VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 57: Gasworks
Chapter written 2004 & last revised 2013

The last coal gasworks in Britain closed in 1977 but most of them closed several years before that.
They were beginning to pipe North Sea gas ashore in 1968, but most areas, including Brighton, Hove and Shoreham, still relied on the local gasworks for a supply of gas.  You nowadays meet people who have no idea that domestic gas used to be made from coal, and on a fairly local basis.  Strange to think that most people under about forty will never have experienced the distinctive pong of the gasworks, a constant feature of life in at least one area of most towns before 'natural' gas began to be the norm.  Most people hated it, but I quite liked it.  In fact doctors seemed to consider it beneficial for respiratory problems.  As I believe I mentioned in an earlier chapter, my mother was advised by the doctor to take me to the area of the local gasworks every day when I had whooping cough.  This remedy appeared to work wonders, which is possibly why I developed a rather perverse liking for the smell.  This was just as well, as I now found myself working at the Shoreham gasworks.
This was a vast works, presumably supplying the whole of Brighton, Hove and Portslade with gas, as well as Shoreham itself.  Before you were allowed to start work you had to undergo a thorough medical, allegedly to ensure that you were fit and strong enough for the hard labouring work involved.  I expected to pass the fitness bit, but to fail the strength test.  However, despite the inevitable comment about my thinness, the young female nurse who carried out the medical seemed satisfied that I qualified on both counts, without actually asking me to attempt to lift a heavy weight, which I found slightly puzzling.
The first job I was assigned to was on the coke loading bay.  (Coke, widely used then as a smokeless fuel, was a by-product of gas production).  There were about eight of us working on the bay and our job was to fill sacks with coke and load the sacks onto lorries.  There was space for the same number of lorries as there were men to load them, and often the lorries came in one after the other.  The drivers didn't expect to be kept waiting, so you had to fill the sacks and stack them on the lorries at great speed.  It was the custom for the drivers to tip you if they were satisfied with your speed.  Because of this tipping system, it wasn't done for more than one loader to load a lorry, even when there were only a couple of lorries in the bay.
The attitude of the drivers varied tremendously.  At one extreme, you had drivers who did most of the loading for you, giving you more time to fill the sacks.  At the other extreme were those who stood idly by their vehicles, yelling at you to get a move on (they didn't put it quite so politely).  Interestingly, those who gave you the most help were the biggest tippers.  The majority of drivers gave little or no help and very small tips.  My problem was that I couldn't pick up the sacks of coke and carry them onto the lorries like the other men.  I had to drag them, which was a rather slower method and caused a certain amount of derision.  It also kept the foreman on the boil.  Some of the lorry drivers, once they had experienced my loading, kept away from my end of the bay, if there was space to park elsewhere.  This lightened my workload but, of course, caused resentment, so after a couple of weeks, I was taken off the coke loading bay and put on the coke hopper.
The hopper was reckoned to be a soft option, so usually no-one stayed on it for more than a day at a time.  It was regarded as a short holiday from the loading bay, so my permanent posting to it caused further resentment.  The hopper contained a couple of lorry-loads of coke and was filled directly by a conveyor belt from inside the works.  Some lorries, instead of carrying coke in sacks, carried it loose. These lorries backed under the hopper and from a platform high above the lorry, the operator pulled a huge lever, opening the bottom of the hopper and discharging about half its contents into the lorry, before pulling the lever back to close the hopper again.  You have probably guessed my problem with this supposedly easy task already.  I found it easy enough to open the hopper, but had hardly enough strength to close it again, against the outward rush of coke.  Therefore, time and again, drivers sitting in their cabs waiting for me to yell to signify they they were fully loaded and could go, were subjected to a terrifying avalanche of coke on the roofs of their cabs as their lorries received much more than a lorry-load.  They didn't like it.  Nor did the men detailed to shovel up the great spillages from the yard.  It wasn't much better when I occasionally managed to shut the hopper after only a small amount too much got out, because the excess weight would register as the lorry was driven over the weighbridge at the exit from the gasworks.  The driver was then legally obliged to turn back to discharge some of the load.
After a couple of days, most of the cab roofs were badly dented and the drivers were getting very angry to find that I was still on the hopper, so I was given what was regarded as the idiot's job.  As in every gasworks, there were very long metal conveyor belts, such as the coke belt already mentioned, travelling at a steep angle from high up in one building of the works to a lower level in another.  These were completely boxed in to form above-ground tunnels, as it were. Except for the windows in the sides, these structures were rather like very narrow versions of the escalators on the London Tube.  My latest task was to climb up inside these with a brush when the belts had been stopped for cleaning, and to clear out all the dust and fragments of coke from the rollers.  There was not enough room to stand up - it was an all-fours job, and on a very steep gradient.  But still, it was one of those crazy jobs reserved for lone idiots, the sort of job that I always preferred, and I stuck it for a week or two.  It was only really in the steamy macho cameraderie of the communal showers that it struck me that the gasworks was no place for one who had grown accustomed to hobnobbing with university lecturers, who had himself delivered lectures on dossing to distinguished audiences and who had appeared on radio and tv.  So I reverted to my old familiar habit of simply disappearing from the job without notice and without bothering to claim any pay outstanding.
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