Coventry Corporation Transport Society

The Gasworks

L D Howe

This is a series of recollections that, by a roundabout route, will eventually lead us to the Gasworks and beyond.

On Thursday 6th November 1952 (the day after bonfire night) we moved from Coundon to Earlsdon.  Because my brother was in his final year at Coundon Primary, it was agreed that we should continue at Coundon Primary until the end of the academic year, after which I would transfer to Earlsdon School.  So our route home from school was via bus Service 5 to Barras Lane, after which we walked down (literally) Barras Lane and along Windsor Street to the Technical College, where we caught bus Service 9 to Earlsdon.

When the end of the Summer term came, I was reluctant to change schools because Earlsdon seemed to be a small brick building with a small yard, as opposed to the much larger Coundon, with three decent-sized playgrounds and all my established friends.  Reluctantly, my parents acceded to my wishes and I continued at Coundon for three further years.

I have several memories of the walk along Barras Lane and Windsor Street.  The first is of the traffic lights at the junction with Holyhead Road.  There was a control box at the back of the pavement on the North East corner of the junction with the word "REVO" inscribed on the cover.  We found that if you opened the cover and pressed the button, the traffic lights would change.  On the way home, this was a quick way of crossing when there was a lot of traffic on Holyhead Road.

Just past the junction, at the top of the hill on the left, there was a small garage that specialised in Austins.  All the cars on the road outside had the words "Austin of England" on the side of the bonnet, just in front of the windscreen.  A few of the cars on the road were Austin Atlantics, a rather rare breed.

Along Windsor Street was an engineering factor "Arthur Haynes" (not the radio comic).  I used to spend a lot of time looking in his window.  One day he came out and gave me a packet of ball bearings.  In later life I realised that it must have been a sample from a "rep" (sales representative).

In the mornings, walking up Barras Lane, there would be Midland Red single-decker buses struggling up the hill from the Spon Street Traffic Lights.  They were quite old and had a half cab with the engine on the left of the driver.  The destination was displayed on a board that clipped into lugs on the front bulkhead of the saloon.  Unlike the Midland Red single-deckers with an under-floor engine that I used to travel to Rugby to see my grandmother, these had a peculiar engine note.  It was a "Bloop, Bloop" sound, which to an eight year old schoolboy sounded like "Leppi-Lie, Leppi-Lie, Leppi-Lie".

I also remember seeing a "Stork Margarine" lorry.  My parents refused to believe me because pool margarine was still the norm, but rationing and utility products were about to disappear.  The Stork Margarine operators were obviously quick off the mark.

After about a year, I discovered that I could take the Service 1 bus from Earlsdon Library to the Chapelfields terminus at the North end of Grayswood Avenue and walk up Kinsbury Avenue and Donnington Road to the rear gate of the school in Forfield Road.  The fare by the Technical College route was a penny each way on both buses, so I was given fourpence a day bus money.  The new route was the same price initially.  Using the new route I could either walk to Earlsdon Library or back home from the Library, saving a penny a day for my pocket money.  Sometimes I walked both ways and saved twopence (pronounced tuppence).  Later, the fare on the Number 1 went up to three halfpence (pronounced three haypence), but I didn't get an increase in my bus money because my parents knew that I walked to the Library in the mornings.  Incidentally, the use of the terms halfpence, twopence, threepence (pronounced threppence), fourpence and sixpence stems from the fact that they all were (or had previously been) coins of the realm.

In the Summer, I sometimes walked the whole way, via Four Pounds Avenue bridge, which was a wooden bridge in those days, passable only on foot or by bicycle.  By that means I was able to save the whole fourpence.  Immediately after the fare increase on Service 1, I tried travelling to the Chapelfields terminus for a penny, but after a while one crew threatened to throw me off at the Oldfield Road Fare Stage because I had only paid to that fare stage.  Alarmed at the prospect of being late for school, I offered to pay another penny, but the driver took pity on my saying "He looks frightened" and I was allowed continue to the terminus.  I never tried that again.

So how does this get us to the Gasworks?

There were two incidents that occurred while travelling from Coundon to Earlsdon by bus that reminded me of the Gasworks.  The first (but second chronologically) occurred on the Number 1 bus from Chapelfields to Earlsdon when I was ten.  The bus stopped, as normal, at the Kensington Road stop outside the Kensington Stores.  When it started off, I got up from my usual seat at the back of the upper saloon, grasped the pole, turned towards the stairs and pressed the bell once to indicate that I wanted to alight at Earlsdon Library, as was my normal practice.  To my horror, the bus stopped immediately and the conductress charged up the stairs demanding "Who pressed that bell?"  Being an honest schoolboy, I owned up.  "What did you do that for?"  I said that I wanted to get off at the Library.  "Well don't press the bell again.  It's only to be used by the conductor!"  Which was, of course, untrue.  So I waited meekly for the bus to start again and made my way down the stairs.  The conductress pressed the bell and I alighted, feeling chastened.

The reason that I had developed the habit of getting out of my seat and pressing the bell as soon as the bus had departed from the previous stop arose from the previous incident that I will describe shortly.  However, over the course of three years, I had developed this into a bit of a challenge, where I was determined to press the bell before the conductor.  After the reprimand, I always waited for the bus to cross the railway bridge before I pressed the bell.

The previous incident happened during the first year of travel, when my brother was still at Coundon.  After the bus left the Chester Street stop, we got up from our seats and descended the stairs to the platform.  By that time the bus was travelling quite fast.  You always knew when the bus was travelling fast because the tyres made a screaming noise on the road.  As we approached Barras Lane, we realised that the conductor was not going to press the bell.  My brother, who was tall enough to reach the bell over the platform, pressed the bell just as we went past the stop.  The driver applied the brakes but by then we had begun to descend Hill Street.  The bus came to rest outside the large wooden gates of the Gasworks.  I had never stood outside the gates before and was impressed by their size.  The Gasworks main entrance was in Abbotts Lane, which is why the Hill Street Gates were always closed.  The most prominent visible feature of the Gasworks was the gas holder, which was telescopic and rose and fell as the amount of gas stored inside changed.  Gas holders used to be known as gasometers, but they never measured anything, although you could tell if the volume of stored gas was low because the gasholder would disappear behind the wall.  There were two types of telescopic gas holders: one had a fixed outside frame, with wheels supporting the telescopic sections while the other had spiral flutes on each section that were supported by the section below.  The Gasworks had the former type.

There was another gasworks in Foleshill.  The Foleshill Gasworks had two gas holders: one of the telescopic, outside frame type and one with a rigid outer shell that always remained the same size, which used to be known as the Nuremberg type.  Much information is still available about the Foleshill Gasworks, but it is difficult to find out anything about the Abbotts Lane Gasworks, which was redeveloped several years ago.  However, I remember that later, at school, I learned much about the operation of gasworks.

There was no North Sea gas in those days and so the only supply was what was known as town gas.  In a large gas works, there would be a row of twenty or more rectangular coking ovens side by side, each about 0.5 metres wide, 1.5 metres high and 3 metres long.  The dimensions are very approximate.  There was a rectangular door at each end, one at the coal end and one at the coke end.  The ovens were mounted on a fixed gantry a few meters above the ground.  Each was loaded with coal in turn, starting at one end and working along the row until the other end was reached and then returning to the starting end again.  To prevent the coal from spilling out at the coke end, the coke end door was secured before loading began.  When the oven was full, the coal end door was secured and the oven heated to several hundred degrees, sufficient to drive out all the gasses from the coal, but without air, to prevent combustion.  This process took quite a long time, which is why so many ovens were required.  After filtration, the resulting gas was pumped into the gas holder.  When the process was complete the oven was allowed to cool.  Then both doors were opened and a ram on the coal side pushed the resulting coke out through the coke end, adding to the large heap of coke that was on the ground below.  After that, the coke end door was closed again and the whole process was repeated.  The coke was sold to industry and to coal merchants for domestic use.

Coke had the appearance of cinders, silvery grey in colour, rough in texture and could vary in size generally from that of a walnut to that of a cricket ball.  Coke burns at a much higher temperature than coal and is used for high temperature industrial processes.  At that time, it was also much cheaper than coal but, because it gives off a high proportion of carbon monoxide, it was intended to be used only in furnaces or in domestic stoves that were closed to the room, with a flue for the gases to escape.  We had such a stove in the kitchen.  However, like a lot of other people, we also used coke to supplement the coal for the fire in the living room.  There was no double glazing and no draft proofing in those days, so it was relatively safe, but it would probably be lethal in a house of today.

As the demand for gas grew, it became necessary to find ways to increase the capacity of gas production.  To that end, the Lurgi plant was built at Coleshill as a regional, high volume gas production facility.  However, during the winters of 1965 to 1967, the plant suffered problems and, during cold spells, the gas pressure would be significantly reduced.  By then, we had replaced our coal fire with a Robinson Wiley gas radiant convector heater, a very up-market product at the time.  But during the cold spell, we used to huddle around the fire for warmth.  Cooking was also very slow.  To supplement the shortfall, natural gas was imported from North Africa in super tankers.  However, the following year, North Sea gas conversion took place and, when the North Sea gas started to flow, all thoughts of gas shortages disappeared.  The gasworks gradually disappeared as well, with some gas holders remaining to balance supply pressure in the pipes.  Sadly, all trace of Abbotts Lane Gasworks has long since disappeared.