworkers & General Labourers. Elections were held and Thorne defeated Tillett for the post of General Secretary of the union.

The emblem of the Gas workers Union commemorating the winning of the 8 hour day in 1889
View full size imageThe emblem of the Gasworkers Union. © NMM
Thorne began negotiations with the owners of the Gas, Light and Coke Company and the South Metropolitan Gas Company, respective owners of the Beckton and Greenwich works.

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.

Beckton Gas works
View full size imageBeckton gasworks from the River Thames. © NMM
Thorne was now seen as a dangerous man and attempts were made to weaken the Gasworkers' Union. South Metropolitan introduced a new profit-sharing scheme for the workforce in an attempt to do this, but most of the men remained firm in their support of the new union.

Pay and conditions

Boiler House at Tucker Street Station in Canning Town.
View full size imageThe boiler house at Tucker Street Station in Canning Town, 1904. © NMM
Like gasworks, coal-fired power stations were dirty and uncomfortable places. This picture shows a worker in the boiler house at the Canning Town generating station.

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).

Deptford Power Station.
View full size imageWorkers at Deptford power station in the 1900s. © NMM

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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New Unionism



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