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National Life Stories: Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK

An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK gathers life story recordings of those involved in all aspects of the UK Electricity Supply Industry.

Birmingham Grid Control Centre, including interviewees  Frank Ledger (2nd from the left) and Lord Francis Tombs (4th from the left).Courtesy of Frank Ledger.

Birmingham Grid Control Centre, including interviewees Frank Ledger and Lord Francis Tombs. Courtesy of Frank Ledger.

An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK records the development and operation of the industry in Britain through the life stories of those involved: people who occupied key posts at significant moments in its history, and those who served long careers in different parts of the system helping to build it and keep it running. Historians of the electricity supply industry have considered it mainly on its organisational, political, and technological merits; this project puts the people back into the history of the industry by uncovering the personal stories and efforts that shaped it. By recording the biographies of electricity industry workers the project explores the nature of a life in the industry, how it brought opportunities for advancement, further training and promotion, and the ethos of a career in 'keeping the lights on'.

In the following clip Frank Ledger (C1495/01) recalls the industry ethos of 'keeping the lights on' and a chance meeting with a leader of the National Union of Miners [NUM] in the 1970s, after the miners' strike had caused power cuts, the three-day week and the fall of the Heath Government.

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 In 1948 the electricity industry, hundreds of small, local electricity companies around Britain, was nationalised. An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK includes interviews with people who joined the industry in these early years, as it transitioned from a patchwork of different systems and companies that were barely able to meet demand, into a huge state industry tasked with building up the system after years of wartime neglect and piecemeal development. By 1957 the industry had been reorganised into the structure which would remain until privatisation in the 1990s: the Central Electricity Generating Board [CEGB] running the power stations and the national grid; twelve Area Electricity Boards to sell and distribute electricity to the consumer; and an Electricity Council to oversee the industry; with a slightly different model adopted in Scotland. The project includes contributions from people from across the industry, an historical mosaic of personal experiences.

In the following clip Alan Plumpton (C1495/10) describes selling 'electricity as a way of living' as a commercial engineer in the 1950s, introducing housewives to the novelty of electricity in the home.

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An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry records the role played by individuals – engineers, designers and scientists, in the technological development of the industry. This includes the postwar expansion of the industry, when the novelty of electricity was introduced to many homes and rural areas for the first time, and the build up of the transmission and distribution systems to move electricity around the country. It includes the development of power generation: huge new coal-fired stations built atop mines; the introduction and advancement of nuclear power, in the face of technical problems and public debates; and the turn towards renewable energy and how the industry tackled environmental concerns.

Other interviews on the project record the huge efforts required, day in day out, to keep the lights on: perspectives from those juggling supply and demand in national grid control rooms; daily life on shifts in power stations, dealing with both the routine and the unexpected; the labour relations machinery and negotiations that kept the industry remarkably free of strikes; line workers maintaining and repairing the network across the country, whatever the conditions; and the whole industry's response to crises, whether from striking miners, The Three-Day Week, technical problems or terrible weather. Interviews from planners, senior industry figures and politicians help to put all these issues of development and operation into wider strategic contexts and political perspectives. The project's coverage culminates with insights on the privatisation of the industry in the 1990s, perspectives on how working in the electricity industry changed after privatisation, and the future direction of the energy sector.

A general introduction to the project can be found in Keeping The Lights On, from the NLS Review and Accounts 2012/13.

Detailed background on what the project hopes to achieve can be found in the scoping study.

Interviews from An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry can be accessed via the British Library Sounds website in the Industry: water, steel and energy collection; more interviews will be included as the project progresses.  An up-to-date listing of all the interviews can be found by searching the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue with the collection reference number C1495.

Advisory Committee

  • Sir John Baker
  • Professor Leslie Hannah
  • Dr Sally Horrocks
  • David Jefferies
  • Professor Stephen Littlechild
  • Hodson Thornber
  • Ludmilla Thornber

We are grateful to Hodson and Ludmilla Thornber for their generous support.

 

Accessing the collection

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

 

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)
E oralhistory@bl.uk