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Ernest Gill News

Extract of a Letter written to the Halifax Evening Courier, by Mr E Hanson, and printed 28 November, 1979

On reading ‘Looking Back’ (Evening Courier November 24), the paragraph about young men bundling up firewood and selling it to housewives, brought back vivid memories of this trade.

"When I was in my early teens, just before the 1914 war, a young lad of about 12 did just that in Northowram. He rented an old cottage in Tetley Lane (the cottage is still standing) and set up business chopping and bundling firewood, and making firelighters."

"He had a donkey and a small flat cart with which he would go to the local chemical works and buy old ammunition boxes and boxes which contained picric – used in the manufacture of explosives during the war. People who worked at the chemical factory had yellow skins, caused by coming in contact with the fumes given off by this chemical and from handling the boxes."

"On the top floor of the cottage was a long wooden bench, stretching the full length of the room on which there were two firewood presses and two firelighter presses – homemade of course!"

"For the firelighters, two sticks were placed at the bottom of the press then a handful of wood shavings put at each end. Two more sticks were placed on top and a piece of steel webbing over that before being squeezed and wired up. A few boys of my own age used to go to this cottage after school, and make up bundles for 4d per gross."

"At first the wood was sawn by hand, then after sales increased the ‘Boss’, introduced a circular saw, which was powered by two or four boys, depending on the thickness of the wood. The flywheel was an old hay chopping machine wheel with a long handle! Later a gas engine was installed which made the work easier for us."

"In the downstairs room was a set pot, which was a huge cauldron encased in bricks with a fire underneath. This pot was filled to the brim with naphtha, then the fire was lit and the firelighters were dipped in the boiling liquid."

"This operation was performed by the ‘Boss’ as there was no insurance cover for such a dangerous business! When I imagine that pot of boiling and bubbling liquid with the roaring fire underneath, I shudder to think what could have happened if the liquid had boiled over."

The ‘Boss’ described within this article was Ernest Gill. He started his own business manufacturing and distributing firelighter at about 10 years old. This included the renting of property and employing initially three or four boys of his own age. This quantity increased to between 12 to 15 boys involved in the collection, manufacturing, selling and distribution of the product.

A remarkable feat given that he was no more than 12 years old. This innovative work ethic still remains with the company to this day, and is deep routed in the history of the company.