It’s hard to imagine what living through a world war was like. Leaving behind relatively safe and comfortable civic routines, for the horrors of the front line or fear of attack on the home front. A few years ago, I got an insight into what this must’ve felt like when I came across personal stories of colleagues who lived, fought and died during the two world wars while researching the 1812 Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC), which is the company Centrica descended from. It was a memorable experience that reminded me of the sacrifice so many people made so that we can have the lives we lead today. And as we approach Remembrance Day, I wanted to share a few reflections from the archives.
Colleagues played a vital role in securing supplies that supported victory. War not only stimulated a rising demand for energy to fuel essential manufacturing and munition factories, but the by-products of gas had become almost as important as gas itself. By-products for example could be used for a plethora of purposes – from paint for planes and fertilizers for farming, to medicines for the sick and wounded. Maintaining a strong supply of gas, however, wasn’t easy. Brave colleagues came under fire from the enemy as they targeted energy facilities and collier ships to disrupt production and gain the advantage.
Energy provided comfort in a time when lives were turned upside down. Energy was and is at the heart of our lives so keeping homes, businesses and communities connected, was key to maintaining a semblance of normality. Maintaining connection was primarily the responsibility of fast-response repair gangs, who fought flames and fire to repair thousands of miles of pipes and often under battle from the sky.
Relationships between colleagues provided comfort when people needed it most. Colleagues often served in the same regiment and enjoyed reminiscing about the company as a welcome distraction from the front line and a reminder of their old lives. Meanwhile, letters and care packages were frequently exchanged between colleagues home and away, with both sides making light of their plight and expressing care for one another.
Loss of life was felt deeply, and the GLCC created touching tributes in the company magazine and resolved that as far as possible, they would provide financial assistance for anyone injured or families left behind.
Lastly, war unleashed an unprecedented rate of change which laid the foundations for a 21st century energy services and solutions company. While the energy sector was already a leading employer of women in 1914, a growing number entered the industry to plug the gap when men went to war. Housewives and secretaries became lamp lighters and stokers and in doing so, the GLCC said that women had “obliterated all manner of ancient prejudices…setting up new standards of value” which paved the way for women to play an increasingly important role in the sector.
The industry underwent rapid transformation to feed war’s appetite for energy, driven by efficiency, collaboration and innovation. The industry was comprised of hundreds of suppliers operating independently across the country and over the course of war, suppliers became less fragmented and worked in closer collaboration with government for the greater good. Operations also became more efficient, with new innovations and mechanical power increasingly introduced.
I’m proud to be part of a company that's played such a pivotal role in Britain’s history and this Remembrance Day, I’ll be remembering the 950 colleagues at the GLCC who made the ultimate sacrifice.