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

Birmingham Grid Control Centre
Visit to the Birmingham Grid Control Centre. Image courtesy of Lord Francis Tombs

Established in 2012, An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK recorded the development and operation of the industry in Britain through the life stories of those involved.

Published date:

Project aims and coverage

The electricity industry is more than just power stations, pylons and plug sockets. Hidden behind all the technology are many thousands of people making it all work. This project put 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 explored lives in the industry, how careers developed, and the ethos of a job in 'keeping the lights on'.

The growth of the UK electricity industry

An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry in the UK includes interviews with people who joined the industry in the 1940s when hundreds of small, local electricity companies around Britain were nationalised. It charts the changes as this patchwork of systems, barely able to meet demand, developed into a huge state run organisation tasked with building an electricity industry fit for a modern Britain.  

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; 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 and insights.

The project's coverage culminates with insights on the privatisation of electricity in the 1990s, perspectives on how working in the electricity industry changed afterwards, and the future direction of the energy sector.

Technological developments

The project records the role played by individual 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 grid 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.

Working in the industry

Other interviews on the project record the huge efforts required, day in day out, to keep the lights on. These include 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 and line workers maintaining and repairing the network across the country, whatever the conditions.  They also show how the whole industry responded to crises, whether from striking miners, The Three-Day Week, technical problems or terrible weather and uncover the day-to-day workings of an industrial relations machinery that kept the industry mostly free of strikes. 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.

Explore the collection

All open interviews from the project can be listened to on British Library Sounds. A listing of all the interviews can be found by searching the Sound & Moving Image Catalogue with the collection reference number C1495.

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 the project can be found in the scoping study while the final report (PDF, 1.67MB), published in July 2017, summarises the findings of the project.

A number of video interviews produced for the project can be viewed on the National Life Stories Youtube channel:

Advisory Committee

The project benefitted greatly from the input of its Advisory Committee, from 2012 until the project’s end in 2016. The committee comprised Sir John Baker (Chair), Professor Leslie Hannah, Dr Sally Horrocks, the late David Jefferies, Professor Stephen Littlechild, Hodson Thornber and Ludmila Thornber



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