The Great Gas Crisis

Owen SImons

Gas Surge

On Friday the 8th March 1991, Royston made national news headlines when it was rocked by numerous fires and explosions caused by a gas surge. Human error had led to the network of high pressure gas which carried gas supplies between towns being connected directly to the network supplying Royston houses. This link resulted in a massive surge of high pressure gas entering the system in the town at approximately 5.15pm.

Royston Crow front page the following Friday

Royston Crow front page the following Friday

People reported gas cookers exploding and blazing gas fires causing much damage to kitchens and living rooms. Many people had lucky escapes as they lit appliances, unaware of the ongoing crisis. Within the first hour over 300 emergency calls were taken, and the Fire Service were called to about 60 incidents.

Sparks from engines and naked flames had to be avoided and so all roads into Royston were closed and the town was shut off to all traffic. Those within the town were not allowed to leave in their cars and those who had gone outside the town to work had to park up on outlying roads, including the bypass, and walk the rest of the way.

Map of Royston

HSE Report. Map of Royston with reported incidents

Evacuation

There were only two Police Officers on duty in Royston at the time and just one Police Car. Ralph Edwards, one of the police officers recalled “We could only drive round as quick as possible getting people out of their homes and ask others to help by in turn by telling their neighbours.” All gas appliances had to be switched off and if no response was received forcible entry to peoples houses was made.
I personally remember one of our neighbours banging on our door and telling all the street to turn off the gas and get out of their houses. All the neighbours stood talking together until we were told it was safe to return. I was most annoyed as this had all interrupted my pudding I was having. I was only 7 at the time!

North Herts District Council, the County Emergency Planning Team and the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service were called upon to operate a rest centre and to provide food for any people affected. Tannery Drift School was opened as a rest centre for people to stay overnight. Fortunately nobody had to stay the night as people were either able to return home in safety or made arrangements to stay with friends and relatives. The school assumed the role of an enquiry centre where the public could tell the police of further gas leaks.

The town was inundated with British Gas vehicles and engineers, the Meridian School became a control base for the repair operations and the Little Chef restaurant was used by the engineers for refreshments. Eastern Gas called on over 200 engineers who had to inspect every building which used gas. Every meter in town had to be changed.

Eastern Gas control point at Meridian School, Royston

Eastern Gas control point at Meridian School, Royston

Two hospitals were put on standby but fortunately there were no fatalities. Rumour was that lots of deaths had been expected and the Heath was designated as a “body-receiving place” with hundreds of temporary coffins. Perhaps one saving grace was the mild weather; cold, snow and ice would have made the problem far more complicated, and more people could have suffered.

Investigation

Calls were made for a public inquiry in to the incident but this was not granted. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) undertook a full investigation and published their findings. The HSE’s investigation revealed that the root causes of the incident were: a) errors in describing and identifying the work to be done; b) further errors in the method of installation and commissioning, and deviation from normal declared practice, which led to the original errors not being detected; c) a lack of adequate communication between individuals to allow faults to be detected.

The accident could have had very serious consequences to life and limb, and following its investigation HSE prosecuted British Gas plc for breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It became apparent as the case progressed that HSE would not succeed under the current interpretation of the law in establishing that any shortcomings in the procedures of British Gas, or in the way its employees had carried out their jobs amounted to a criminal offence on the company’s part, and the case was therefore withdrawn.

This page was added on 02/08/2016.

Comments about this page

  • Before we knew what was really happening, my mum noticed the gas boiler has gone out. She walked into the lounge where me and my brother were and said to us that we should try lighting the gas fire to see if it would work…… luckily both my brother and I thought she said ‘don’t light the gas fire’ otherwise it’s quite likely I’d be writing this without a face right now!

    By Kelly teddington (14/09/2018)
  • My mum came home from work during all the no traffic in or out and drove down London Road and straight home without being stopped! I also heard it on the radio and rang home before 6pm to check they were OK. After 6pm the lines were all busy and I wouldn’t have been able to contact them.

    By Sue Munro (05/08/2016)
  • I was 13 ish, loved it when we all had the next week off school as there was a fire in the schools boiler room.
    Lucky no one was killed, a fireman friend of a relative of mine was called in from outside of Royston with his watch and said he’d expected Royston to be a hole in the ground by the time they’d got to the town.

    By Joanna Martin (05/08/2016)
  • That was me front page (pregnant mum)

    By Cathie Chappell (04/08/2016)
  • I was working in Cambridge that night and was sitting on my train home at about 5.30pm when the driver announced that the train wouldn’t be going to Royston due to the gas explosion. I therefore went back to my office which was in the building opposite the train station with another lady who was on the same train and we phoned home to find out what was going on. We were there until about 10.30pm when my brother finally managed to leave Royston to come and pick us both up to bring us back to Royston and home. Remember it very well as we all had to have new gas meters fitted.
    We gave the other lady a lift home as she didn’t have anyone to take her home so did a good deed that night. We were fine in my office as I had keys to the building and we had free tea and coffee and I managed to get some overtime work done!

    By Anne Rodway (04/08/2016)
  • I dropped a friend off up the RIdings and had to go in as there seemed to be someone in her house and she was understandably concerned – it turned out to be a kindly neighbour turning off her gas supply. I came home and warned my other half and tried to contact my parents by phone to no avail. So I drove round there and Mum was trying to cook dinner on the gas stove, wondering why the pressure was so low. Being fairly deaf, they hadn’t heard the warnings. So, having switched off their gas, I tried to drive home only to find they were banning cars from entering Royston and I had to walk…

    For the next couple of weeks we used to play “spot the gasman” when driving round Royston and see who could collect the highest number of “points” (1 for a man, 2 for a escort-sized van, 3 for a transit etc).

    Very lucky that nobody was injured and we all got free boiler inspections and fixes!

    By Jenni Goldsmith (04/08/2016)
  • We had a street party, as a neighbour had just been to France. Plus they were the only ones in the street who had a electric oven. I do remember not having any gas for weeks luckily we had a microwave and having time off school as the gas board was using it as there base. Having the fire engine camped out at the bottom of the street. As we had a electricity sub station in the street they were a bit concerned.

    By Lorraine Ash (04/08/2016)

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