Today we fill up our cars with petrol from pumps at filling stations, but for the first 25 years of British motoring such things didn’t exist. Instead, you could only buy petrol in two-gallon cans from chemists, hardware shops and hotels, as well as from garages. Then petrol filling stations began to appear. Surviving with its petrol pumps intact, the West End Garage in Turnastone, Herefordshire is one of the earliest of these and is now Grade II-listed.
Countering the Bolshevik threat
The first filling station in England was opened in November 1919 at Aldermaston, Berkshire by the Automobile Association (AA). At the time, the AA was trying to promote the sale of British-made benzole fuel – a by-product of burning coal – as an alternative to imported Russian petrol. Prior to this, benzole from Russia had been widely available, but in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, this trade was viewed in England as tantamount to supporting the Bolsheviks.
At the Aldermaston filling station, with its single hand-operated pump, motorists were served by AA patrolmen in full uniform. The organisation opened another seven filling stations, and very soon the idea of selling British-made fuel took off, with 7,000 pumps in use by 1923.
The oldest filling station in England?
None of the very early filling stations in England survive in anything like their original form, which leaves the West End Garage, in a quiet corner of the Golden Valley near the Welsh border, as probably the oldest that’s still with us. In 1922, it became only the second filling station to be granted a licence to sell petrol in Herefordshire, and it still sells it from pumps located either side of the garden gate of an early 19th-century cottage.
The filling is carried out over the garden wall, and the office is in the front room of the cottage. Enamelled signs, once a common site at garages and filling stations, cover the walls of the cottage and add to the atmosphere.
Many villages once had filling stations like the one at Turnastone, each with one or two pumps outside a cottage or a forge. Now few remain and the importance of this one is recognised through its heritage listing.