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Coin operated domestic gas meter

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Coin operated domestic gas meter

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Coin operated domestic gas meter

Conjuring up images from dingy black-and-white films featuring sunken-eyed bedsit residents scrambling around for an extra shilling, the coin-operated domestic gas meter was actually an eminently practical invention. They enabled large numbers of individual dwellings to control their own gas consumption, getting rid of the need for registration, separate bills and meter readings – which could be problematic when residents were often temporary, and single houses were split into a number of rooms to let. They were an early sort of pay-as-you-go plan, if you will, for utilities rather than mobiles.

Despite the unfortunate whiff of ration books and self-denial that surrounds them, coin-operated meters date from well before the second world war, and lasted right through to the 1980s when prepayment cards were introduced. Are there any coin-operated gas meters still out there? ICONS would like to know.

Photo: Gas Museum, Leicester


Your comments

British films feature them in low-rent suburbs. Do they still exist?

E Barco

I have 3 coin meters - have they any value?

Years before I was born, my grandfather's and great-grandfather's families manufactured and installed Foxall Gas Meters. In the 1930s, we lived in Aston, Birmingham. Our home was a terraced house with small rooms, two up and two down, plus a scullery. Inside was quite dingy and draughty and lit by gas at night. It was there that I grew up in the glow of the gas mantle. The mantle was a delicate, fabric cap that caused the gas to burn brightly at the end of the pipe. Long before television, my Dad used to entertain us with shadow pictures on the walls. He used his hands to create animal-shaped shadows cast by the hissing gas lamp and made up stories to bring the pictures to life. The gas-mantle was very fragile. If it failed or broke and there was not a spare in the house, we spent that evening in the dark or, if we could afford it, in candlelight. Darkness was also the price to be paid if there was no small change in the house to feed the gas meter when the light went out. The mood was worse if dinner was being cooked at the time. Next to the coin-operated meter, there was an old jam jar into which my parents used to toss coins for use in case of an emergency. Whenever something went wrong with the gaslight in the house, my mother complained that it was all due to our not having a Foxall meter. I have always loved the smell of coal-gas, despite its hazardous quality. It still evokes memories of my grandfather and of my mother cooking rabbit pie and stacks of delicious pancakes sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice. The heavy coal-gas odour also reminds me that life was not always happy and pleasant for everyone. We occasionally heard of people ending their lives by putting their head in the gas oven. I wondered, with childish simplicity, just how much money would have to be inserted in the meter to do something like that? I remember the demise of the gaslight era, and I recall that it ended the need for a very low-tech device found near the hearth in most homes, the folded paper spill box. Instead of matches, we used paper spills to transfer flame from the fire to the gas mantle or the stove. We used to cut newspapers into squares and fold them neatly into tapers about half an inch wide. Making new spill boxes was a common school ritual at Christmas. For some years after electricity was installed, a full spill box remained on our hearth, like a tribute to a departed family member. Apart from the coin-operated meter being the device that brought light and heat to thousands of domestic consumers, and apart from all the advances in technology that followed, the gas meter holds much more than a few shillings' worth of small change. That old, metal box contains real treasure, colourful memories and strong emotions that shed a special light on the way life was lived nearly eighty years ago.
Geoffrey Hodder

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My favourite Icon of England has to be the Cornish Pasty.

Ian Baldry