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THE EVOLUTION OF ENERGY DEMAND IN BRITAIN: POLITICS, DAILY LIFE, AND PUBLIC HOUSING, 1920s–1970s

  • FRANK TRENTMANN (a1) and ANNA CARLSSON-HYSLOP (a2)
Abstract

This article offers a fresh perspective on the evolution of energy consumption in Britain from the 1920s to the 1970s. The twentieth century witnessed a series of energy transitions – from wood and coal to gas, electricity, and oil – that have transformed modern lives. The literature has primarily followed supply, networks, and technologies. We need to know more about people and their homes in this story, because it was here where energy was used. The article investigates the forces that shaped domestic demand by focusing on working-class households in public housing. It examines the interaction between political frameworks, public housing infrastructures, and the changing norms and practices of people's daily lives. It connects social and political history with material culture and compares the different paths taken in London, Stocksbridge, and Stevenage in the provision of gas, electricity, and heating. Evidence collected by local authorities is used to analyse the uptake, use, and resistance to changes in domestic infrastructures, such as gas-lit coke ovens and central heating. The case-studies make a more general pitch for a new historical study of energy that places people's lifestyles, their ideas of comfort, and political attempts to change them more squarely at the centre of inquiry.

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Copyright
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street, London, wc1e 7hxf.trentmann@bbk.ac.uk
References
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1 Luford to Stocksbridge Urban District Council, 16 Mar. 1939, Sheffield Archives and Local Studies (SA), CA87/2, housing generally, Jan. 1939–Dec. 1946; Housing – applications, tenants etc., minute books 1935–41, SA, CA61/2, p. 5, 1939.

2 Palmer, Jason and Cooper, Ian, United Kingdom housing energy fact file 2013 (London, 2013); Fouquet, Roger, Heat, power and light: revolutions in energy services (Cheltenham, 2008); Hannah, Leslie, Engineers, managers and politicians: the first fifteen years of nationalised electricity supply in Britain (London, 1982); Hannah, Leslie, Electricity before nationalisation: a study of the development of the electricity supply industry in Britain to 1948 (Basingstoke, 1979); Rutledge, Ian, Wright, Phil, and Sheffield Energy & Resources Information Services, Coal companies worldwide: competition and performance indicators (Sheffield, 1989). For the earlier period, see Ditt, Karl, Zweite Industrialisierung und Konsum: Energieversorgung, Haushaltstechnik und Massenkultur am Beispiel nordenglischer und westfälischer Städte 1880–1939 (Paderborn, 2011).

3 ‘DEMAND’ centre: www.demand.ac.uk/.

4 Already by 1936, Greater London had 150,000 council dwellings. At that time, 6 per cent of residents in inner London were housed by their local authority: by 1971, this had risen to 34 per cent; White, Jerry, London in the twentieth century: a city and its people (London, 2008), pp. 53, 235–8.

5 Hughes, Thomas, Networks of power: electrification in Western society, 1880–1930 (new edn, London, 1993), p. 364.

6 E.g. see The physicist's role in using energy efficiently’, in AIP Proceedings no. 135: energy sources, conservation and renewables (Washington, DC, 1985), pp. 1532; Energy Saving Trust, ‘The rise of the machines: a review of energy using products in the home from the 1970s to today’ (London, 2006).

7 Gooday, Graeme, Domesticating electricity: technology, uncertainty and gender, 1880–1914 (London, 2008); Oudshoorn, Nelly and Pinch, Trevor, How users matter: the co-construction of users and technology (London, 2003). Cf. the growing attention to energy and users in anthropology and sociology: Strauss, Sarah, Rupp, Stephanie, and Love, Thomas, eds., Cultures of energy: power, practices, technologies (Walnut Creek, CA, 2013); European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Energy Efficiency and Behaviour Conference 2009, www.eceee.org/library/conference_proceedings/EE_and_Behaviour/2009.

8 Kander, Astrid, Malanima, Paolo, and Warde, Paul, Power to the people: energy in Europe over the last five centuries (Oxford, 2014). An exception is Luckin, Bill, Questions of power: electricity and environment in inter-war Britain (Manchester, 1990).

9 Taylor, Vanessa and Trentmann, Frank, ‘Liquid politics: water and the politics of everyday life in the modern city’, Past and Present, 211 (2011), pp. 199241; Trentmann, Frank, ‘The politics of everyday life’, in Trentmann, F., ed., The Oxford handbook of the history of consumption (Oxford, 2012), ch. 26.

10 Cowan, Ruth Schwartz, ‘The consumption junction: a proposal for research strategies in the sociology of technology’, in Bijker, Wiebe E., Hughes, Thomas P., and Pinch, Trevor, eds., The social construction of technological systems (Cambridge, MA, 1987), p. 278. For the state, see Cohen, Lizabeth, A consumers’ republic: the politics of mass consumption in postwar America (New York, NY, 2003), ch. 3; Logemann, J., ‘Is it in the interest of the consumer to pay taxes? Transatlantic differences in postwar approaches to public consumption’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 11 (2011), pp. 339–65; Trentmann, Frank, Empire of things: how we became a world of consumers, fifteenth century to the twenty-first (London, 2016), ch. 12.

11 Smith, Mary E. H., Guide to housing (3rd edn, London, 1989).

12 Joseph E. Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, ‘Report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress, www.Stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.Fr’, (2009), pp. 126–30.

13 Scott, Peter and Walker, James, ‘Power to the people: working-class demand for household power in 1930s Britain’, Oxford Economic Papers, 63 (2011), pp. 598624; Bowden, Sue M., ‘The consumer durables revolution in England, 1932–1938: a regional analysis’, Explorations in Economic History, 25 (1988), pp. 4259; Bowden, Sue and Offer, Avner, ‘The technological revolution that never was: gender, class, and the diffusion of household appliances in interwar England’, in de Grazia, Victoria and Furlough, Ellen, eds., The sex of things: gender and consumption in historical perspective (Berkeley, CA, 1996), pp. 244–74.

14 Hannah, Electricity before nationalisation; Clendinning, Anne, Demons of domesticity: women and the English gas industry, 1889–1939 (Aldershot, 2004); Political and Economic Planning PEP, The market for household appliances (London, 1945).

15 See e.g. Durant, Ruth, Watling: a survey of social life on a new housing estate (London, 1939); Young, Terence, Becontree and Dagenham: a report made for the Pilgrim Trust (London, 1934).

16 Scott and Walker, ‘Power to the people’.

17 Scott, Peter and Walker, James, ‘Working-class household consumption smoothing in interwar Britain’, Journal of Economic History, 72 (2012), pp. 797825; Madeline McKenna, ‘The development of suburban council housing estates in Liverpool between the wars’ (D. Phil. thesis, Liverpool, 1986).

18 Great Britain, Department of Trade and Industry, Committee on Consumer Credit, Report of the committee, chairman: Lord Crowther, etc., 1971, Cmnd 4596.

19 Bowden, Sue and Offer, Avner, ‘Household appliances and the use of time: the United States and Britain since the 1920s’, Economic History Review, 47 (1994), pp. 725–48.

20 D. P. Sayers, ‘Electricity supply costs and tariffs’, Proceedings of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 110 (May 1963), pp. 944–54. Cf. Chick, Martin, Electricity and energy policy in Britain, France and United States since 1945 (Cheltenham, 2007).

21 Political and Economic Planning, ‘Supply of electricity in Great Britain’ (London, 1936), p. 53.

22 House of Commons debates (HC Deb) 18 May 1933 vol. 278 c. 615.

23 Goodall, Francis, Burning to serve: selling gas in competitive markets (Ashbourne, 1999), p. 213.

24 Newport Corporation Act, 1925, 15&16 Geo. 5, The National Archives (TNA), HLG 54/282, ch. 56, col. 12(6), p. 11. See also Will Thorne (Lab.) in HC Deb 18 May 1933 vol. 278 cc. 605–8; the exchange between Walter Womersley (Con.) and Arthur Greenwood (Lab.) HC Deb 8 July 1930 vol. 241 cc. 291–7; Finer, Herman, Municipal trading (London, 1941), pp. 396–7; Everard, Stirling, The history of the Gas Light and Coke Company, 1812–1949 (London, 1949), p. 347.

25 HC Deb 15 June 1934 vol. 290 c. 2099.

26 HC Deb 18 May 1933 vol. 278 cc. 615; and HC Deb 18 May 1933 vol. 278 cc. 629–30.

27 Clendinning, Demons of domesticity, p. 227; Goodall, Burning to serve, p. 214; Hannah, Engineers, managers and politicians, p. 82.

28 Scott and Walker, ‘Power to the people’, p. 602; Hannah, Electricity before nationalisation, p. 214; Millward, Robert, Private and public enterprise in Europe: energy, telecommunications and transport, 1830–1990 (Cambridge, 2005).

29 HC Deb 14 Mar. 1932 vol. 263 cc. 132–3.

30 HC Deb 15 June 1934 vol. 290 cc. 2102–3.

31 HC Deb 18 May 1933 vol. 278 cc. 617–18.

32 Edward Tempest Tunstall North, Conservative MP for Nuneaton, Times, 15 Mar. 1932, pp. 8–9; and HC Deb 14 Mar. 1932 vol. 263 cc. 138–40.

33 Oswald Lewis (Colchester), HC Deb 14 Mar. 1932 vol. 263 cc. 154–6.

34 HC Deb 14 Mar. 1932 vol. 263 cc. 115–16.

35 HC Deb 18 May 1933 vol. 278 cc. 611–13. The Plaistow MP was a former gas worker and the LCC's Beckton Gas Work was close to the Silvertown constituency.

36 Housing at the Royd, 17 May 1938, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book, SA, CA 61/2.

37 Rawlinson to deputy director of housing and deputy valuer, 9 Jan. 1954, ‘Gas and electricity supplies for permanent housing’, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055, part 2, development & construction, heating & hot water services.

38 Report by valuer, 3 May 1933, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L001, gas bills and various acts: correspondence and reports.

39 In the 1950s, however, the Electricity Board used freedom of choice to force Stocksbridge council to install further power points and to offer new tenants the choice between gas or electric cookers. Special Housing Committee, 24 Mar. 1955, SA, CA60/29, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book 1954–5.

40 Memorandum on supplies to LCC block dwellings, 10 Dec. 1947, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055, part 2, development & construction, heating & hot water services.

41 173rd meeting of the corporation, 10 Nov. 1953, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) CNT/ST/1/1/1, minute book 1953. Gas and electric providers tried to outbid each other with special tariffs for councils; see, e.g., Crowther to Lee, 9 Aug. 1939, SA, CA87/2, housing generally, Jan. 1939–Dec. 1946. For similar strategies in private suburbia, see Scott, Peter, The making of the modern British home: the suburban semi and family life between the wars (Oxford, 2013), pp. 170–1.

42 Reply to question in council regarding the number of flue-less gas appliances in the council's dwellings, 1974, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L001, gas bills and various acts: correspondence and reports.

43 Council meeting, 26 Mar. 1953, and Housing Committee, 18 Nov. 1952, SA, CA60/27, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book 1952–3.

44 20 Sept. 1964, SA, CA87/4, housing generally, Sept. 1963–Dec. 1964.

45 Scott and Walker, ‘Power to the people’.

46 Council meeting, 26 Aug. 1954, SA, CA60/29, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book 1954–5.

47 New World S4183 gas cooker (£17 14s 8d) and the 20a Elton Gas Wash Boilers (£5 5s 0d).

48 Electricity Board circular of 1 Oct. 1954 and letter of 26 Jan. 1955, read at the Housing Committee, 15 Feb. 1955, SA/CA 60/29, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book, May 1954–May 1955, and for the following point.

49 Housing Committee, 18 Sept. 1956, SA, CA60/31, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book 1956–7.

50 Burnett, John, A social history of housing, 1815–1985 (London, 1991).

51 Finance Committee, 26 Feb. 1970, appendix A, minutes of 369th meeting of the corporation, 8 Dec. 1970, p. 5, and general manager's report, HALS, CNT/ST/1/2/2/40, box 10, corporation agenda and reports July 1970.

52 LCC, A survey of the post-war housing of the London County Council, 1945–1949 (London, 1949), p. 69.

53 258th corporation meeting, Planning Committee, 17 Jan. 1961, HALS, CNT/ST/1/1/1, minute book 1961.

54 A Labour member (Mr Rains) pushed for the change in policy, so this was not a clear-cut party-political issue. Housing Committee, 31 May 1950, SA, CA60/25, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book 1950–1.

55 Memorandum to the senior assistant director ‘H’, conversion to natural gas, 8 May 1970, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L068.

56 Barking Consumer Advisory Council to chairman of the LCC, 22 Mar. 1972, and director of housing to Miss Marshall, 24 Oct. 1974, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L068, conversion to natural gas.

57 As late as 1964, 41 per cent of flats in Germany still had only one socket in the kitchen, and 4 per cent had none at all, Energiewirtschaftliche Tagesfragen, 14/123 (1964), pp. 155ff.

58 282nd and 283rd corporation meeting, 12 Feb. and 12 Mar. 1963, HALS, CNT/ST/1/2/2/26, corporation agenda and reports Jan. 1963 and HALS, CNT/ST/1/1/1, minute book 1963.

59 ‘Condensation and mould growth on council estates’, Housing Committee, 27 Jan. 1971, LMA, GLC/HGH/HM/03/A224, heating 1971, part 4. In 1943, Mass-Observation found that complaints about damp were disproportionally high in older housing stock: Mass-Observation, An enquiry into people's homes (London, 1943), pp. 134–5.

60 Planning Committee, 7 July 1965, HALS, CNT/ST/1/1/1, minute book 1965; Housing Committee, 13 Apr. 1972, SA, CA60/46, Stocksbridge Urban District Council minute book 1971–2.

61 Benson, S. I., ‘Condensation in housing: management consideration’, Housing: The Journal of the Institute of Housing Managers, 2, 3 (1966), pp. 2733; Dick, J. B., ‘Condensation in perspective’, Building Services Engineer, 40 (1972), pp. 8991.

62 P. H. W. Parish to Stevenage Development Corporation, 1 Jan. 1968, HALS, CNT/ST/5/1/AP/N9, neighbourhood no. 6 Pin Green, vol. 2, Apr. 1967–Mar. 1970.

63 Housing inspection reports, 1962–5, SA, CA92/1.

64 Englander, David, Landlord and tenant in urban Britain, 1838–1918 (Oxford, 1983); Shapely, Peter, The politics of housing: power, consumers and urban culture (Manchester, 2007). As late as 1967, 52 per cent of privately rented housing had no internal WC and 52 per cent also lacked hot and cold water at three points, compared to 12 per cent and 15 per cent respectively in council housing.

65 William Parish (London County Council Tenants’ Association) to director of housing, 16 Nov. 1920, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L71. In Tooting, there was considerable interest in having electric lighting among tenants living to the east of Franciscan Road (the west side already had it), but also concern about higher rents; Tooting Tenants’ Association to director of housing, LCC, 15 Dec. 1920.

66 E. Hall, E. Baddeley et al., letter to Stocksbridge District Council, submitted to monthly council meeting, 30 June 1929, SA, CA87/1, housing generally.

67 Petition, Wilson Road, 8 Jan. 1941, and Shay House Petition (n.d.), council response by acting clerk, 31 Jan. 1941, SA, CA87/2, housing generally, Jan. 1939–Dec. 1946.

68 Tripartite meeting between the Stevenage Development Corporation, the Urban District Council, and the Residents’ Federation, 28 July 1955, quoted at p. 2, HALS, CNT/ST/4/1/T15/1, box 127, vol. 3.

69 Miss C. Morton to Stocksbridge council chairman, 16 Jan. 1942, and Douglas E. Robinson to councillor H. Bradbury, 21 Jan. 1942, SA, CA87/2, housing generally, Jan. 1939–Dec. 1946; it is unclear whether the council granted the request.

70 Chief estate officer report ‘Dampness in dwellings’, contract 594 – Pin Green East Housing – Fairlands, 16 Feb. 1965, HALS, CNT/ST/5/2/18, departmental.

71 Mass-Observation, An enquiry into people's homes, p. 138.

72 ‘Oral histories of homes and daily lives in Stocksbridge and Stevenage’, interviews conducted by Nicola Spurling and Lenneke Kuijer (DEMAND centre) in 2014–15, UK Data Service, 852575, http://reshare.ukdataservice.ac.uk/, see esp. interviews SB5, SB6, see also STV7 and STV10; ‘woolly heat’, quoted from STV14.

73 ‘Oral histories of homes’, STV7, interviewed on 13 Nov. 2014.

74 ‘Oral histories of homes’, interview STV4.

75 Wilkins, Leslie T., Social survey: domestic utilization of heating appliances and expenditures on fuels in 1948/1949 (London, 1951).

76 Hole, W. V. and Attenburrow, J. J., Houses and people: a review of user studies at the Building Research Station (London, 1966), pp. 25–9.

77 349th corporation meeting, Martins Wood, 18 Feb. 1969, HALS, CNT/ST/1/2/2/38, box 9.

78 358th corporation meeting, Bedwell and Monkswood Survey, 9 Dec. 1969, ibid.

79 General manager's report, estates, improvements of existing dwellings, central heating, and hot water supply, 14 Apr. 1970, 362nd corporation meeting, HALS, CNT/ST1/2, box 10.

80 359th corporation meeting, 13 Jan. 1970, ibid.

81 The Heating and Ventilation (Reconstruction) Committee of the Building Research Board of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Heating and ventilation of dwellings, post-war building studies no. 19 (London, 1945), p. 177.

82 Ibid., p. 156.

83 H. Westwood (LCC valuer), 10 Dec. 1943, GLC, HG/HHM/L055, part 1.

84 Notes of a meeting between the LCC valuers, the Gas Light and Coke Company, the chief engineer's department, and the architect's department, 14 Oct. 1938, GLC, HG/HHM/L055, part 1.

85 Jones, Helen, ‘Conservatives and the LCC after 1934’, in Saint, Andrew, ed., Politics and the people of London: the London County Council, 1889–1965 (London, 1989), pp. 237ff.

86 Joint report by comptroller, chief engineer, solicitor, and valuer, ‘South Metropolitan Gas Company – tariff’, 30 Sept. 1936, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L81, LCC General Purposes Committee.

87 ‘Totterdown Field estate, gas consumption in 1930’, surveyor note, 28 Sept. 1936, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L81. A gas unit is 1/25th of a therm.

88 For the earlier period, see Daunton, Martin, ‘The material politics of natural monopoly: consuming gas in Victorian Britain’, in Daunton, Martin and Hilton, Matthew, eds., The politics of consumption: material culture and citizenship in Europe and America (Oxford, 2001), pp. 6988.

89 South Metropolitan Gas Company to LCC, ‘Supply of gas to LCC tenants’, 29 Mar. 1938, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055, part 1, development & construction heating & hot water services; Pusey to Sibthorpe, 9 Apr. 1951, ibid., part 2.

90 Shepperton estate Sunbury, 1951, ibid., part 2.

91 Southwark Borough Council, Naylor House, fuel statistics for twelve months to 31 Dec. 1948, ibid., part 2.

92 Memorandum from chief estate officer, ‘Gas heating in flats, Fairlands and Sishes End’, 13 Sept. 1967, HALS, CNT/ST/5/1/AP/N9, vol. 2, Apr. 1967–Mar. 1970, neighbourhood no. 6 Pin Green.

93 Heating and Ventilation Committee, Heating and ventilation, p. 2.

94 Grundy, R. F. Brooks, ‘The economics of a district heating system for 500 houses at Harrow’, Journal of the Institution of Municipal Engineers, 71, 12 (1945), quoted at pp. 393, 411.

95 Maynard, G. N., ‘Post-war housing with particular reference to housing manual, 1944’, Journal of the Institution of Municipal Engineers, 71, 6 (1945), quoted at pp. 176, 178.

96 Robson, William A., The government and misgovernment of London (London, 1939), p. 216; LCC, London housing (London, 1937).

97 Survey responses and analysis by officers, spring 1936, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055 part 1.

98 Report by surveyor, Housing Department, 14 May 1936, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055 part 1.

99 Tenant responses to surveys and report by No. 1 Coke Appliances Laboratory, 3 Feb. 1938, ibid.

100 Survey of electric under-floor warming, 1963, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L247, part 1.

101 Ibid.

102 Ibid.

103 Scottish National Development Council, ‘First report of the “Oil from Coal” Committee’, Economic Series, 12 (Glasgow, 1933), p. 15, with thanks to Robert Bud for this reference.

104 See Nead, Lynda, The tiger in the smoke: art and culture in post-war Britain (New Haven, CT, 2017).

105 Mass-Observation archive (Brighton), MOA, responses A60 and A002. This subject is currently being investigated at the Sussex Humanities Lab by Rebecca Wright, with thanks for discussion.

106 See the memoranda by the chief estate officer, ‘Gas heating in flats Fairlands and Sishes End’, 13 Sept. 1967, and Trotts Hill estate, 16 Nov. 1967, HALS, CNT/ST/5/1/AP/N9, vol. 2, Apr. 1967–Mar. 1970, neighbourhood no. 6 Pin Green.

107 A. F. Hetherington, ‘The domestic space heating market’ (Gas Council, 1961), National Gas Archive, Warrington.

108 Housing Development and Management Sub-Committee, reports by the director of housing, ‘Comparative costs of space heating’, 26 Oct. 1956; Housing (Improvements) Sub-Committee, report by the director of housing, ‘Modernisation schemes: heating’, 1 Oct. 1958; Housing Development and Management Sub-Committee, report ‘Housing estates – use of fires by tenants’, 12 Apr. 1961, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055, part 2, development & construction heating & hot water services.

109 ‘Housing estates – use of fires by tenants’, Housing Development and Management Sub-Committee, report by the director of housing, quoted at p. 5, 18 July 1959, LMA, GLC/HG/HHM/10/L055, part 2, development & construction heating & hot water services.

110 That electric warm air heating did not reach the bathroom was one disadvantage noted by several tenants in a 1968 survey at Trotts Hill, 27 May 1968, HALS, CNT/ST/5/1/AP/N9, vol. 2, Apr. 1967–Mar. 1970, neighbourhood no. 6 Pin Green.

111 Reuben Deumling, Deborah Poskanzer, and Alan Meier, ‘Who are the low energy users? Lessons for climate policy’, Proceedings of the ECEEE 2017 Summer Study, pp. 2159–67 (European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy). This study analysed the lowest 10 per cent of energy users in Sacramento, California, 2008–10.

For helpful comments, the authors would like to thank Ben Anderson, Simon Gunn, Lynda Nead, Peter Scott, Hiroki Shin, Elizabeth Shove, Paul Warde; the Electrical Worlds Conference in Paris; the Strategic Research Initiative; the energy group at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and the anonymous reviewers. Research was generously supported by the AHRC (AH/K006088/1) and the EPSRC/ESRC (EP/K011723/1).

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