Sir Denis Rooke: Engineer and chairman of British Gas who battled Nigel Lawson over the privatisation of the industry

The Queen bestows the Order of Merit only on a few who have achieved exceptional distinction. Denis Rooke, OM, Fellow of the Royal Society, pioneer of liquid petroleum gas, and chairman of British Gas plc and under its previous nomenclatures from 1976 to 1989, richly deserved the honour.

He was also held in the highest regard by discerning politicians in a position to know – by James Callaghan, Prime Minister during Rooke's first years as British Gas chairman, Tony Benn, then Secretary of State for Energy, John Smith, with whom as minister of state Rooke had day-to-day working relations; and equally on the Conservative side, the Energy Secretary Peter Walker, and William Waldegrave, Science minister in the early 1980s, who said that Rooke "was of that great period when engineering and scientific knowledge was still allied to the highest managerial abilities".

However, Rooke's relations with Nigel Lawson, Secretary of State for Energy between 1981 and 1983, were, as he told me (using one of his favourite words), "cryogenic". This was because Lawson was trying to break up Rooke's beloved gas industry and privatise it as several separate companies.

The high opinion of key ministers was shared by those of us who were regular attendees at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee to which Rooke regularly came. His contributions to our discussions after the guest speakers had spoken, and at the formal discussion sessions at the dinners which followed in Dining Room A of the House of Commons, were a powerful combination of modesty and blunt forthrightness. He was the arch enemy of any sign of cant among politicians, scratching for easy options.

As Secretary of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, often sitting next to him, I asked the direct question: "Denis, why did you decline the offer which I know from John Smith was made to you by James Callaghan, and subsequently on at least one occasion by the Conservative government, to go to the House of Lords?" His reply encapsulated his character: "I have many friends in the Lords, whom I respect greatly, and frankly their Select Committees on energy and science matters do a better job than yours in the House of Commons. But throughout my life, I have taken the view that either I do a job properly or not at all. To 'do the Lords properly' I believe that one has to be a regular attendee, week in and week out. My other interests simply do not permit anything approaching acceptable attendance." He was the clearest of thinkers, not least about his own position.

Rooke's great technical achievement and lasting legacy was to build Britain's gas distribution network and unite the hitherto somewhat diverse gas industry, which had its roots in Morrisonian municipalisation making domestic gas a cheap and convenient fuel source for millions of people. As deputy chairman, Rooke oversaw the restructuring that turned the 12 area boards of 1948 into regions of the newly created British Gas Corporation in 1973. And indeed the British Gas Corporation did provide excellent service. Overwhelmingly, his employees were enthusiastically loyal to Rooke and regarded him as the defender of their gas company against any silliness from political meddling.

After a great deal of argument and much hectoring from Margaret Thatcher, Rooke struck a deal with Peter Walker, Lawson's successor as Secretary of State for Energy, whom he greatly respected. Instead of breaking up the industry into separate enterprises, the gas transmission, distribution and retailing business was turned, by Act of Parliament in 1986, from a publicly owned single monopoly into a single private sector monopoly, British Gas plc. Without Rooke this beneficial outcome would certainly not have happened. Seldom has one man had such a decisive influence on major public decision-making by the force of his character. His physical presence – large, craggy, with a lantern jaw – no doubt helped.

Denis Rooke was born in 1924, at New Cross, south-east London, the son of a printer who was also from time to time a commercial traveller for print machinery; Rooke always said that he understood the importance of manual dexterity for an engineer from the example of his father. After attending Westminster City School and Addey and Stanhope School, in New Cross, he went to University College London where he graduated in 1944 in mechanical and chemical engineering.

His first-class degree smoothed the way to a commission and rapid promotion to the rank of major in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was sent to India at a time when there was a real threat from the Japanese army towards the end of the Second World War. Later, he reflected that this was a seminal experience and brought home to him a determination that the problems of world poverty would only be solved by technological skill and advances.

On demobilisation he joined the staff of the South Eastern Gas Board as an assistant mechanical engineer specialising in coal-tar by-products. He became a deputy manager of works in 1954 and was seconded to the North Thames Gas Board in 1957.

He told me that it was a stroke of luck that had brought him, a working-class, self-made boy, to the attention of the chiefs of the gas industry. There was a very dangerous cargo in the London docks which, had it not been dealt with correctly, could have created an explosion, wreaking havoc. Rooke was the young manager who led the team on to the ship and made the right decisions to quell the chances of catastrophe. Contemporaries in the industry long since dead told me that Rooke had been extremely brave as well as technically superb.

The industry chiefs realised what they owed him and smoothed the way for him to take charge of the work in Britain and America on liquefied natural gas and of a technical team which sailed in the tanker Methane Pioneer on the first voyage bringing liquefied natural gas across the Atlantic to Britain in 1959. He became chief development engineer of the Gas Council in 1960 and member for production and supplies 1966-71. After four years as deputy chairman he was to spend the next 13 years as chairman of the Gas Council, which became the British Gas Corporation in 1973 and from 1986, British Gas plc.

Tony Benn told me that Harold Wilson had wanted to make Rooke chairman of the British National Oil Corporation in 1974. "As Secretary of State I put this offer to Rooke but he was not keen on it, and so Sir Frank Kearton was appointed instead." Later, when I talked about this offer to Rooke, he told me that his instinct was that there would be too much ministerial meddling and interference for his taste and that he wouldn't touch it with the proverbial barge pole.

Rooke had many tangential interests. From 1978 to 1983 he was chairman of the Council for National Academic Awards; from 1972 to 1977 he was a member of the Government's advisory council on research and development and agreed to serve on the board of the British National Oil Corporation, 1976-82. He was an important member of Neddy (the National Economic Development Council) from 1976 to 1980 and president of the Fellowship of Engineering 1986-91.

A very particular interest was as a trustee of the National Museums of Science and Industry, of which he became chairman in 1995. A fellow trustee, Sir Michael Quinlan, former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and a connoisseur of quality chairmanship, told me that Rooke was a "hugely effective" chairman of trustees. Quinlan added that not only did he concern himself with the world-famous Science Museum in Kensington but that he took a special interest in developing the Railway Museum in York and the National Museum of Photography in Bradford. Rooke himself showed us superb pictures of wild flowers that he had taken as an amateur photographer.

From 1989 to 2003 Rooke was Chancellor of Loughborough University. Sir David Wallace FRS, Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough 1994 to 2005 (and now Master of Churchill College, Cambridge) told me that Rooke was "absolutely engaged with the university. In 12 years he only missed graduation on two occasions, when he was called to receive the Order of Merit and when he went to Cambridge University to collect an honorary degree. He shook the hand of every single graduate, all 3,000 of them. He participated in Court beyond anything one might reasonably expect of a chancellor of a university."

Tam Dalyell

Denis Eric Rooke, engineer and industrialist: born London 2 April 1924; assistant mechanical engineer, South Eastern Gas Board 1949-54, deputy manager of works 1954-59 (seconded to North Thames Gas Board 1957-59), development engineer 1959-60; development engineer, Gas Council (British Gas Corporation from 1973, British Gas plc from 1986) 1960-66, member for production and supplies 1966-71, deputy chairman 1972-76, chairman 1976-89; CBE 1970; Kt 1977; FRS 1978; Chancellor, Loughborough University 1989-2003; OM 1997; married 1949 Elizabeth Evans (one daughter); died London 2 September 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Why the cost of parenting has become so expensive

Today's pre-school child costs £35,000, according to Aviva. And that's but the tip of an iceberg, says DJ Taylor
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US