Gas mantles and electric lights
Power cuts caused by the high winds that hit the west of England over the past two days prompted my mother to recall a moment from the early years of the Second World War.
A younger sister had climbed over the side of the cot in which she had been placed to sleep and had fallen. Mercifully, the fall was onto an adjacent bed and she was unhurt, but the fall had shaken the house so much that the light from the delicate gas mantles had been extinguished and my grandmother had thought that a bomb had fallen nearby.
Restoring the light to the house had been a simple matter of relighting the mantles, but anyone who lived in our community would have been glad when electric lights were fitted in every house. There was always a sense of fear about gas, a sense that something that brought life could also bring danger – and even death.
In the days before natural gas reached our corner of the West of England, there was town gas, produced at the gas works in our local town of Langport. No-one ever explained why it was more dangerous than the gas from the North Sea. No-one explained why the “natural gas” was so welcomed when it arrived in the district, why the engineers and fitters from the gas board were such welcome figures.
The danger of gas produced in our local town was well-known to anyone who lived in our area.
A mother and son living in a house on the green in a nearby village had died following a gas leak. One of the most fearsome things about the incident had been that the family did not even have a gas supply to their house. The leak had been from a pipe that had passed by in the street outside.
Such matters were not discussed with a boy of six. The curtains of the house into which the gas had leaked seemed to be always drawn. It was impossible to imagine what it might be like on the inside, but the sight of the house became something frightening, particularly as no-one ever discussed what had happened. Death is an alien concept when you are six years old, and that someone should die from something that might be obtained by putting sixpence in a meter seemed incomprehensible.
To a boy, the best option of all was to be in a house which had no gas supply, either from town gas or natural gas, to a house which was near no gas main. When we moved to a village three miles from the nearest gas main, there could only be electric lights, which might go out in a power cut, but which would not endanger us.
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