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It was Fenny by gaslight- history of the old gasworks
Replacing much of the local heritage, during the past few years Fenny Stratford has seen many new developments. In fact one of the latest is presently taking shape on the site of the old gasworks, and perhaps now is therefore an opportune time to take a brief glance at this age of Fenny's industrial past.
'Fenny Stratford is likely soon to reap the advantages consequent upon having the shops and streets lighted with gas.'
So read a report in the Aylesbury News in 1857, and in accordance Gregory Odell Clarke and Robert Holdom, who between them had various business interests in Fenny Stratford, founded the Fenny Stratford Gas Light and Coke Co., which first lit the town by gas on December 31st, 1857.
As for their customers, from Monday April 1st 1889 the price of gas would be reduced to 4s 7d per 1,000 feet, with a discount for cash, and, as an added benefit, if they were not more than 20 yards from the existing mains new customers could have their gas laid on free, 'subject to the approval of the Directors.'
The advent of the canal, and later the railways, had allowed the bulk import of coal and with this proving an obvious advantage to the local gasworks an enlargement of the premises took place in 1891, with tenders invited for a gasholder tank, 51ft. 6in. in diameter.
With Alfred Taylor to attend to those in the town, towards the end of September, 1895, for those at the Bletchley end of the parish Mr H Lee was appointed to carry out repairs to the street lamps. As for the cost of the gas they consumed, this would now be a matter for consideration by a committee, who were tasked to obtain a larger discount from the gas company.
Then in other concerns the gas company was asked to lay a main in St Martin's Street for a lamp to be erected at a position determined by the Lighting Inspectors. Tenders for the work were duly invited, and that of £2 12s 6d from Alfred Taylor was successful. Yet regarding the negotiations about the price of gas the cost was deemed to be too great, and in 1897 Mr Lisling, of Messrs. Laurence Scott and Co., of Norwich, was approached to provide details of lighting the town by electricity.
However, in view of this if the Council undertook the lighting etc. of the lamps the gas company then offered to supply gas at 3s 7d per 1,000 feet, and with this agreed it was decided not to proceed with the electricity scheme.
In late 1899 the Council then asked the Company if they wanted to sell the gasworks. The Chairman, in a letter of October 1st duly replied that if the shareholders agreed he would sell for £9,750, but in the event a vote went against the proposal for sale.
At the turn of the 19th century the Company was producing 5.2 million cubic feet of gas, and with 228 customers connected to the mains, (13 of whom had gas cookers), 58 were using the new penny in the slot meter. In 1910, on a location that allowed the easy offloading of coal a new gasworks was then constructed fronting the canal, and by 1913 there were 700 customers, of whom 415 had slot meters.
Originally from Heme Bay, where for several years he served on the staff of the local gas company, Jasper Cook later become assistant engineer at the Bedford Gas Light Co., and then, at a time when gas was priced at nearly 7s per 1,000 cubic feet, he was appointed in 1920 as general manager, engineer and secretary at the Fenny Stratford Gas Light and Coke Co. With his office being that part of the house on the canal side, he lived at 'Ivydene' in the High Street, whilst as for the consumers the company would now install a supply of gas, free of charge, and also provide a prepay meter, three lights and a cooking stove. Usually taking pennies, the coin meters were in fact set to deliver slightly less than the value of the coins, such that when the money was metered and collected a welcome cash surplus could be handed back to the customer!
Calling every three months, the collector would be accompanied by a youth and with his job being to push the 'copper truck' - a strong box on a tyre wheeled chassis - he was left in charge whilst the collector emptied the meters.
In 1924 discussions again took place to supply Bletchley with electricity, but even so during the year the gas lamps along Bletchley Road (now Queensway), were fitted with automatic clockwork lighters. In fact the continuing use of gas was good news for Mr Fowler, who in 1928 arrived as foreman at the gasworks.
He brought with him much relevant experience, for during the previous 12 years he had been foreman of the gasworks at Seaford, Surrey, and was then for a while employed at Whittlebury. During 1936 Mr Frank Palmer was then appointed as the gas works foreman, and from a house midway along Bletchley Road he moved with his family in 1937 to a house at the gas works site adjacent to that of Jasper Cook, who was now the Company manager.
With the outbreak of World War Two it was obviously realised that the gas holders would make an inviting target for enemy aircraft, and at the gas works a refuge in the basement of the Retort House - protected with sandbags and steel shutters - was provided to accommodate ten men, who were equipped with gas suits and trained in anti gas measures.
In fact the measures were taken none too soon, for towards the end of October 1940, four high explosive bombs fell in the near vicinity, although fortunately without causing any damage.
At 83 Bletchley Road, as a sign of the times an air raid shelter was also being constructed at the rear of the gas showrooms, and in June 1940, with the shortage of manpower regular work at the gasworks was open to a gas works stoker, aged over 30 who, by working seven shifts, at £4 3s 9d per week, could thereby no doubt help produce the 'good, hard clinker', which was now being offered for sale at the works at '6s cash per ton.'
Throughout the war the manager of the gas works was Mr Jasper Cook, and he also played an important role in presiding at local public committees during the savings week campaigns.
In aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund, after the end of the war at the gas showrooms at £1 each Victory Bells, cast from the metal of German aircraft shot down over Britain, were offered for sale by 'Mr Therm', who in early 1946 became rather more expensive when the Directors of the British Gas Light Co.Ltd announced that from the reading of the meters for the June quarter, the price of a therm would be increased by 2d to 15d.
Nevertheless, business remained sufficiently brisk to employ more stokers, stoker-labourers and general labourers and later during the year a works maintenance fitter would also be required, 'able to do acetylene welding and forge work.'
During the early summer of 1946 "The Manor', at Little Brickhill, became the home of 105 German POWs and although most of the men were sent to work at the Marston Valley brickworks at Ridgmont, a few were directed to the gas works at Fenny Stratford.
By the later year the restrictions on POWs visiting private homes were then lifted, and in fact Francis Palmer, foreman of the gas works, would take several of the POW's into his home for meals, even serving Christmas dinner for a number of them!
In January 1947 he and others then expressed a desire that Bletchley should 'bestir itself to stretch out the hand of friendship; to provide for the spiritual and social welfare of our ex-enemies who had been away from home for so long, and whose lives were in danger of being ruined through the monotony of having only these same 104 companions all day and all night, every day for weeks....and months....and years.'
They duly consulted Ernest Staniford, a deacon of the Spurgeon Baptist Church, and on going to the gas works he was introduced to Heinrich Dueval, 'interpreter to the "Gas division", Gerd Nolte and Georg Krieger, all German POW's employed at the facility. So began a local friendship society through which many local families would take PoWs into their homes, as an 'Experiment in Friendship.'
With the war now in the past it was indeed a time for reconciliation, and in mid July, 1947 in the window of the Gas Company showroom toys made by the POWs at the Little Brickhill camp were put on display.
Having been priced by a local tradesman, they would then be sold at the Community Centre on Thursday and Friday, July 24th and 25th, with the proceeds applied to the entertainments being arranged for the Belgian, and other children, who were presently visiting Bletchley.
In 1949 came the nationalisation of gasworks, and although electricity had been introduced to the town in the 1920s, even in 1950 gas was still the preferred form of lighting for the tenants of the council house at 82 Newton Road. In fact this was the only such property in the town to still rely on a gas supply, although until 1953 gas would be supplied for lighting at Bletchley station.
An unfortunate incident occurred in 1952, when gas containing too much sulphur was allowed to pass on to the town.
Compounding the matter this lapse had been detected by the gas 'Referee', and in November the following year the Ministry would bring a prosecution against the Gas Board at Bletchley Magistrates Court. Pleading guilty, the Board was fined £5, with £5 costs.
Also during 1952, in February Gerald Palmer, the son of Frank Palmer, was entrusted with installing and maintaining the private trunk line at the Royal Lodge, Nyeri, Kenya, and in fact during the later part of World War Two he had worked at Bletchley Park in the Post Office Telephones Department, and then for a few years at the Repeater Station.
Indeed, perhaps with hindsight he was wise not to pursue a career at the gas works for in 1956 the Fenny Stratford gasworks closed, and on the site in November, 1963, work began for Pergamon Press on a new printing and bookbinding complex.
This was known as the Buckingham Press, but the premises came up for sale in February, 1966, following an announcement by the chairman, Robert Maxwell MP, that it had not been possible to recruit the skilled staff that were necessary.
For some years after the closure of the gasworks the two spiral guided gasholders on the main site remained but one, with a capacity for 140,000 cubic feet, was dismantled in 1971, and the other, of 200,000 cubic feet, in 1974/75.