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Unveiled: How east London gas workers risked life keeping mains going in the Blitz

PUBLISHED: 10:00 12 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:59 12 May 2020

Air raid... gas engineer at Romford gasworks battling to shut off valve as gasometer blazes around him. Picture: Cadent archive

Air raid... gas engineer at Romford gasworks battling to shut off valve as gasometer blazes around him. Picture: Cadent archive

Cadent archive

One of the little-known episodes in the war years on the Home Front was the heroism of workers in the gas industry while under fire during the Blitz, now revealed 75 years after victory in Europe.

Albert Webb... one of four gas industry workers who get the George Medal during the Second World War. Picture: Cadent archive (inset) and Ben PodrocheAlbert Webb... one of four gas industry workers who get the George Medal during the Second World War. Picture: Cadent archive (inset) and Ben Podroche

Four were later given the George Medal, one of the highest civilian wartime honours, for risking their lives protecting gasworks that had direct hits during German air raids.

The gas companies recorded 12,000 broken mains in London, including two large 24ins trunk mains that got a direct hit in Commercial Road, putting Whitechapel fire station out of action when they blew up, killing all those in the control room.

Commercial Road... engineers replace two trunk gas mains destroyed in air raid in 1940. Picture: Tower Hamlets ArchiveCommercial Road... engineers replace two trunk gas mains destroyed in air raid in 1940. Picture: Tower Hamlets Archive

The distribution network that supplies east London today has been trawling its archives to uncover the role by wartime gas workers which have now been put on the Cadent company’s website.

“This industry kept the war machinery going as well as everyday life,” Cadent’s operating officer Howard Forster points out. “It is a debt we owe to so many workers and to those who lost their lives.”

Aftermath of German air raid that knocked out Whitechapel fire station as gas mains that were destroyed in Commercial Road are being replaced. Picture: Tower Hamlets ArchiveAftermath of German air raid that knocked out Whitechapel fire station as gas mains that were destroyed in Commercial Road are being replaced. Picture: Tower Hamlets Archive

Workers who later received the George Medal included stoker Albert Webb for rescuing a workmate trapped in a conveyor trough despite his own injuries, who then collapsed and had to be pulled to safety himself.

A warning siren had sounded, but Webb and two workmates stayed to make the plant safe, when a bomb landed 30ft away and exploded.

Horror of German bombers seen directly over Beckton during the Blitz. Picture: Cadent archiveHorror of German bombers seen directly over Beckton during the Blitz. Picture: Cadent archive

Stephen Hay got the medal for acts of bravery during three air raids.

He climbed 30ft up a building in darkness to isolate a fractured gas main, then gave orders to firemen during another raid to cool the metal frame of gasholders while leading men to plug holes. Hay also help tackled a gasworks blaze when he was off duty.

Women stokers keeping Beckton gasworks running. Picture: Valence House ArchiveWomen stokers keeping Beckton gasworks running. Picture: Valence House Archive

Albert Page got the medal for averting disaster as fire enveloped four giant gasholders.

He had no time to put on fireproof clothing, but managed to turn a red-hot valve wheel to shut them off wearing only leather gloves. Albert was then knocked unconscious by flying debris and had to be rescued.

Home Guard at Beckton stationed at the massive gasworks during the Second World War. Picture: Cadent archiveHome Guard at Beckton stationed at the massive gasworks during the Second World War. Picture: Cadent archive

George Ditch received the medal after being badly injured picking up a firebomb that had landed on an oil washer.

The Gas, Light and Coke company had its own Home Guard battalion with 2,700 part-time recruits guarding gasworks such as Bromley-by-Bow and Beckton.

Employees at Beckton gasworks were also recruited for the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who helped defend Dunkirk during the 1940 evacuations and later fought in North Africa and Italy.


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