British Gas and WW1: Introduction

Female Coal Workers

As well as tragedy and destruction, wars can bring about rapid growth and development. Industry is one sector that has to develop quickly in response to the demands of war. To mark the anniversary of World War I, we’re taking a look at how the gas industry coped with the challenges brought by war 100 years ago.

A Fresh Approach to the Industry

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the gas industry was fragmented, with hundreds of suppliers operating independently across the country. Soon after war broke out, it became clear that if the industry was going to meet new wartime demands for fuel, both the industry’s infrastructure and its output, would have to adapt. So the Gas Light and Coke Company – an early incarnation of British Gas – worked in collaboration with the government, to meet the country’s supply needs.

As well as going through structural change, the industry also had to deal with a change in the demand for gas and its by-products: night-time blackouts meant that domestic demand for gas fell, while its use in essential industry rose.

As the war progressed, the gas industry became increasingly involved in the war effort. By-products of gas production, such as coal tar, became as vital to the war effort as supplying the gas itself. Without the British Gas industry, Great Britain may have struggled to produce the TNT and other explosives that it needed for battle.

Female Coal Workers

Photo courtesy of National Gas Museum. During World War I, men were conscripted meaning women became vital to the war effort and are seen here digging coal for the furnace.

Trading with the Enemy

But it was difficult for suppliers to keep up with military demands and the topic of ‘trading with the enemy’ was anxiously discussed across the country throughout the war. The gas mantles on which thousands of British homes and factories relied were a German invention. And it was the German chemical industry that had invented many of the chemical processes necessary in the production of coal tar.

In the early 20th century, Germany was the leading industrial nation, with more than half its population working in factories. This meant many nations relied on their production capacity, which was far greater than other countries beginning to industrialise. When it became an act of treason to deal with suppliers from the German chemical industry and there were dramatic rises in the price of coal (a vital component in the production of gas), meeting wartime requirements for gas became an even more difficult task.

The Seed of Change

As World War I raged on, British industry struggled to find the labour force to carry out essential work. The majority of men had either been conscripted or volunteered to fight, leaving a severe shortage of workers back in Great Britain.

This shortage led to a dramatic period of social development, as women stepped up to take the place of male workers. At first, women working in the gas industry held clerical or meter-reading roles. Before long, female workers were tackling a range of heavy-duty and often dangerous jobs, such as maintaining gas production, cleaning retorts, and handling chemicals. By the end of the war, the socio-economic landscape of the UK had changed for good.

The Great War left a lasting impression not only on the nation’s population, but also on how our industries operate as a whole.  There’s no question that the war played a part in structuring the British gas industry as we know it today.

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