Papers and correspondence of Sir (William) Kenneth Hutchison, 1903-1989

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The largest group of papers relate to the writing of Hutchison's autobiography, High Speed Gas. There are drafts of his autobiographical writings and some correspondence regarding the book's publication but the bulk of the material is made up of Hutchison's working papers, which include typescript drafts, original source material, correspondence with friends, family and former colleagues and copies of some of his articles, lectures and speeches. The original source material includes Hutchison family letters from the early 1900s and a little correspondence relating to Hutchison's war work. There is also photographic material relating to the autobiography. There are chronological series of speeches and lectures, 1948-1971 and published articles, 1960-1985. The material relating to Hutchison's articles includes newspaper cuttings of his articles for the Financial Times on gas industry developments, written as Deputy Chairman of the Gas Council. There is also correspondence and papers relating to a Royal Society biographical memoir of F.J. Dent and a paper on the history of the gas industry for Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, both written during his retirement. There is a very little visits and conferences material between 1961 and 1972.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Kenneth Hutchison was born on 30 October 1903 in Assam, India, where his father managed a tea garden. After the death of his mother in 1906 he was brought up in Scotland where he attended the Edinburgh Academy as a day boy. In 1922 he obtained a scholarship in natural sciences at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and after his third year examinations, Hutchison spent his research year as C.N. Hinshelwood's personal research assistant investigating the decomposition of acetone. Several publications resulted from this research, and he graduated with First Class Honours in Chemistry, but Hutchison decided against an academic career and turned instead to industry.

In September 1926 he joined the Gas Light and Coke Company as a research chemist, working to improve the performance of existing gasworks plant. After several years Hutchison moved to the company's Fulham Laboratory as a Senior Chemist. During the mid-1930s he took a leading role in the design and construction of a new benzole plant at Kensal Green. The plant began operating in 1937 with immediate success, and Hutchison's work on it was recognised in 1942 with the award of the Moulton Medal of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Hutchison was seconded to the Air Ministry's Directorate of Hydrogen Production in January 1941 as an Assistant Director and in June 1942 succeeded Viscount Ridley as Director. The Directorate's main task was to organise the manufacture and supply of hydrogen to support the balloon barrages flying over the major cities and other significant targets in the United Kingdom. In January 1944 Hutchison took on wider responsibilities with appointment as Director of Compressed Gases and saw to it that there was an effective supply system to meet the demands of British and American aircraft for high flying oxygen.

In August 1945 Hutchison returned to work for the Gas Light and Coke Company. He was appointed Controller of By-products in December 1945 and in late 1946 became a Managing Director of the Company and a member of its Court of Directors. Following the nationalisation of the industry Hutchison was appointed Chairman of the South Eastern Gas Board, one of twelve Area Boards established by the 1948 Gas Act. Hutchison was also made a founder member of the newly constituted Gas Council (Deputy Chairman 1960-1966). During the 1950s and 1960s Hutchison played a crucial role in transforming the fortunes of the gas industry. This was partly done by embracing oil rather than coal as the industry's raw material in order to make production cheaper and less capital intensive. As well as encouraging technological developments, such as the shipment of liquid natural gas to the United Kingdom, Hutchison also took important steps to increase gas sales by promoting the idea of whole-house heating. He took on the task of improving the gas industry's public image with a highly successful national advertising campaign which promoted 'High Speed Gas'. He was also a driving force behind the Council's active involvement in seismic surveys in the North Sea, which led to the discovery of significant natural gas reserves.

At the end of 1966 Hutchison retired from the gas industry, although he did work as a consultant to the oil company, Amoco from 1967 to 1975. A large part of Hutchison's retirement was taken up with the writing of his autobiography, which was published in 1987 as High Speed Gas. He died on 28 November 1989. Hutchison was elected FRS in 1966 and FEng in 1976. He was knighted in 1962.


By section as follows: Autobiographical, Lectures, speeches and articles, Visits and conferences. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Readers intending to use the Archives Centre must write in advance to the Keeper of the Archives giving details of their research subject and listing the collections they will wish to consult. New readers should also provide a letter of introduction and some form of identification (such as a passport or driving licence).

Other Finding Aids

Printed catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Sir (William) Kenneth Hutchison, NCUACS catalogue no.80/1/99, 49 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

Received for cataloging in August 1997 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Mr D.R. Martin to whom they were bequeathed by Hutchison. Deposited in Churchill Archives Centre in 1999.