Inside National Grid’s Memory Factory

Three surprise artefacts from the Archive

A nondescript building like any other on the outskirts of a north east industrial town is the unlikely home to some of the most amazing artefacts from the British gas industry.

Inside, four climate-controlled warehouses are home to 80,000 boxes of documents and records old and new, which form a fascinating portfolio of the last 204 years of gas being transmitted into our homes.

The National Gas Archive provides a social history, not just of the nation, but also of the gas industry, the people who established it and those keeping it alive and well today.

The place is run by a team of volunteers, most of them in their 70s, with an exhaustive knowledge of the world of gas. They love the comparison with the team of detectives from hit TV series New Tricks.

Volunteers at National Gas Archive
(from l to r) Diane Smith, Peter Wilkinson, Tony Coles and John Wilson are Kerry Moores’ (front) wise team

As we talk, former gas worker Malcolm Collinson is clutching several boxes of dust-covered manuals and books from his days as an instructor when he arrives in the foyer.

“My wife told me to get rid of them, and when I worked in the gas industry (Technical Services) they told me to chuck them in the skip. I couldn’t then and still can’t now,” he said.

Malcolm, once part of the Investigations team based in Stretford, Manchester, is invited into the high-security area to meet the archive’s volunteers.

There are looks over their specs from the team, until suddenly, the penny drops. Malcolm used to work in the same depot as two of the curators, Peter Wilkinson and Diane Smith, and they haven’t seen each other for 40 years. Cue a trip down memory lane.

Volunteers at National Gas Archive

“The gas industry is a small world and it’s like an extended family. Places like this keep that family together and make sure there will always be a record of the milestones through the ages, so I’m glad I came,” said Malcolm.

Some of the files – containing legal, personnel and financial documents – will be shredded once their lifespan is over, but anything with historical interest is kept forever.

The adjoining traditional library is where the team of dedicated volunteers curate and translate books, manuals, photographs, video and audio, while also gratefully collating artefacts from the halcyon days of gas.

Here are three of the best bits from the museum

Gas Budgie Box
The Haldyan Cage or ‘Budgie Box’ was designed to test for remnants of gas in gas holders at around the turn of the last century. If the budgie fell off its perch, it was given a blast of oxygen from the canister above and revived.
gas iron
The Fairy Prince gas iron dates back to the early 1900s. Heavy but extremely efficient, the enamelled iron revolutionised home laundry. A connector created a flame beneath the body of the iron, which heated the flatplate.
Gas pressure reader
The precursor of the modern-day central heating computer, the Newbridge Clockwork Timer was introduced in 1937 to switch the gas on and off four times during the day, by activating a lever, which opened or closed the valve.

John Wilson, Lead Volunteer and the grandad of the group at a youthful 79, said: “The archive is critical because it provides a social history, not just of the nation, but also of the gas industry, the people who established it and those who are still keeping it alive and well today.”

As well as sifting through donations, the archive handles around 30 enquiries a month and works closely with other museums, broadcasters and gas organisations to ensure everything of historical value is preserved.

Manager Kerry added: “I think the volunteers quite like the New Tricks comparison. After all, they were all slightly older and wiser people, who always cracked the case.”