Grandad's Watton

Watton Parochialism

In the mid 1850's Watton parochialism received reminders of the great big world outside when the coming of the railway opened up new horizons, and the newly formed Watton Gas and Coke Co. built a gas works which could offer for the first time ever a source of light and heat that was an alternative to wood and coal. And this it con­tinued to do so as a manufacturing works well into this century. In the pre-war period the staff was small. In fact it was virtually one man. It was Ted Mason, who shovelled hundreds of tons of coal into the retorts, dragged the white hot coke out, manned the tar pump, checked the gas holder, and dealt with customers who came with old prams and wheelbarrows to buy coke at one shilling and sixpence a bag. All the tasks, managerial and menial, manual and clerical, he performed and if, late in the evening he toddled over to the 'Black Horse' for a pint or two who can blame him.

The establishment of the gas works brought to Watton a new amenity — Street Lights. Not very good street lights, but the traditional shaped lamp on its cast iron post did provide pools of misty light to lead the late night wanderer home. These lights were of course in operation long before the days of time switches and at 'lighting up time' Arthur Mason, son of the manager, would pedal his way round the town carrying a long thin pole with a bent nail in the end and with this, at each lamp post, he reached up and operated that chain type 'on' tap. Some hours later, when all good people should be abed he would again tour the town with his pole and nail, this time extinguishing the lights and, at the end of his lonely ride Arthur could leave behind him a slumbering town and seek the solace of his own pillow. The nightly efforts of Watton's last lamplighter ended in 1932, when mains electricity reached us. There was, I recall some excitement at the prospect of having the old gas lamps replaced by this new electricity, but in actual fact the first lights, 23 in all were suspended on cables high above the street, and the illumination was not too spectacular, but modifications followed. As with gas a century before there was no great rush on the part of householders to connect up to the new wonder fuel and, in order to stimulate demand the electricity company used to offer free installation of three lights and a plug to anyone who was prepared to 'go on the electric'. The real surge of interest came with the availabilty in the shops of a wide range of electric appliances - electric cookers, kettles, irons, wireless which required no batteries, hair curlers, and so many other items which are now regarded as minimum requirements but which were new and novel then.

For at least two of the men engaged in bringing electricity to Watton the operation brought not only work, but romance, for both were fortunate and wise enough to marry Watton girls. Lew Leek who was in charge of all outdoor wiring married Mona Eyre and was the founder of L. Leek (Electrical) Ltd. now under the directorship of their son, Michael, and Bill Martin supervisor of indoor wiring married May Woods, continued his career as an electrical engineer, and now lives in Brandon Road.

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