Monday, March 03, 2008

George Livesey and the Gasworkers

The Livesey Museum for Children at 682 Old Kent Road was closed down by Southwark Council last week, part of a package of funding cuts (opponents of the closure are seen here picketing a Council meeting at the Town Hall in February). A Friends of the Livesey Museum group has been established and aims to talk to the Council about securing charitable funding to re-open a museum in the building. When a building like the Livesey closes is not just a service that is lost, but a link to history.

The museum building was donated for the use of local people by George Livesey in 1890 and was originally 'Camberwell Public Library, No. 1'. Damaged by bombs in World War Two, it was repaired and continued as a library until 1966. In 1974 it was reopened by Poet Laureate John Betjeman, as an interactive children's museum.

George Livesey was a philanthropist, but we should also acknowledge that much of his wealth was created by working people in South East London. Livesey was the Chairman of of the South Metropolitan Gas Company, with works on the Old Kent Road and in Deptford. It was a major employer in the area, and the workers organised themselves to improve their conditions. On 11 May 1889 a half mile long procession of gas workers, with brass band and silk banners, converged on Deptford Broadway calling for an eight hour day, in place of the then current 12 hour shift system.

Although the eight hour day was achieved, in December 1889 the workers refused to agree to a ‘no strike’ clause. The management brought in strikebreakers including workhouse inmates and prisoners, who lived in corrugated iron huts inside the works. There were frequent clashes between strikers on the one hand and police and 'scabs' on the other. In one incident there was a fight in the Dover Castle pub on Deptford Broadway, where one of the strikers, William Derry, was accused of taking two herrings and a haddock from a strikebreaker’s pocket.

Support in the local area for the strike included a ‘grand dioramic and vocal entertainment’ put on by Deptford Social Democratic Federation and a concert at Trinity Hall, Deptford, featuring the Greenwich gas stokers’ brass band. The strike was called off in February 1890 at a mass meeting at the Hatcham Liberal Club, with the management gaining the upper hand.

The Camberwell Public Library building opened shortly afterwards, and another long-lasting consequence of the strike was the development of Telegraph Hill Park in New Cross. As the programme for its 1895 opening put it, George Livesey, the Chairman of the gas company, had initiated the laying out of the park with ‘a sum of money which he had received as a testimonial to the energy and resources by which he had maintained the supply of gas during the severe strike of gas workers’. In the aftermath of a brutally managed dispute, this was a gesture he presumably hoped would restore his philanthropic reputation. When we walk in the park today, or pass the empty museum building on the Old Kent Road, we might want to spare a thought not just for him but for the nameless local gasworkers whose sweat and toil left this legacy for future generations.

Sources: Mary Mills, The Gasworkers of South London, South London Record No.3, (South London History Workshop, 1988); Arthur Arnold , Opening of Telegraph Hill, Hatcham (London County Council, 1895, reprinted by Telegraph Hill Society, 2001)


Anonymous said...

George Livesey was a lot more than a philanthropist and a strike breaker - he changed the way public utilities were managed in this country, forced the private companies to lower prices and raise standards, and much else beside. He was a leader of London's temperence campaigns. He ran a gas company where the workforce elected a third of the members of the Board, and where the workforce were encouraged to invest in property. We might not agree with a lot of his ideas today but he took practical action to change things. He deserves to be better known.

MOYA said...

Thank you for your message. I look forward to seeing you on Friday ;-)

Anonymous said...

sorry - if the note about Friday is for me - can you explain?? I'm not a Southwark local (but I do know a vast amount about Livesey)

Transpontine said...

No 'anon', Moya was replying to a message I left on her site about a Lewisham Bloggers drink this week, rather than replying to your Livesey comment. Do you have any good Livesey south london info - e.g. where did he live?

Anonymous said...

look I have enough on Livesey for a large book - he was born in Islington in Canonbury (I have the address) - then as a child in Canal Place, and then the family moved to Consort Road. When he was first married he lived in Rye Hill Park, and then Upper Tulse Hill and Denmark Hill (I have all those address but not the next one which was in Redhill). His final home was Shagbrook which is in Buckland - when I went there once I was given a document by someone who had worked for him there

Anonymous said...

ok - some addresses
born Canonbury Terrace (now Alwyn Villas) no number
Canal Grove - no number
Elizabeth Lodge, Consort Road (still there)
3 Rye Hill Park (demolished)
147 Lower Tulse Hill (still there)
Penmaen Lodge Herne Hill (gone I think)
Camden Park, Tunbridge Wells (I've never found it)
Shagbrook - still there divided into flats
are you aware of the Livesey Professorship at the university of leeds?

Transpontine said...

Thanks, some Peckham and other S.London addresses in there. It sounds like you need to write a book about Livesey, or maybe something on Wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

somethink ironic about a Tory/Liberal run council closing down the Livesey museum.

While the trade unions and Community oppose it's closure

oh history.....

M said...

I guess its too late to add another comment - I think I was probably 'anonymous' in 2008. I am down to do a lecture on Livesey, haven't done one for years although he is still my strongest subject from memory. Watch the Greenwich Industrial History site for the date