World War Two bravery, a commendation from Winston Churchill and a gas industry family connection dating back decades have been revealed after Northern Gas Networks (NGN) announced its intention to safely dismantle the remaining gas holder at Minton Lane, North Shields.
Back in September, the Newcastle Chronicle ran a story about the gas distributor’s plans for the holder, which is being taken down in a £450,000 investment project to modernise the network, carried out by specialist partner G O’Brien & Sons.
As part of the project, NGN are seeking local people’s ‘Gas Holder Memories’, a special campaign to record and commemorate the structures’ connections to local communities.
Chronicle reader Linda Pattison got in touch to share her family’s incredible ties to the holder site, which saw her mother, Lorna Brooks, scale a 60-foot frost-covered gas holder in only a dressing gown and slippers to seal a hole created by incendiary bombing during a German air raid in 1941.
Lorna, then Lorna Duncan, was a 20-year-old student teacher and the youngest of 10 children for whom Gasworks House at Minton Lane, North Shields, had been home between the two World Wars.
Their father, George Duncan, was manager of the gas yard. His daughter’s heroism, plugging a leak with clay to stop escaping gas after the yard foreman had collapsed, took place in the dark during one of the heaviest nights of bombing in the North East.
Initially sent away at the start of the war after George’s concern that the gasworks would be a target for German bombers, his daughters had returned home when their widowed father became ill and there had been no bombing. However, George’s worst fears were realised on April 9, 1941.
Lorna wrote about the incident for the Chronicle in 2001: “I had gone to bed at 11pm when the air raid sirens sounded, followed shortly afterwards by the sound of incendiaries falling. It was like thousands of tin cans crashing down. “Some incendiaries had fallen on the three holders, breaking through the metal tops into the coal gas below. As there was no oxygen there the bombs could not immediately ignite but the holes had to be filled.
“Employees on duty were dealing with those, but suddenly we heard the whistle of explosives falling and flung ourselves on to the ground. We were showered by stones and mud – it was amazing that none of the explosives fell onto the holders but onto land next to them.
“As dawn approached I met Father going back into the works. He said he was on his way to holder number three, where an incendiary had made a hole and gas was hissing out. Three men went with him to fill the hole but did not know the way up. I knew almost every inch of the works, having played there as a child.
“I decided I would have to ascend, and do what I could. Finding the hole was easy, all I had to do was go towards the hiss of the escaping gas, but the wire handle of the bucket of clay was cutting into my hand. Learning by trial and error, building a wall of clay around the hole I managed to seal the gap.”
Mrs Brooks, who died in 2003, received a commendation for bravery from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and accompanied her father, George Duncan, to Buckingham Palace. He was awarded the MBE for his action at the works throughout that night when he was still recovering from pneumonia. The yard foreman, Joseph Callaghan, who had been overcome by gas fumes while dealing with holes in the gas holders, was awarded the George Medal, the first ever awarded to a North Shields citizen.
For around 100 years, gas holders were a vital part of the local gas supply system, responsible for supplying gas to thousands of people across the country. In more recent years, the gas holders have been used to bolster the network’s gas supplies during colder weather, and at peak times in the early evenings. However, advances in technology and the enhanced capability of the modern-day gas network, means gas holders are no longer in use.
Mark Johnson, Major Projects Team Lead at NGN, learned about the family’s connection to Minton Lane recently when he met with Lorna’s brother-in-law George McDonald, the only surviving member of the family to be involved that night.
Afterwards Mark said: “It’s an incredible story and fascinating to hear. The bravery that Lorna and the workers at the yard showed in order to prevent a huge tragedy unfolding is truly moving, even 75 years later”.
“The family has a special connection to the gas yard, and although the gas holder is now being removed, their story will not be forgotten and we’d like to thank them for sharing it with us.”
NGN continues to encourage customers to share their memories of the gas holder at Minton Lane through its ‘Gas Holder Memories’ campaign by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, using #gasholdermemories on Twitter or Facebook, or in writing to: Northern Gas Networks, 1st Floor, 1 Emperor Way, Doxford International Business Park, Sunderland, SR3 3XR.
NGN is aiming to demolish 23 of the region’s gas holders by 2021 as part of its continued investment in modernising the gas network.
A short film has been made to commemorate NGN’s gas holders as they disappear from the region’s skyline. The film is available to watch at: http://www.northerngasnetworks.co.uk/ngn-and-you/environment/cleaner-and-greener/case-studies/
Anyone that smells gas should call the National Gas Emergency Service immediately on 0800 111 999. This line is in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.