ON ST GEORGE’S DAY IN THE YEAR OF THE CENTENARY OF MICHAEL FARADAY’S GREAT DISCOVERY THIS STONE OF COMMEMORATION… WAS PLACED AS A LANDMARK IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF LARGER LONDON’S LIGHT AND POWER AND TO SERVE AS ANOTHER MEMORIAL OF THE SCIENTIFIC HERITAGE DERIVED FROM FAMOUS ENGLISHMEN.
The above is inscribed on a commemorative stone laid at Battersea Power Station on 23 April 1931 during its construction by the London Power Company, which was rightly extremely proud of what it was building (the full wording is given at the end).
The company recognized that it was taking a bold step forward along the long road of electrical progress and development that great names such as Faraday had taken a hundred years before, and many others in the meantime. But it was all about the technology of supplying this electricity. The power station building was indeed a cathedral of power (a term finding favour with the arts and crafts brigade) but it was designed to look after and show off the technology and represent the tremendous impact that electricity was facilitating.
This association with the technology all seems to have been lost. The do-gooders that wanted to keep a building whose arrival other do-gooders heartily resisted at the time knew they were on to something and imagined it was all about the building. No, say I! It was about the technology. So what have our perhaps well-meaning lords and masters facilitated? A wreck of a building with most of the technology thrown away. Well done. That’s quite an achievement. With a slight sense of exasperation I set out the story below (posted exactly 225 years after Michael Faraday was born).
Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station last generated electric current in 1983 some 33 years ago. Since then the building has sat there, its heart torn out (by which I mean its generating equipment and roof are missing) and various groups of people have agonized over what to do with it. The building was listed (Grade II) by English Heritage in 1980, anticipating closure, so demolition was not going to be possible (or, at least, not easy). Listing status was raised to Grade II* in 2007. Electricity supply was nationalized in 1948 and the Central Electricity Generating Board latterly operated the station and had hoped to redevelop the site to generate funding for investment in plant elsewhere, but this avenue was firmly closed after listing. Since then the derelict station has sat there deteriorating gracefully in front of our eyes and the overall condition was described as ‘very bad’ by English Heritage as long back as 2009, but still it sat there, more a monument to the planning process than a monument to the electricity industry.
The power station is not what it superficially seems to be. ‘It’ is two technically quite separate power stations, the first, Battersea ‘A’, operational between 1933 and 1975 with the station not completed until 1935, and the ‘B’ station between 1944 and 1983 with completion only in 1955. The ‘A’ station is the western part of the structure and the design made provision for a correspondingly similar building to be built next to it, giving the impression of one uniform structure (which was at that point the largest brick-built building in Europe). The higher part of the building was the boiler house which was built with a temporary metal screen wall along its eastern side until the adjacent station was built (work on the adjacent boiler house starting in 1941 though some other work on the ‘B’ station began in 1937).
Plans were first put together in 1927 and the resulting structure is built around a very large steel frame the construction of which began in 1929, when it may be assumed that the technical arrangements were pretty much settled. The technical design and functional requirements were put together by London Power Company engineers and the architect James Theodore Halliday (of Manchester’s Halliday and Agate partnership), and the structural design was in the hands of C.S. Allott & Son. The power company’s chief engineer was Leonard Pearce, who had joined in 1926 after wide experience in electrical engineering elsewhere (he had been working for British Thomson-Houston before accepting the post of Superintending Engineer for the Central London Railway during its construction). It was he who led the designing of Battersea. It says something of his character that he shunned retirement and died whilst still in post in 1947, aged 74 (he was knighted in 1935).
Concerns about what the building would look like resulted in eminent architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott being brought in (in 1930) and he was given responsibility for improving the external appearance of the building and its brick cladding and chimneys. He is often referred to in popular sources as ‘the architect’ but his late involvement in a building already being erected makes this assertion very implausible and at the time he was described as the ‘external’ architect. Arguably getting a pleasing result from a building that might otherwise have looked dreadful to the hostile opinion-formers is probably a more challenging role than designing from new. The external style was replicated in the ‘B’ station though whether he was still involved then I have not ascertained. The famed internal finishes of the ‘A’ station were by Halliday and displayed faience and marble not unusual at that time (the later ‘B’ station had entirely different internal finishes representing the austerity of that time).
Scott is noted for his design of the chimneys on their decorated square brick bases. These are actually functional as they housed Pearce’s gas-washing equipment used to take the worst pollutants out of the flue gasses, a system throughout the world used only here and later at Bankside. According to The Times, it was decommissioned during WW2 as the government wanted all the smoke it could get to help screen London from aerial attack. It was recommissioned after the war.
London Power Company
The station was built by the London Power Company (LPC), of which probably few people have heard in any context except Battersea. In the early days of London’s electricity supply electricity was generated, distributed and sold in small districts of London in accordance with electric lighting orders issued by the Board of Trade. The districts were at first parishes or groups of parishes but later the metropolitan boroughs into which the civil functions of parishes had evolved. The actual supplier might even be the local authority (as it was in Hampstead or Fulham, for example) but more usually was a private company. This multiplicity of systems and small stations meant supplies were very inefficient and therefore expensive. To reduce costs nine of these ‘all purpose’ companies got together and formed what in 1925 became the London Power Company to whom all their generating plant was transferred and from whom each could draw its own supply. The LPC was told to modernize, consolidate and if necessary replace the existing power stations to reduce electricity costs. Within a year the idea of building a very large station began to emerge and, after first looking at a site in Brentford, Battersea became a favoured location because land was available alongside the Thames (for coal supply and cooling water) and it was near the centre of where the power was needed.
At about the same time the government created a non profit-making public body called the Central Electricity Board, which was given the job of designing and building a national high-voltage electricity distribution grid. The idea was that the grid would buy the whole of the electricity output from the country’s prevailing most efficient power stations and sell it in bulk to any distribution authority wanting it. Over time it would cause large, efficient stations to be built and cause the closure of small and inefficient stations as buying in bulk from the grid would be cheaper, which is more or less what happened except that some distributors were already buying in bulk from neighbours because it was cheaper. The idea of a very large station such as Battersea fell neatly into this scheme.
The power station remained coal fired throughout its life, though the ‘A’ station was adapted to use oil as an option, and the ‘B’ station used pulverized coal. By the 1970s the equipment was becoming life-expired and closure was the best option once the new 400kV London ring main had been completed (allowing power from the midlands to be distributed reliably across London). The CEGB had a problem now, since listing meant it could not be demolished. Accordingly it began casting around for proposals. An early one, in 1982, was to convert Battersea ‘A’ into a refuse-burning power station, installing ramps at the end of the ‘A’ turbine hall to allow lorries direct access. The disused boilers would have been replaced by three new refuse boilers using just one of the chimneys and new generating plant was needed as the old turbines were already being broken up in 1977. For some reason this did not find favour.
By the time the ‘B’ station closed, Wandsworth Council had already realized that what happened on this vast site would have wide planning implications and the council drew up a development brief. With assistance of Taylor Woodrow the CEGB sought workable proposals and launched a competition judged by Hugh Casson (which had to comply with the council’s brief). Seven short-listed entries were put on display during 1984, mostly regarded as not very interesting. On whittling down to two, one was the refuse-burning power station which scheme had reappeared and had the merit of being useful and a suitable use for the building. This, unfortunately did not comply with the council’s aspirations. The other was a proposal for an indoor industrial theme park put forward by a consortium led by Sir David Roche and including the operators of the Alton Towers theme park; the consortium claimed it was going to create ‘London’s Tivoli Gardens’ to the disbelief of those who had looked at the plans. The good and the great complained that this was about the least appropriate use to which this fine building could be put and raised the usual storm, which had no practical effect. The building was made available, apparently, without any restrictive covenants.
The Roche scheme received planning permission from Wandsworth but Sir David Roche actually withdrew and the site was sold to John Broome (of Alton Towers) in 1987 for £1.5 million, work starting the same year on the approved scheme, with modifications. The theme was to shift from ‘industrial’ towards a Las Vegas-style ‘palace of entertainment’. According to The Independent, at one stage, the plans included roller-coasters, waterfall, ice rink and an oceanarium big enough to be explored by mini-submarines.
The conversion work involved removing the boilers in the central section, and the concrete roof, which was to have been replaced. The life-expired power station building was quickly discovered to be fragile and riddled with asbestos. Far more work was required than the funfair supremo expected and costs increased from £34 million to a projected £240 million, the money running out in 1989 leaving the building (including exposed structural steelwork) open to to the elements. As the theme park had become unaffordable, new planning permission was granted for a mixture of a hotel, shops and offices despite furious opposition, including opposition by English Heritage. Nevertheless no more work was done at Battersea and Broome sold Alton Towers shortly afterwards (it is said to recoup capital after so much had been spent at Battersea). More detail about what Battersea might have become may be found HERE
In 1992 Parkview International bought the site for £10 million and planning permission was granted in 1996 for a large mixed development with restoration of the power station building fabric, but this process dragged on for ten years and created some bitter enemies. Part of the problem was that for the staff and visitors expected there was no public transport, a factor made more problematical by other nearby developments (from which was born the Northern Line extension, but that is another story). Anyway this got very difficult and in 2006 Parkview sold the site and accompanying external land for £400m million to Messrs Richard Barratt and Johnny Ronan who scrapped existing plans. The external land amounted to 32 acres formerly South Lambeth railway goods depot and a nearby pumping station.
These two individuals hail from Ireland and did well developing property in Dublin before expanding rapidly through their company Treasury Holdings, the controlling interest behind Real Estate Opportunities which was fronting the Battersea activity. The pair had already acquired a reputation for which so many adjectives would fit, perhaps the most frequently used being flamboyant, litigious, controversial and difficult to work with. At any rate after four years, during which debts had risen to £500 million, this could not go on, especially as Treasury Holdings was adversely affected by the Irish property crash in 2009, cash was a problem and the Irish government had become involved in Treasury Holdings’ debts as part of its quest to prop up the Irish economy.
Despite a fully-developed scheme having been developed the company eventually collapsed in 2011 with massive debts. The scheme had been quite imaginative and proposed utilizing part of the site as a biomass power station but much of the space would have been shopping and the roofless part would be used as a park. The site would also have included an energy museum. Restoration of the now much-weathered building would alone have cost £150 million. This scheme went into administration at the end of 2011 when banks foreclosed.
The administrators now put the whole site up for sale with lots of restrictions and it was purchased by a Malaysian consortium with a requirement that restoration of the power station building was a priority, work starting in 2013. Much of the previous masterplan was retained, allowing relatively quick progress. Unfortunately the building was, after 30 derelict years, now in a shocking state. This was not helped by fears that the chimney reinforcing had deteriorated so much that they would (or might) become unsafe and commitments had already been given to Wandsworth Council that the chimneys would be demolished and replaced by replicas (although later inspections suggested this was unnecessary, the commitments made were enforced).
Where we are now is that work is at last in full flow and the exterior of the building will be retained as a public monument, but monument to what? For me the interesting feature is the technology, and I have previously expressed an opinion about how this country, for some very odd reason, ignores the history of several of our great industries of which the electricity supply industry surely comes top of the list as the most crucial. So here we have seen a vast building, very famous and good looking, and owned by the power supply industry when it was decommissioned, desperately looking for a use. We later discover the country’s only dedicated electricity museum at Christchurch is closing and the material must in due course be dispersed. It is mere frustration that I observe the Christchurch exhibition material and its reserve stock could have produced a tiny and worthwhile technical museum in a tiny corner of Battersea!
Anyway, enough of that! The point I am making is that all the industrial history at Battersea was got rid of at the earliest opportunity whilst the actual building was listed in 1980 for retention, partly as a reaction to the unseemly demolition of the Firestone factory in west London whose owners anticipated listing and wanted to circumvent its costs. The listing of Battersea is therefore nothing much to do with the technological wonder the station was felt to be when it was built; the listing was to do with the architectural merit of the structure (actually mainly the cladding) and the association with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.
This is all very well, but despite the rarity of attractive brick buildings this size there is, a few miles downstream, another one of Gilbert Scott’s brick power stations, of similar mass: this is Bankside power station, opened in 1952 and contemporary with Battersea ‘B’. The Bankside station ceased generation in 1981 but was not listed because it was at first felt ‘too new’ and subsequently because ‘it might constrain development’. The contrast with Battersea is interesting. Bankside, again, is a power station where Gilbert Scott appeared late in the process to improve the appearance of a building whose form had already been designed and against angry opposition. This time there was the added complication of nearby St Paul’s and the risk of obscuring some well-known views. Scott’s main contribution was to create a central tower and get rid of the standard chimneys (arguably making it more cathedral-like and looking less like a traditional power station). I think this is quite successful and perhaps represents the pinnacle of power station design in the middle of cities, for there were (I think) no more.
Criticism has been levelled about whether Michael Heseltine ought to have listed Battersea power station in the first place, since listing such a vast structure was always going to impose an extreme challenge to any developer, and probably a fatal challenge judging by events. The government might list, but it has absolutely no responsibility for funding the ongoing consequences. It is instructive that Bankside has been redeveloped successfully whilst the listing of Battersea clearly was an issue. However there are far too many differences between the sites to make it possible to draw firm conclusions. In the circumstances one can understand why listing took place (and some rather nice features remain) but it invites the obvious question about what is being listed and who will have pockets deep enough to preserve a building and make money. This is an issue that affects many listed building, not just power stations. The Historic England listing entry refers entirely to the architectural features of the building ‘envelope’ and is uninterested in the technical contribution. Apparently the building is still Europe’s largest brick building. Does this mean it should be kept? I have also seen it described as merely a very large shed (to keep the equipment dry). Harsh, but I do get the point. Actually, on seeing how many aircraft hangars are listed perhaps size is important.
Bankside was not only never listed but was (uniquely?) given a certificate of immunity from listing in 1993. The building remained with the CEGB until electricity privatization when it was allocated to Nuclear Electric (now part of EdF), probably because that company was remaining in government ownership for a while longer. Decommissioning work was soon undertaken involving removal of the machinery and a lot of asbestos. In 1994 it was announced the building would be sold, complete, to form Tate Modern, apart from a small part of the site still used as a substation. On the whole, this was a very simple journey and Tate Modern, by all accounts works rather well.
Whilst the unfortunate consequences of listing Battersea still arouse suspicion, the perhaps hasty actions of Wandsworth Council also invite scrutiny. The nature of the planning brief that constrained the ideas that came forward, and the inclination to promote unsuitable and highly controversial development, seem unwittingly to have pushed the council into a corner where it was more or less forced to accept vast and exceedingly risky proposals that were in conflict with its responsibilities with regard to safeguarding listed buildings, the more so because of the extraordinary size of a power station. There could be no solution to ‘saving’ the rapidly deteriorating building without something else to fund it. A very uncomfortable position to have walked into and a possibility that ought to have been foreseen and avoided. More convenient to blame the planning process perhaps (and the preservation and conservation aspects of our planning processes do need attention). Whilst I expect Wandsworth meant well, those looking at the plans for a theme park were not saying that at the time.
We are now in the midst of a development scheme that (to get the money to work) destroys the famous vista of the power station and its chimneys from most directions within a mile or so because of overpowering adjacent developments. The station has been mauled around by the loss of the concrete roof and stripping of equipment, notwithstanding the listing, and the roof and chimneys are in fact to be replicas. This does not seem to me to be a very satisfactory outcome. Nobody has done anything wrong (as far as I know), but somehow the agencies that are supposed to be on our side could, I think, have done better.
Brick-faced Bankside was built in two phases between 1948 and 1963 and admittedly is smaller than Battersea. It has retained a good vista from the Thames and lacks the clutter now appearing at Battersea. It is far too late to do anything now, but the question about whether we need both of these building perhaps ought to have been asked. The power of the Battersea design was its domination of the landscape but the new development (keeping the power station because it has to) rather dwarfs it. It may, in the minds of some, quite destroy it.
The old turbine hall is to become a 2000 person venue, we are told. The redevelopment envisages the generating halls being converted into multi-floored office spaces, however there will be a new power station on the site as the electricity demand is so high it is worth building a small combined heat and power plant in a large underground chamber underneath the new riverside gardens (power stations have to be hidden these days including, ironically, power stations built to provide power to a conserved power station). This chamber used to be one of the coal stores.
After much digging I find a slightly begrudging note that the ‘A’ station control room (robbed of some equipment, vandalised and rusty) is to be ‘restored’ and presumably made available to the public somehow. This is a small victory but of course the control room was a very small part of this vast electrical machine and on its own lacks the context of a cavernous humming building with hundreds of people on site and heavy equipment ready to respond instantly (and noisily) to the operation of a switch. Impressive I am sure it will be, but an eye-catching collection of dials and switches of a type no-one growing up in this century will relate to will mean what, exactly? It won’t be on display because it is important, it will be on display because it happens to have survived. It isn’t as though there is no space for anything more meaningful too.
According to The Times in 1947, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott himself deprecated being called the designer and often said he was only responsible for the appearance of the exterior. In the same piece (Pearce’s obituary) Scott is also reputed to have said in drawing attention to the skill of Dr. Pearce (as he then was) and his associates ‘that in his opinion “ the interior and its wonderful engineering, with its terrifying machinery, hardly gets the notice it deserves” ’. If that is what Scott himself felt, it is a pity the architectural zealots do not respect his views.
I wish Battersea well now it has got through this pitiful and chaotic period, however well-intended the ineffectual actions of our masters have been so far. I just wish the bureaucrats who would have us believe they work for us could had shown more enthusiasm for incorporating at Battersea some kind of wider electrical engineering display as the setting would have been so appropriate. Does London really need more shops of the type that Londoner’s can’t afford? Does the country need a more fitting monument to the electrical technology that allows it to function at all. The Faraday stone perhaps got the tone right. I wonder if the developers are going to make a feature of it? I wonder if they know it is there?
For more information about the Chimney rebuild, see HERE
For some quite interesting pictures of the place, see HERE
A brief article about surviving control rooms, see HERE
The website of the developer and plans for the station HERE
Some interesting images here before rot set in, including interior of turbine hall HERE
The complete wording on the remembrance stone is:
ON ST GEORGE’S DAY, IN THE YEAR OF THE CENTENARY OF MICHAEL FARADAY’S GREAT DISCOVERY, THIS STONE OF COMMEMORATION – UNVEILED AT A MOMENT ABOUT NOON AND BY A WIRELESS MESSAGE BY HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR GENERAL OF CANADA, THE RIGHT HONORABLE THE EARLS OF BESSBOROUGH GCMG, A FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE COMPANY – WAS PLACED AS A LANDMARK IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF LARGER LONDON’S LIGHT AND POWER, AND TO SERVE AS ANOTHER MEMORIAL OF THE SCIENTIFIC HERITAGE DERIVED FROM FAMOUS ENGLISHMEN. BATTERSEA POWER STATION. APRIL 23, 1931.
On 28 September 2016 Apple announced it would be moving into much of the office space in the former Boiler House and is leasing 500,000 square feet. This is good in as much as the present developer is more likely to make the site as a whole a success and to save the fabric of the generating station. I don’t think it changes anything above though. Was it worth saving and what about the technology?