Coal fuelled Britain’s industrial revolution from the late-18th century. It also fired the so-called second industrial revolution when new technologies like electricity and electrical communications propelled us into the 20th century.
The mining of coal helped electrical power grow in sophistication, as burning coal in huge qualities created steam to turn the turbines and generate electricity. This culminated in power stations which have had a profound impact on the British landscape.
Many of these ‘temples to the carbon age’ have long gone. Yet a number, now listed, survive in unexpected places.
Electrifying the Northeast: Philadelphia Power Station, Tyne & Wear
When the Mines Inspectorate approved the use of alternating current underground in 1904, electric power was quickly taken up in British collieries. The Philadelphia Power Station was one of the first built in 1906 (now listed at Grade II). Fed by the nearby Dorothea Pit, it provided power to both the local mines and the local district tramway. Nearby streets named ‘Voltage Terrace’ and ‘Electric Crescent’ celebrated its appearance!
By 1911 it was incorporated into the Newcastle upon Tyne Electric Supply Company’s system (NESCo) and once closed, was reused as a public garage by the National Coal Board.
Picturesque Powerhouse: Newbrough Hall, Northumberland
Some stations, like the powerhouse at Newbrough Hall, were designed to conceal their true identity. When Newbrough Hall was modernised in 1902, introducing electricity into the early-19th Century interior was essential. Architect Francis William Deas (1862–1951) designed a detached powerhouse to resemble a quirky cottage, with gabled dormer, casement windows and a semi-octagonal turret.
The only hint that the building was a working powerhouse was its unusual metal finial (decorative roof feature), inspired by contemporary power-generating apparatus. Now known as Gardener’s Cottage, the dressed-stone building is home to people, not power.
Anglo-American Affair: the Bristol Tramways Power Station
Some of Britain’s largest and most advanced historic power stations benefited from American engineering expertise. One of the earliest ‘central’ (meaning ‘for public use’) stations to employ advanced methods of steel framing was the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company powerhouse, erected 1899–1900 to the designs of American Horace F Parshall.
Behind its dignified brick front by W Curtis Green, a sturdy steel framework provided support for travelling cranes, coal conveyors and upper floor levels. Remarkably this unusually tall structure, with its coal and ash-tower extensions and 200ft steel chimney, was constructed in Pittsburgh, shipped to England, and erected in Bristol. Today it is listed at Grade II*.
An Iconic Temple of Power: Battersea Power Station, London
Battersea Power Station on the Thames South Bank is perhaps the most famous power station in Britain, if not the world. Built in two stages in the 1930s and 1950s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, this monumental structure symbolised the ‘brick cathedral’ approach to power station design popular in the inter-war period.
Decommissioned in 1983, and given Grade II* listed status, this icon of London’s industrial past is currently being rehabilitated in a scheme preserving lots of its key features, including chimneys and cranes. Its brooding four-chimney form figures in many forms of media and culture, most famously on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, which brought Battersea worldwide recognition.
These examples just scratch the surface of this fascinating history, showing how crucial electricity was to urban populations and a diverse range of enterprises. To find out more:
- Read our introductory guide to 20th Century Coal and Oil Power Generation.
- Swot up on our criteria for listing industrial structures, and the Survey of London’s exploration of Battersea Power Station.
- Delve into Jon Clarke’s book ‘Early Structural Steel in London Buildings’.
Curious about arts and crafts, mystified by medieval settlements or intrigued by industrial heritage? Our “Brief Introduction to” series is for those who want to find out more about the historic environment. From buildings and monuments to art and landscapes, we summarise our knowledge using examples from the National Heritage List for England.