A personal account by Dr. Mary Mills
Over recent weeks there has been press coverage of the Ghost in the Dome. George Livesey is a subject well known to me – I studied him for an undergraduate project and then an MPhil. I have also written several articles and I thought the Forum might like to know more about him.
There had to be a silly season story about the Dome site. If there has to be a ghost, why not that of manipulative, irrepressible George Livesey? Anyone who reads through the
otherwise dry-as-dust records of the Victorian gas industry will find that George enlivened things very considerably – I think he really enjoyed upsetting proceedings. A haunting of his old gas works is well in line with his normal behavior in life – and in any case there is no way he could have kept his nose out of the Dome. He would have just loved it! Until now, I didn’t think I believed in ghosts. George is making me change my mind. He always challenged convention, so why not now, ninety years after his death?
George Livesey – Chairman of the South Metropolitan Gas Company
I am sorry if the following account of his life is somewhat personalized. I have been working on George a long time now. I first came across him when I was set the 1889 gas workers strike as an undergraduate project. I read my way through the South Met Gas Company Minute Books to look for Will Thorne et al but it soon became clear that the most interesting thing about the strike was the Company’s Chairman. Livesey rampaged his way through South Met Board meetings at an astonishing rate. It was very exciting reading!
Most things written about Livesey have been about the great 1889 strike and some academic discussion has discreetly wondered if the whole thing was in fact simply a stitch up by Livesey. Anyone who could provoke thousands of workers to strike against better pay and conditions has to be a bit different. What none of the academics has noticed is that at the same time as his ex-workers fought the police in the streets and/or starved, Livesey was addressing mass rallies of working class people in his other role of a leading member of the Band of Hope.
Over the years I have seen a number of agitrop productions about the 1889 strike In them he is usually portrayed as the conventional top hatted, cigar-smoking capitalist. That, I can guarantee, he was not. His grandfather was a greengrocer in Bethnal Green and his father was manager of the Old Kent Road gas works. He was brought up in a house in Canal Grove, then on the gas works site. He went to work in the offices there at the age fourteen. No one has ever provided evidence that he went to school. His education was in the gas works and with other boys in the Old Kent Road. As a teenager he attended a meeting to set up the London Band of Hope and he became an activist in that. The young men of the Victorian Temperance movement must have had much in common with the Socialist Workers of today Selling papers on street corners, arguing, holding meetings, using every opportunity to get the message over. George stayed with it all his life and perhaps it was in the schismatical and proselytizing temperance movement of south London in which he felt most at home.
George’s father had taken over the fraud ridden, and recently explosive Old Kent Road gas works in 1840 with a mission. He intended it simply to become the most efficient gas works there ever was. He passed this message on to George with the rider that objectives could only be achieved with absolute probity. George’s version of truth was sometimes a bit varied but his reputation was absolute. He was to work for South Met. all his life.
His father died suddenly in 1871 yet the Board hesitated before appointing George in his place. Probably with good reason. He was to take them to a lot of decisions which they would probably rather not have made. He was appointed as both Company Secretary and works engineer and he was to say himself that this was useful since the Board could sack the engineer but could not get rid of the Secretary without a vote among the shareholders. He set about selling shares to those members of his workforce who had been his boyhood chums. The largest shareholder was a fellow spirit.
Within two years of his appointment he had done a deal with the Board of Trade, without his Board’s consent. This was to recommend a scheme which was to change the financial rules by which all gas company’s worked out their prices and profits. For a while no other gas company manager would speak to him and his own Board spent a lot of time trying to explain it all away. His message was ‘partnership’ – which meant that gas companies had to be responsible towards their customers (then mainly Local Authorities) and work with them. He put forward the idea of payment by results and said it should start with his own salary. Other events followed – too many to mention here.
It was just ten years between his appointment as manager to his retirement. In that time he propelled South Met from being a small backwater among London gas companies into what was probably the premier gas company in the world. Governments of the day were keen to persuade old small gas companies to become large efficient ones. George took this up with enthusiasm and had to be stopped by the Board of Trade from negotiating himself into control of the whole London gas industry. There were a number of other skirmishes No cause was too obscure. George would, and usually did, take anything up.
He retired in 1881 and his election as Company chair followed shortly after the presentation of the silver teaspoons. His next mission was to build East Greenwich Gas works and to reform the rest of the gas industry and bring it round to his way of thinking. One of the things I like about George is that even as a major industrialist he was never so proud that he stopped going to other company meetings to have a shout up from the back. I admire his talents as a speaker so much. I have read my way through so many potentially boring transcripts of public enquiries, reports of company meetings and so on which were revolutionized by George. He had that crucial ability to walk into a meeting, and say ‘Look, this it how it is’ and to change the agenda, to change how people think. The clarity of his message shines out of the dullest old paperwork today. You can hear his voice together with it’s subtle changes of vocabulary and intonation depending on his audience. He was always at this best, however, with the south London workers with whom he had grown up.
East Greenwich gas works, the site of his haunting, was built in the 1880s. Because it was designed by George, it had to be perfect. The two great gas holders symbolized it all. They were the biggest in the world. They were austere and ‘modern’ in design – shouting ‘progress’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘function’. Hopefully at the same time they would also annoy the management at hated Beckton across the river.
After the 1889 strike episode he was politically suspect and was initially taken up by an unsavory group of ‘liberty and property’ protectors, who he quickly dropped. By the time he died some co-operators had begun to let him speak at their meetings. He was probably much more at home with them. He was eventually knighted as a sign that someone had taken some notice.
He had provoked the 1889 strike by instigating the third wing of ‘partnership’ – to include the workforce into the grand plan by setting up a profit sharing deal. His timing for this – when the Gas Workers’ Union was being set up – is very suspect despite his story of a messianic vision on Telegraph Hill which must be the only park commemorating strike breaking.
Thorough to the last George wanted Board places for his workers and fought for them against his Board and the House of Commons. As course he won, as always. He set out to make South Met the perfect example of partnership between capital and labor, with every possible consultation and/or welfare arrangement. It all went smoothly as long as he got his own way all the time. The scheme was based on share ownership by the workforce and he began to say a number of quite revolutionary things about property ownership.
Recent press coverage has remarked on the thousands of people who followed his coffin to Nunhead cemetery. Why not? He really had done the best he could for South London. Or he meant to – and I am sure people knew he intended to be a good man.
Why did someone so talented stay in South London? Perhaps that is why he has come back – he sees the Dome as being a chance for an appearance on the national and international stage? Perhaps his enthusiasm for everything he ever encountered has spilled over. If anyone had to come back to see what was going on it would have to be George. He just couldn’t stay away. I’m sure the New Millennium Experience Press Office are quite right. George is laughing himself silly up there.
Dr. Mary Mills, Secretary of the Greenwich Industrial History Society (GIHS)
Originally Web’d by David Riddle for the Greenwich Industrial History Society