The Papers of Sir Kenneth ‘High Speed Gas’ Hutchison (1903–1989)
An updated catalogue of the papers of Sir Kenneth Hutchison, one of the figures credited with changing the fortunes of the British gas industry, is now online.
The Churchill Archives Centre holds several collections belonging to people who played a leading role in the British energy sector, such as the papers of chemical engineer Sir Harold Hartley, chairman and president of the World Power Conference from 1935 to 1956; engineer Graeme Haldane, who helped establish the National Grid; and physicist Sir James Cassels, a member of the Heat and Power Group in the Department of Energy during the 1970s.
As a founder member of the Gas Council, Hutchison played a crucial role in reversing the fortunes and fashionability of the gas industry after the Second World War. Sales of gas had been declining as the industry had been locked into carbonization, meaning that the National Coal Board could control the price of its raw material. Hutchison’s scientific expertise and his formidable experience in managing fuel stocks in wartime lay behind the industry’s technological revolution during the 1950s and 60s. His creative management saw the Gas Council break free from the state-run monopoly over its resources and exploit commercial imports of liquefied natural gas, as well as beating off fierce competition from Shell and British Petroleum to secure the Gas Council’s stake in the seismic explorations which led to the discovery of North Sea oil.
Cheaper supplies of natural gas meant cheaper household appliances for consumers, along with the dramatic expansion of the market for whole-house central heating. Under Hutchison, the Gas Council embarked on a national publicity drive. Replacing the beloved wartime flame character ‘Mr. Therm’, ‘High Speed Gas: Heat that Obeys You’ was designed using modern market research techniques – possibly inspired by the insights of the expert Mark Abrams, who spoke to the Gas Council about the importance of housewives in 1957 (see ABMS 6/2/2) – to promote gas to younger and prospective homeowners as a clean, comfortable, and convenient source of energy.
“We have taken two themes where we know gas is superior, speed and flexibility, and are building round them a picture of a far smarter, far more “with it” fuel than anyone ever thought gas could be… You’ve not only got to be good, you’ve got to look good. We think we’ve learnt that lesson.”
— Kenneth Hutchison, ‘Public Image and Private Eye’, speech to the Executive Association of Great Britain, 28 November 1963 (HTSN B.39)
A significant section of the collection relates to Hutchison’s career as a writer and speaker, giving an indication of the range of his commercial and technical contacts in North American industry, as well as the British press. Hutchison, often described as a shy and taciturn character, is also credited with having discovered the young energy technician, Denis Rooke, at one of his industry conferences. Rooke, later known as ‘Mr. Gas Industry’, went on to become the longest-serving chairman of any of Britain’s nationalised utilities. Hutchison’s protégé ended his career as a high-profile opponent of Thatcherite privatization, preventing Nigel Lawson’s attempt to break up the corporation before it was floated in 1986 as a regulated monopoly (fronted by the infamous “Tell Sid” campaign to attract small investors).
Kenneth Hutchison himself retired early, in 1966, at the ‘white hot’ peak of the gas industry’s technological revolution. He devoted the rest of his life to art, gardening, and cooking – and writing his autobiography, also called High Speed Gas (1987), the materials for which form the basis of his collection at the Archives Centre. Alongside Hutchison’s own insights into management and research & development, the collection also contains gas industry publications, commercial advertising, and other ephemera. It will be of interest to researchers working on the history of energy resources, expertise, and the home in twentieth-century Britain.
Catalogue to the Hutchison Papers
— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant.