Electricity and the Great War

The First World War was hugely influential in shaping the British electrical system, and it proved a severe test of its operating capacity.

Before the war, electricity supply in the UK was far from uniform. Many generators were remarkably small by later standards, and reciprocating steam engines were common, because turbines were still seen as new technology.

Even though the bombing of civilian areas was limited, our power stations were targets for attack. Fortunately small bombs delivered by airship could do only limited damage. But it was enough to destroy delicate electrical switchboards.

Christchurchpowerstation1905

Once the war ended politicians and engineers often found themselves at odds. Our engineers were among those calling for a permanent nationwide electrical system, whilst many politicians were wary of embracing change.

In 1918 the Board of Trade started a serious inquiry into Scotland’s hydro-power resources, and in 1919 the Weir report finally laid cautious foundations for the future. It called for a ‘National Gridiron’ to be created to link the most efficient power stations, meeting the needs of modern, electrified industry. Soon afterwards, engineers started putting up towers. Our archive recalls the heroic story of those years, as Britain recovered from war and started to build the Grid.

If you have any interesting war time stories that we could link to our collection, or the industry as a whole, let us know by emailing heritage@sse.com.