Some Kind of Wonderfuel: Publicly Owned Gas and Electricity in Tameside

When NORWEB and North West Gas was king

If you were born some time before 1985, a common feature of our High Streets was the gas and electric showrooms. They were the public face of our gas and electricity boards, nationalised and consolidated upon in 1948 and 1949. At one time they belonged to us, rather than a clutch of investment banks and overseas subsidiaries.

100 years ago, the same people who ran our trams and buses would sometimes have interests in gas, light, and power. Local authorities and joint committees would supply gas and electricity as well as public transport. For a time, there was a number of disparate voltage standards throughout the UK and inefficient power stations.

Then came the National Grid, a child of the Electricity (Supply) Act 1926 and the Weir Report preceding the bill. Part of the same Act was the creation of the Central Electricity Board, later becoming part of the British Electricity Authority, and the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1957. The grid was fully operational by 1933, and set the groundwork for its eventual nationalisation in 1948.

The 1948 nationalisation saw the formation of regional electricity boards. A central authority, the British Electricity Authority would comprise of the 14 boards and a central authority. In 1957, the British Electricity Authority would be separated, with the CEGB taking over distribution, and the Electricity Council. For gas, a similar structure would be imposed with 12 gas boards and the Gas Council.

By 1972, the regional gas boards would become part of the British Gas Corporation. A unified image would follow with British Gas’ vans in three shades of blue and white, replicating the colours of a natural gas flame. This transitional period also would see a change in the type of gas used.

1964 saw the discovery of underground gas deposits underneath the North Sea and Irish Sea. Soon, our gas supply would change forever thanks to natural gas, a cleaner alternative to ‘town gas’. Existing appliances were converted to run on the new standard. Unlike natural gas, ‘town gas’ was manufactured at local gas works, derived from coal.

By 1984, the success of British Telecom’s privatisation saw the Conservative government extend ‘popular capitalism’ to the utilities. In late 1986, it was the turn of the British Gas Corporation. With a memorable advertising campaign (‘If you see Sid, tell him…’), the share issue was a success. In 1991, they tried to replicate this success with the electricity boards.

By the end of the 1990s, Britain’s competitive white goods market saw the gas and electricity showrooms become anachronism. Its privately owned successors shorn the showrooms, or tried their luck in the retail parks. NORWEB went for both, shunning its town centre locations for the retail parks. Scottish Power’s stores – no longer ran by the privatised electricity board – would continue well in to the noughties, before being affected by the global financial downturn. Ultimately, NORWEB’s out of town stores were sold to Kingfisher plc and became Comet stores. They too would leave our High Streets, in 2013.

Today, the borough’s gas and electricity are supplied by a multitude of suppliers. As with the nationalised era, the party which supplies the gas and electricity is separate to the supplier who controls the gas and electric supplies. National Grid supplies Britain’s gas, after British Gas plc split its infrastructure division (as Transco) from its consumer division (later renamed Centrica). Electricity distribution has a similar approach with a separate company providing electricity (i.e. EDF Energy, E-ON) to that of the distributor, based on 27 licence areas. Electricity North West, the successors to NORWEB maintain our substations, and underground cables.

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In Tameside…

Electricity

The present borough’s electrical supply came from three departments: Manchester Corporation Electricity Department, Ashton-under-Lyne Borough Corporation, and the Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield Transport and Electricity Board. The mighty SHMD of the centre loading Atkinson double decker fame.

SHMD was formed in 1901 as a joint committee with Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield Borough Councils. Their first power station was on Park Road, Stalybridge, and it also housed the tram depot. It is used by Beck and Politzer and remains an imposing building. As demand for domestic power increased, they moved the power station to Heyrod. Opening in 1926, Hartshead Power Station had improved access with the Micklehurst Loop line and the Standedge line. Millbrook Sidings would see coal transferred to the power station via an overhead conveyor belt. It would join the National Grid and remain in use till 1979.

SHMD’s Head Office was situated on Thorn House, opposite Stalybridge bus station. It is now apartments. The people of Droylsden, Denton and Audenshaw got their electricity from Manchester Corporation, whereas Ashton-under-Lyne’s came from its own borough council. The town’s power station was situated on Wellington Road, opening in 1899. Part of it is still in place, with a substation and an electrical contractors using the site. The rest is part of Lord Sheldon Way and the Metrolink line to Manchester city centre.

One of the main power stations for the Manchester Corporation Electricity Department was Stuart Street, Bradford. Opening in 1900, its coal came from the nearby Beswick colliery via an underground tunnel with a conveyor belt. Decommissioned in 1975, it was demolished in 1978. The Manchester Velodrome is on the site, a short tram ride from Ashton to Velo Park.

Power Stations

  • Park Road (SHMD, 1904 – 1926): opposite River Tame, Stalybridge;
  • Hartshead Power Station (SHMD/BEA/CEGB, 1926 – 1979): Spring Bank Lane, off Wakefield Road, Heyrod, Stalybridge;
  • Wellington Road (Ashton-under-Lyne Corporation): Ashton-under-Lyne.
  • Stuart Street Power Station (MCED/BEA/CEGB, 1900 – 1975): Stuart Street, Bradford.

Gas

Prior to the 1948 Gas Act, the borough’s gas came from its municipal boroughs. In 1949, they became part of the North Western Gas Board, one of twelve regional gas boards throughout the United Kingdom.

Dukinfield’s and Stalybridge’s gas came from private companies, the imaginatively titled Dukinfield Gas Company and the Stalybridge Gas Company respectively. In public ownership, Dukinfield Gas Company was taken over by the Denton and Dukinfield Gas Committee in 1877, who had a separate works on Blandford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. Dukinfield’s interests would split in 1884, till they were absorbed by the Hyde Gas Company in 1938. Back in private hands, they became part of the North Cheshire District Gas Company along with Denton’s interest.

Ashton’s gas works was situated on the corner of Gas Street, Oldham Road, Katherine Street and Water Street, on the site of Ashton Swimming Baths. Gasholders were situated on Burlington Street and Hertford Street in the West End. Dukinfield’s gas works was off the Peak Forest Canal. Before the late-1960s, the borough’s gas came from coal and was known as ‘Town Gas’. Owing to its high carbon rate, the cleaner natural gas would take over rendering most of the borough’s gas works as obsolete.

Gas Works

  • Ashton-under-Lyne: Gas Street/Katherine Street: now Ashton Swimming Baths;
  • Denton: Windmill Lane: gas holders still in use – former works demolished and replaced with industrial units;
  • Droylsden: Greenside Lane, just off Fairbottom Canal: demolished and redeveloped – now housing development and open space;
  • Dukinfield: Plantation Farm, off Peak Forest Canal swing bridge: demolished and landscaped;
  • Hyde: Raglan Street: now industrial park, also one-time home of SpeedwellBus;
  • Mossley: Manchester Road, Roaches (near The George Hotel): now industrial units;
  • Stalybridge: Gas Street, near Cheethams Park: now the site of Crowfoots Carriers’ depot.

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Gas and Electricity Showrooms in Tameside

The public face of North West Gas and NORWEB was none other than the gas and electric showroom. At first, they were functional places more akin to a savings bank, where people could settle their account. Till at least the 1970s, a fair number of the populace used coin-operated gas and electricity meters.

By the time the National Grid was fully energised, demand for white goods rose steadily. Therefore, the showrooms became a shop window for the latest appliances, as well as a place to pay one’s bills. This was more pronounced by the late 1950s when buying cookers on the ‘never never’ became fashionable. They would more akin to electrical stores like Currys instead of savings banks. Alternatively, you could also pay your bills at the area office.

In the start of the 20th century, the joys of an all electric house or affordable gas heating became attractive. This became reality when slum clearance and semi-detached houses, with gardens fit for heroes were within easy reach. In the 1930s, electricity was referred to as The Wizard on your Wall by SHMD; the joys of electricity were promoted with illuminated trams on the odd Ashton-under-Lyne Corporation route around Christmas. The mascot for the gas industry was Mr. Therm.

For a time, almost every town had a gas showroom and an electricity showroom. This was true of Tameside, when Dukinfield had both on King Street. Ashton-under-Lyne’s first electricity showrooms was situated in part of Ashton Indoor Market (also ideal for the corporation’s omnibuses). This remained so till 1967 when NORWEB’s Ashton showrooms moved to the then new shopping precinct.

Typically, stock would include a number of well known makes like Hotpoint and Hoover. Some brands would be repackaged for sole distribution within Electricity and Gas showrooms throughout the UK.

Come privatisation, the showrooms continued to trade till 1996, when NORWEB’s retail arm moved to out of town locations. For a brief period, their showrooms either became electricity payment points, or added such facilities in smaller units. They were phased out in 1997. At the time, NORWEB was also the proud owner of North West Water, with the two businesses under the United Utilities banner.

British Gas’ showrooms continued well in to the late 1990s. In their twilight years, their most profitable showrooms were rebranded as ‘Energy Centres’, selling electrical goods as well as gas fires and cookers.

Today, most utility bills are paid by direct debit, or via Post Office counters. On prepaid tariffs, gas or electricity can be topped up at local off-licences. Besides being a focal contact point, showrooms offered customers some peace of mind. The same gas or electricity board which sold your cooker could offer credit terms, extended warranties, and install your appliance in-house. For a time, all publicly owned as well.

Gas Showrooms

  • Ashton-under-Lyne: Staveleigh Way: now Poundworld;
  • Dukinfield: King Street/Astley Street: closed early 1970s – now a Chinese takeaway;
  • Hyde: The Mall: latterly Gamestation – unit still vacant;
  • Stalybridge: Melbourne Street/Dearden Street: closed early 1990s – now William Hill Bookmakers.

Electricity Showrooms

  • Ashton-under-Lyne (A-u-L Corporation/NORWEB): Indoor Market – moved to shopping precinct in 1967: became food hall; most of food stalls and first floor incubator units situated there;
  • Ashton-under-Lyne (NORWEB): Staveleigh Way, opposite Greggs. Closed 1996, became Internaçionale clothing shop. Now vacant following chain’s liquidation;
  • Dukinfield (SHMD/NORWEB): King Street: closed early 1970s, part of a car parts shop which includes part of former banking hall in neighbouring unit;
  • Hyde (NORWEB): The Mall, Clarendon Place, opposite the Jolly Carter public house: closed 1996, vacant till early 2000s when unit became branch of Gabbots Farm Foods;
  • Stalybridge (SHMD/NORWEB): Thorn House, Waterloo Road: original showrooms and head office for SHMD. Possibly closed 1985 when area office moved to Ashton-under-Lyne;
  • Stalybridge (NORWEB): Melbourne Street: possibly opened in the early 1970s, around about similar time as new Trustees’ Savings Bank branch opened. Three-floor unit, closed November 1996, with first floor selling furniture and ground floor becoming Quality Save discount store in 1998.

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Miscellany

i. Area Offices and Head Office

  • Manchester Corporation Electricity Department: Town Hall Extension, St. Peter’s Square, Manchester: now part of the customer service centre and Central Library extension;
  • Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield Transport and Electricity Board: Thorn House, Waterloo Road: now apartments;
  • NORWEB (Peak Area): Wellington Road, Ashton-under-Lyne: opened in 1985. Demolished to make way for present IKEA store;
  • North Western Gas Board headquarters: Welman House, Altrincham: opened 1962 as Head Office for North Western Gas Board, close to the Moss Lane gasworks. Now demolished with housing estate on the site.

ii. Van Liveries

  • North Western Gas Board: all red with white trim on most of the roof and part of the radiator.
  • British Gas Corporation: used three different shades of blue with the darkest blue from bonnet to rear doors and top of the roof. The top half was marked by two lighter shades of blue painted mainly in white. ‘Gas’ was written on the sides of each van in Helvetica Bold typeface.
  • Transco: light blue with dark blue and red flame.
  • BG plc: dark blue with light blue and red flame.
  • NORWEB (1990s): all white with ‘NORWEB’ lettering above wheels and three dark blue lines.

iii. Timeline of gas undertakings in Tameside

  • 1852: Gas and light companies formed (Dukinfield Gas Company);
  • 1877: first public undertakings (Denton and Dukinfield Gas Committee);
  • 1935: consolidation of smaller companies (hence Dukinfield Corporation’s gas undertakings’ absorption by North Cheshire District Gas Company);
  • 1949: nationalisation of borough’s gas companies, falling under the North Western Gas Board;
  • 1972: consolidation of gas boards within British Gas Corporation;
  • 1986: privatisation of British Gas Corporation: plc regulated by OFGAS;
  • 1997: British Gas plc becomes the BG Group: retail arm becomes Centrica, infrastructure arm becomes Transco;
  • 2014: Transco becomes part of National Grid plc: number of gas supply companies to choose from, including dual fuel packages. Both gas and electric concerns answerable to OFGEM, replacing OFGAS and OFFER.

iv. Timeline of electricity undertakings in Tameside

  • 1899: local corporations inaugurate electricity undertakings;
  • 1899: Ashton-under-Lyne’s first power station opens, Wellington Road;
  • 1901: formation of the Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield Transport and Electricity Board;
  • 1904: Park Road Power Station opens, tram operations and electricity services commence;
  • 1926: opening of Hartshead Power Station;
  • 1948: nationalisation of private and municipal electricity undertakings as the North Western Electricity Board, later abbreviated as NORWEB. SHMD would continue to operate bus services till the 31 October 1969;
  • 1990: privatisation of Central Electricity Generating Board into two companies: Powergen and National Power;
  • 1991: privatisation of regional electricity boards;
  • 1995: NORWEB becomes part of United Utilities along with North West Water;
  • 2014: Electricity NorthWest now electricity network contractor for the Tameside area and the rest of North West England. Numerous electricity companies to choose from, answerable to the dual fuel regulator OFGEM.

v. Further Information

  • MoSI: if you’re in Manchester, the Museum of Science and Industry’s Electricity Gallery and Gas Gallery are both worth a visit.
  • The National Gas Archive: open from Monday to Thursday, 10.00am to 3.30pm (appointment only).

S.V., 14 July 2014.

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