A wartime experience working and training at city gasworks

The query by Lorna Crane, of Braunstone South, on April 27, regarding a city gasworks, has brought this interesting response from Doug Rudge, of Thurnby.

He writes: “Belgrave Gasworks was the city’s first gasworks, alongside the Leicester canal, not far from Burleys Flyover.

“Commissioned in 1821 by the Leicester Gas Company, a year later, the city was lit by gas lamps. The only remaining clue to the works’ location is the name, Gas Street.

“Further along the canal was the larger Aylestone Gasworks. There was routine conveyance of goods between the two works by gasworks barge. Years later, that barge had an unauthorised passenger… me!

“En-route, on my bike, from home to my work at Aylestone Gasworks, I jumped a lift at the Upperton Road canal bridge.

“My apprenticeship, from 1941 to 1946, to become a gas engineer started at the age of 16, after finishing my education at Alderman Newton Boys School.

“Three of us gas engineering apprentices were taken on, the first employed by what was the City of Leicester Gas Department. And what a fascinating experience.

“The gasworks superintendent, Mr B P Woods, an ex-ship’s engineer, was not only responsible for gas production, but also all the necessary extras, such as the chemmy lab, the fitting/ machine shop, the black gang, the design/ drawing office, the carpenters’ and electricians’ shops, and the brickies gang – and he would show displeasure if he had to call outside contractors!

“We had a wide experience, enhanced by doing three evenings and one half-day a week at Leicester College of Art and Technology. But there were no gas manufacturing technology courses, so we three apprentices shared and paid for a correspondence course.

“But it was wartime. The ‘coke’, a by-product from the coal carbonising/ gas manufacturing process, was in great demand and there were queues with prams and other contrivances to take home the sacks of coke, as Lorna recalled.

“Then there were labour shortages due to call-up to HM Forces. No recruitment, but labour help from HMP Welford Road parole prisoners, who did a grand job dealing with the coke queues.

“Our three apprenticeships were expected to be terminated for call-up at 18, but a new plant was installed at our gasworks.

“This extracted a raw Benzene liquid as another by-product from the gas-making process, and this was used by the distilleries to make aviation fuel, then in great demand by the RAF.

“So this, I believe, put us apprentices in a reserved occupation, but with proviso that this reservation would cease if we failed our Technical College exams.

“We were also signed up to the gasworks Home Guard platoon, where, after training, I was promoted to lance corporal.

“Then came the day when German paratroopers were expected to be dropped in our country to disrupt railway travel and communications.

“Hence, on orders, at night, starting from Aylestone boathouse, I took my platoon of three somewhat elderly gents to guard the nearby railway bridge on the Leicester to London line. The elderly three carried their dummy wooden rifles while I had the Lee Enfield rifle with the one bullet between us. Needless to say, the threat of our retaliation must have been such that the enemy failed to arrive!”

Paul Champion

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Twitter: @blogapprentice
Skype: paulchampion31

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