The old Livesey Museum in the former Old Kent Road Library will be known to many readers that grew up in the area, but what do we know of its founder George Livesey?
Here industrial historian Dr Mary Mills tells us the extraordinary story of the man and it’s all to do with gas…
In the 1880s when East Greenwich gas works was built London gas was almost entirely produced by private companies operating under their own Acts of Parliament and East Greenwich was built in the late 1880s by the South Metropolitan Gas Company.
They had originated in the late 1820s as a small works in the Old Kent Road and like most other early gas companies management was incompetent and corrupt. By the mid-1830s the works was ruinous and the Board appointed a young man, Thomas Livesey, as manager. Working with a new Board Thomas got management to a high standard but more importantly set the Company up for a prosperous future by concentrating on supplying gas to the new housing estates springing up all over south London. He died in 1871 and the role of manager was passed to his son, George.
George Livesey was 37 when he took over at Old Kent Road. He had been brought up on site at the gas works where the family lived, I don’t think he ever went to school and was on the gas works staff by his early teens. He was religious and a leading London temperance activist; very clever, charismatic and – well – unorthodox. Cleary several of the South Met Board were terrified of him but he ensured his future employment as manager by the simple expedient of selling shares to members of the Old Kent Road workforce on the condition they turned up to company meetings. He was backed by South Met’s largest shareholder. Richard Foster, a banker with an interest in religious reform, church building and revolutionising workplace relationships.
Trying to summarise everything George did to change the 19th century gas industry would be a very, very long article. I will just stick to the highlights. One of his earliest ideas was reform of gas company finances whereby, on his advice, the Board of Trade made it mandatory for gas company profit distribution to be fixed to a sliding scale whereby gas prices had to go down before profits could go up. That more or less ensured that George was hated by every other gas company board in the country. This was not helped when he turned up to other gas company shareholders’ meetings to deliver long speeches outlining their management failings. He continued with his ideas for reform – nothing went untouched. Technologies were revolutionised, gas holders got bigger and bigger, and the approach to domestic customers was changed.
In the mid 19th century Government was keen to move the many small stinky gas works out of the built up area and to consolidate these small companies into large ones which would build huge efficient out of town gas works. South Met was one of the smallest of the London gas companies and it was assumed that they would soon be swallowed up by one of the big companies. Really? In a remarkably short time South Met had taken over most companies in South London (some, like South Suburban and Croydon, remained independent but firmly in George’s control). He was then poised to take over the giant north London companies but at that point even the Board of Trade was alarmed and intervened to prevent it.
East Greenwich was of course South Met’s big efficient works on a greenfield site. Built to show the world what a gas works could be and to have bigger gasholders than hated Beckton Works – down river and on the north bank. More on that in a future article.
In the late 1880s George took on workplace reform with big ideas and a hatred of trade unions. The result was the ‘1889 gas workers strike’. I’m happy to write a lot sometime about the complications of what was technically not a strike. However, it ensured that George is best known as a strike breaker and he has become a major villain of Labour history. In the past I have seen Agitprop plays where he is depicted as a classic top hatted capitalist boss. To be honest I think he was a lot more complicated than that and that he never forgot his South London childhood.
Workers at South Met dared not join a union but there was a work place profit sharing scheme – again tied to efficiency – and with home ownership incentives included. There was a structure of workplace consultation and – most remarkably – by 1900 a third of South Met’s Board was directly elected by members of the workforce who were called the ‘co-partners’. The company offered a whole life’s support for workers. Maternity and medical schemes were supplemented by top class sports and recreation facilities, holiday homes, pensions and a burial fund. Even in the 1970s at the last gasp of nationalised gas manufacture, locally, workers in the old ex-South Met works felt themselves rather superior to those who worked for lesser companies and lesser gas works.
In due course George was knighted – but for his work as a leading temperance reformer rather than his gas works revolution (you see, there was the, um …reputation for strike breaking). He died in 1908 – and the whole South Met workforce walked behind his coffin to Nunhead Cemetery where his grave is almost the first thing you see from the entrance.
One of his legacies was to fund a Professorship at Leeds University, while other money went to the ‘co-partners’. His statue stood in the Old Kent Road gas works but a few years ago it was craned across the road to the library which he donated to the local council – as long as it had lots of gas books in it. Of interest is that when Southwark Council tried to sell the library building off a few years ago they discovered that George had had the foresight, a hundred years earlier, to make it very very very difficult for them to do that. Today it still carries his name.
And then there is the ghost in the Dome . In the later 1990s, as the Dome was planned, a party of journalists were taken round the site. One of them asked if there were any ghosts and Kaye Murch, who was showing them round, said ‘oh yes, Mary Mills knows all about that’ . So – the next morning I opened the Guardian to find this quoted . Thanks Kaye!
In the next couple of days I was doing TV shows from the old Livesey Library with George’s portrait on show and questions as to which bit of the site he was haunting. It was lot of fun actually and once the Dome was built I had several happy mornings with the Dome press officer (an old friend) talking to Psychic News and the like. This included a river trip with the John Dunn show, and much else. We decided that as George had enjoyed seaside holidays at Eastbourne, he most likely haunted the seaside zone in the Dome.
I have a bit of a feeling though that George wouldn’t have been impressed. I don’t think he would have wanted anything to do with ghosts and that haunting wasn’t really his thing. However I have been trying to say for a long time and, really do think, that he was a very remarkable south Londoner – even though we have to take a deep, deep breath to forgive the strike breaking! When I started to research the gas industry I used to go to the SEGAS office in Croydon to see the company minute books. They were full of boring details on coal supplies and the like but when George was present it all somehow changed. Even in those dull old minutes what came through was how he made it exciting.