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Greville Watson 2008
The Watsons of Rushden Gas Works

Gas Works Manager's House in Shirley Road Alfred Watson with his sisters
Gas Works Manager's House
No.1 Shirley Road
Alfred T Watson with his sisters, c1927
(l-r) Christian, Helen and Grace

So many times my father, Thomas (known as Tom – but always signed Thos), used to remark that he wished he had been wise enough, when in his youth, to ask questions of his grandparents while they were alive.  Questions come to my mind and I am sure they would be the same ones that my father should have asked.  But I have the disadvantage of never having had the opportunity of talking to MY grandparents, never mind his!  And I was never as wise as my father anyway.  It is therefore without the benefit of closely interrogating those concerned that I record the results of my research of how the Watson family came to Rushden in 1897.

Thomas Watson 1852-1924
Thomas Watson 1852-1924
Great-grandfather, also a Thomas Watson (TW1), was born into a staunch Nonconformist family in the Duddington area of Edinburgh in 1852.  His father was a maker of gas meters.  After leaving school, Thomas was apprenticed to an architect and surveyor in Edinburgh.  When he left that profession he joined the firm of Messrs R Laidlaw & Sons, gas engineers, Glasgow.  It must have been during this time in Glasgow that he met Miss Grace Rundle Jago (whose father was an accountant to the Caledonian Railway Company and a well-known and extremely popular Methodist local preacher), and they were married in 1874.  Almost immediately they left for South America where great-grandfather, still only 22 years of age, had secured an appointment in charge of the gas works at Copiapó, Chile, under an English firm of gas engineers who had financed the concern.  Although my grandparents may have sailed round Cape Horn to reach the west coast, I think it is more likely that they would have used the Panama Railroad, which opened in 1855, to cross the isthmus.

During the five years they lived in Chile, Grace gave birth to three children.  The first, James, died in 1876 without seeing his first birthday.  Ann was born in that year, and in 1879 Christian (Cissie) was born.  Many people in Rushden will remember her when, much later, she taught at Newton Road School.

Towards the end of 1879 the Watsons returned to Scotland, but it was only a brief stay before Thomas was appointed gas engineer to the Gibraltar Gas Company.  They were to live in Gibraltar for 17 years and Thomas and Grace had five more children there.  The first was my grandfather, Alfred Thomas, born in 1881, followed by Grace (Gracie) in 1882, Helen (Nellie) 1884, Thomas 1885, and Isabella in 1888.  Unfortunately neither of the last two survived their first twelve months.  At the age of 10, Alfred went to Glasgow to complete his education.  Modelling his career on his father’s, he served an apprenticeship with the Manchester gas engineering firm of Dempster’s.

About that time Thomas must have decided that the family should move back to the UK.  Glowing testimonials in my possession show that he was acquiring references between 1892 and 1895, and so it was that in 1897 great-grandfather was the successful candidate from 99 applicants and appointed to manage the gas works in Rushden.  With the coming of the railway to the town, the new gas works had been built in Shirley Road in 1893 along with sidings to provide easy transportation of coal by rail. 

Alfred Thomas Watson 1881-1938
Alfred Thomas Watson 1881-1938

The town was expanding far more rapidly than anyone could have predicted, and consumption of gas was fast outstripping production capabilities – having nearly trebled from 14,000,000 cubic feet per annum in 1893 to 38,000,000 in 1897.  Looking to the future, the Directors of the Rushden & Higham Ferrers District Gas Company had agreed to double the potential with the installation of 36 additional retorts, and seized the opportunity of engaging Thomas, with his vast experience, as engineer and manager.  The family moved into “Gas Works Villa” in October 1897.

In 1900 Alfred became assistant engineer to the Wellingborough Gas Light Company.  He may have taken lodgings in Wellingborough but I think it quite likely that he commuted to work in view of the close proximity of Rushden railway station.  Without a doubt he regularly attended the Methodist Chapel in Park Road with the other members of the family, and it was there that he met his future wife, Alice Michell, whose family had moved from Cornwall into “Lilleville”, Griffith Street, during 1901.

Towards the end of 1901 the Wesleyan minister Rev T Edwards Thompson, from Newcastle-on-Tyne, visited Rushden with his wife who hailed from Lower Dean.  She had been in poor health for some time, but became worse early in 1902, so much so that the doctor attending Mrs Thompson strongly recommended that she should not return to Tyneside.  It was therefore arranged that Mr Thompson would exchange his Circuit with the Rushden minister, but Mrs Thompson died at the end of March.  In June, the Rushden Argus reported that the Rev T Edwards Thompson, of the Park Road Wesleyan Church, had left Rushden en route for Gibraltar, accompanied by Mr Watson of the Gas Works.  Their stay in the Mediterranean was expected to extend over three weeks, and their return was duly recorded, mentioning that the reverend gentleman had received a hearty welcome, adding that it was cordially hoped that he might realise permanent benefit from the trip.  One year later, in July 1903, Thomas’s eldest daughter Ann married Rev Thompson at Higham Ferrers Wesleyan Church.  Ann’s three sisters were bridesmaids, and her brother Alfred (my grandfather), was Best Man.  It is probable that Alfred was engaged to Alice by this time as she was Ann’s fourth bridesmaid.

Wedding of Alfred and Alice 1905
Wedding of Alfred and Alice 1905

My grandparents’ wedding took place at the Park Road Wesleyan Church in November 1905.  After the reception at “Lilleville”, the couple left by the 2:19pm train for their honeymoon at Bexhill-on-Sea.  On their return they moved into a house in Castle Street, Wellingborough, and it was there that my father (TW2) was born the following November.

Great-grandmother died in 1916 and was buried at Odell, being joined at the end of 1924 by TW1.  Following his father’s death, Alfred was appointed engineer and manager at Rushden, moving to Shirley Road in 1925.  Meanwhile TW2 was pursuing a career with the Great Western Railway in Swindon, but this was unfortunately brought to a premature end due to the economic problems of 1926.  It was perhaps inevitable that his career would then switch to the gas industry, and he worked for several years for a Manchester company overseeing the construction and placement of gas installations.

Thomas Watson 1906-2000
Thomas Watson 1906-2000

In 1936 Thomas was engaged as assistant manager at Rushden, and when his father died in 1938, he became engineer and manager.  Nationalization in 1947 probably sounded the end of gas production at Rushden for, within a comparatively short period of time, gas was piped into Rushden from South Yorkshire where it was being produced in the coal-mining area.  Although continuing to live in Shirley Road, my father was first promoted to Area Manager based at Wellingborough, followed by District Manager working from Kettering.  It was while in that position that he left the gas industry in 1956 and the Watsons left “Gas Works Villa”.  With the advent of North Sea gas this was, in hindsight, perhaps a prudent move.  So ended almost 60 years of town gas production under the three generations of Watsons.

The gasholders (never, NEVER ‘gasometers’) and the retort houses were subsequently demolished and Rushden Works continued to be used for a time as a base for engineers and fitters.  The site has now been completely re-developed for residential use.

Rushden Echo, 15th July 1927, transcribed by Kay Collins

Nurse Honoured—Miss Grace Watson, of Rushden, has been awarded a Foundation Fellowship of the British College of Nurses on the high quality of her certificates. Miss Watson, F.B.C.N., who is a daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Thomas Watson, of Gasworks Villa, Rushden, has been engaged in the nursing profession for some years.

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