What happened in the wake of the Royston Great Gas Crisis?

Police sealing off Royston due to the gas surge. 

Police sealing off Royston due to the gas surge. - Credit: Royston Crow

During the early evening of what had been a dull March day, 30 years ago, Royston was rocked by a huge gas surge that caused fires and explosions all over town.

Historian Sylvia P. Beamon's work  'The Royston Gas Incident 1991: The Day Royston was Blown off the Map' was published by the town's history society and documents a day like no other. The sudden threat of disaster could've easily come from plot of a novel or film - and the fact that no-one was seriously injured was deemed miraculous. 

Sylvia P. Beamon's book The Royston Gas Incident. 

Sylvia P. Beamon's book The Royston Gas Incident. - Credit: Sylvia P. Beamon

There were scores of reported incidents across town during the 20-minute surge. These included a boiler explosion as a lady slept in her Sun Hill homes, children rescued after a cooker burst into flames in Layston Park, flames shooting from a living room fire in Stakepiece Road, and a champion African hunting dog rescued by firefighters in The Close. 

The Great Gas Crisis is a slice of our town's history, recent enough to be in living memory - but, of course, time moves on. So what happened in the wake of the crisis?

Following the surge, British Gas set up a base at Meridian School - now King James Academy Royston's senior site - with the help of caretaker Peter Gloster and more than 250 engineers from all over the region worked non-stop to replace meters and check safety in 5,000 homes.

Royston gas crisis 1991

The Royston gas crisis of 1991 was written about by Sylvia P. Beamon in her work - The Day Royston was Nearly Blown Off the Map - Credit: Sylvia. P. Beamon

Many applauded those involved, and the community who banded together to help their fellow Roystonians. 

Retired PC Ralph Edwards said: "Myself and the other PC Edwards were the only two police officers on duty in Royston that day.  We quickly had the job of trying to evacuate as many houses as possible. 
"We did this by telling any one person in each street, asking them to help by passing the word on to others to get out of their houses as quick as possible."

In a letter to the Crow's Postbag, B Charter said: "I would like to say a big thank you to all the gas personnel who worked around the clock to get us back to normal as soon as possible. And thanks to the fire service, police and anyone else connected wit this operation, without them there could possibly have been a major disaster."

Betty Anderson said: "I would like to say a very big thank you to all those kind people for their great help. First to the WRVS ladies who came around with free meals for two days, for the elderly and sick people. Also thanks to Mrs Ron Smith, a neighbour who kindly offered to make tea and cook for us."

great gas crisis

Hettie Sullivan and Florence Parsons with the warden Janet Grimslow and Cllr Tim Doyle and Kings House where the WRVS and North Herts District Council set up a special centre at the height of the crisis. - Credit: Royston Crow Archives/ The Royston Gas Incident 1991 Sylvia P. Beamon

Mr Royston himself - former Labour councillor and Crow editor, the late Les Baker - called for an urgent debate and public inquiry into the blasts three days after it happened, on March 11 - but this was rejected by the Conservative-majority town council. 

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At the time, Mr Baker said: "I'm not being dramatic, but we all realise we escaped virtually unscathed from a situation that could've had more serious and devastating effects on the whole of the community."

Les Baker.

Former councillor and Crow editor Les Baker called for an public inquiry after the gas surge. - Credit: Daniel Wilson

The Royston Town Crier newsletter reported in May 1991 that the gas blasts were to be the subject of a question in the House of Commons by Shadow Energy spokesman Frank Dobson. Mr Dobson was then supplied with a complete dossier, and although Les Baker still pushed for a public inquiry, he was encouraged that "another avenue of approach" had been taken. 

British Gas admitted human error led to the surge of high pressure gas, and said they would pay "remedial costs".

Owen Simons report in the Herts Memories archive said: "The Health and Safety Executive undertook a full investigation which 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.

"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."