Please enjoy our latest blog post (part of our new series ‘A Site for Sore Eyes’) – and as a bonus see how many motoring puns you can spot!
What is the first thing that springs to mind when someone mentions the words ‘historic environment’? Castles? Battlefields? What about petrol pumps?
Believe it or not, petrol stations and pumps can be very significant aspects of twentieth century industrial architecture. Although most of us take them for granted, their development is representative of the history of motor transport – there is more than enough about them to fuel anyone’s curiosity.
The first British roadside pump was supposedly installed in 1914/15 at F.A. Legge’s Betton House Garage in Shrewsbury. This was followed in 1919 by the UK’s first petrol station, opened by the AA in Berkshire. A mere four years later there were 7,000 petrol pumps in use.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park is home to some increasingly rare examples of vintage petrol pumps. Four roadside pumps (and a Castrol oil dispenser), now disused, sit near Arkle Town, Langthwaite. They would originally have been fed by an underground storage tank, but this has since been filled in. As a safety measure, all are mounted on stone plinths (as opposed to the modern concrete alternatives).
The pumps were manufactured by Wayne Fuelling Systems, which began life as Wayne Oil Tank Company in 1891. But it wasn’t until 1929 that they came to the fore.
Since the early 1920s, there had been mounting public concern over the visual impact of pumps and service stations on both the natural and urban landscape. In order to combat this, several policies and initiatives were launched. One of these, organised by the Daily Express and the National Gardens Guild, encouraged people to send in photographs of their ‘brightest and most attractive petrol station’. Wayne’s planned and erected both the winner, Coombe Bridge Filling Station on the Kingston Bypass, and three of the finalists. This truly put them on the road to success.
The company continued to market itself as the champion of the aesthetic pump, culminating in their famous 1936 ‘World’s Most Beautiful Pump’ campaign for the service of rural Britain.
Competition between fuel suppliers was as fierce in the early days of the motor industry as it is today. In order to ensure as wide a distribution as possible, companies not only used their own fuel dispensers, but supplied their fuel to others – as was the case here. These petrol pumps are labelled with the ‘National’ logo belonging to the National Benzole Company. This was one of the big fuel companies of the early twentieth century (along with Anglo-American, British Petroleum, Shell-Mex, and Redline-Glico).
National Benzole, founded in 1919, was once a popular brand for British motorists. It was made from domestically sourced coal-shale. It was even seen as the ‘patriotic choice’ – especially in the aftermath of the First World War, when most alternatives were imported from Russia and seen as supporting the Bolsheviks. In fact, National Benzole was so popular that AA service stations took that unusual step of signing an exclusive contract with the company (most service stations at the time supplied a variety of brands).
In 1923, amidst mounting public concern over the visual impact of the petrol industry, rival companies Shell-Mex, B.P. and Pratts were forced to remove their bright, intrusive signs and issue public apologies. The following year, National Benzole’s popularity increased further as it took advantage of a sustained press campaign to advertise the fact that, unlike its rivals, it had never engaged in such anti-social marketing techniques.
Benzole grew in commercial value throughout the twenties, but disruption caused by strikes meant that coal quickly became difficult and unreliable to source. This led to National Benzole creating a ’50-50 mixture’ of Benzole and Petrol (supplied by B.P Ltd.). The mixture became an instant hit.
Over the years, the proportion of Benzole used in the mixture steadily decreased. It was removed completely in the 1960s and the company rebranded itself simply as ‘National’. By this time, the company had been purchased by the now merged Shell-Mex and B.P Ltd.
National continued as a separate trading identity up until the late 1980s, when it became defunct and was phased out.
The Langthwaite petrol pumps are identifiable as Wayne 70 pumps, in production from c.1937-1946. Certain features (explained below) indicate that they are more likely to have come from the earlier end of that period.
The pumps are examples of electric/volumetric pumps, first introduced in 1928 as much improved alternatives to the previously used semi-rotary pump created by Hammond in 1922. Interestingly, Wayne’s was one of two companies which claimed to have installed the first electric petrol pump in the UK. Manufacturing rival Bowser’s made the claim for their installation in Shrewsbury, while Wayne’s argued for their installation in Purley.
Electric pumps were mounted in rectangular cabinets (of varying heights dependent on design) and featured displays to tell the customer how much petrol had been dispensed. The earliest pumps had metered ‘clock face’ dials on the front: the shorter (the ‘hour hand’) indicated whole gallons, while the longer hand (the ‘minute hand’) showed parts of a gallon. Such dials are used on the Langthwaite pumps.
In many cases – especially at rural sites – a hand pump was fitted onto the side of the cabinet. This was included in case the electric pump or the power that supplied it failed. Hand pumps came in various forms. In these examples, the hand pump is mounted opposite the gun holster, with a ’round and round’ crank inserted into it.
In the late 1930s, the gallows arm arrangement became common. This was a long swinging arm which suspended the hose and enabled it to extend the reach of the pump over the car parked at the roadside. This arrangement did not last very long. As roads became more congested, pumps were set back on access roads or forecourts and the long arm became obsolete – though the shorter swinging arm (like the one seen here) continued to be used on many models.
Electric pumps also featured a rotating indicator to reassure the customer that petrol was flowing from the dispenser. Earlier types, like the examples seen left, had the indicator fitted inside a glass cylinder as the top of the hose. By the 1940s, the cylinder was replaced by a small, circular fitting with a rotating disc visible on the cabinet.
Petrol pumps were quickly recognised as an excellent means of advertising by the motor industry. Originally, these pumps would have sported lit glass orbs promoting the brand of fuel being dispensed below. These were introduced by Bowser’s in 1919, and marked the beginning of the importance of branding and marketing in the fuel industry.
The importance of branding also impacted on something else – colour.
Fuel companies often had the pumps painted in their corporate colours. For example, Shell were red and yellow, Redline were red, and National Benzole were gold-yellow. However, in this case the pumps were painted green. This is likely because green was seen as harmonising with the natural landscape and therefore less obtrusive in a countryside setting.
Unfortunately, due to disuse and perceptions of their being unattractive, disused petrol pumps are vulnerable to scrappage. The four roadside pumps in Langthwaite are now rare examples of survival – thanks to the recognition and interest of their current owner.
Hopefully this blog post has allowed you to get your fill of petrol pump facts – and alerted you to the possibility of historic interest in apparently mundane things.
Tank you for reading!
Jeremiah, David, ‘Filling Up: The British Experience 1896-1940’, Journal of Design History, 8, 2 (1995), pp.97-116.
Stratton, Michael and Trinder, Barrie, Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology, (Oxon, 2013).