“This will kill every green thing within two miles”
Everyone loves Battersea Power Station. Rock fans love it because of Pink Floyd’s pig. Architects love it because it’s the biggest brick building in Europe and the fiddly bits were done by the same bloke that designed the red telephone box. Graphic designers love it because its silhouette, along with Big Ben and the London Eye, makes an instantly recognisable shorthand symbol for London. Journalists love it because “new developer has big plans for power station site” and “bankrupt developer sells power station site” have been two of the most reliable stories in the news cycle for decades. Everyone loves Battersea Power Station. Don’t they?
They didn’t in 1929, when it was being built. The alarm was first raised in Downing Street that February by the backbencher Edward Hilton-Young, who, despite being MP for far-off Norwich, had grave concerns about the “danger of fumes from the new power station in Battersea . . . With what little intelligence I have, I am convinced that unless something is done, this will kill every green thing within two miles of Battersea, rot all the buildings, and bleach all the babies.”
“The fumes will take the line over the Tate Gallery, Houses of Parliament, St James’s Park, Whitehall, National Gallery, British Museum, and the EC and WC district”
“If all they say is true, you and I and our families must immediately escape to Wiltshire leaving, like Lot and his wife, the city of the plain to its inevitable destruction,” wrote back Stanley Baldwin’s private secretary Geoffrey Fry, who may not have been taking this entirely seriously. But he did speak to his boss, and agreed to forward the material the MP had sent to him to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, “asking them to treat it as a matter of urgency”.
It certainly sounded urgent. Hilton-Young, whose expert opinions had been culled from the technical press, warned that “while it is possible in a modern station to minimise the emission of smoke, up to the present, no effective means of preventing the
emission of sulphurous and carbonic acid fumes have been found”. This was seriously alarming: not only was Battersea on a different scale from any coal-burning power station yet built (thanks to a government order that electricity supplies should be consolidated and standardised across the country), it was slap-bang in the centre of the capital. Its position meant that “as the prevailing winds are southwest, the normal flow of the fumes will take the line over the Tate Gallery, Houses of Parliament, St James’s Park, Whitehall, National Gallery, British Museum, and the EC and WC districts”. That got the politicians sitting up and taking notice. The slum-dwellers of Battersea being exposed to noxious fumes was one thing, but their own clubs and offices?
The government’s boffins did not take long to confirm that “our unanimous opinion is that there is a strong prima facie case in support of the contentions of the objectors to the proposed Battersea Station… If no precautions are taken to remove sulphur dioxide from the flue gases there may be, under quite
normal atmospheric conditions, a concentration of sulphur dioxide in the air in the vicinity of the Station some four times the average concentration which exists at present.” Somehow, no one had thought of this when planning consent was given: “at the Inquiry little mention was made of the question of fumes”.
Clearly, decisive action was now needed. And so on 26th February Sir John Snell, chair of industry watchdog the Electricity Commissioners, was summoned to Number 10, where he persuaded the prime minister to do… nothing. “Sir John convinced him that a good case had been made out for building the station on the site and told him that the work had been in progress for about a year,” records a note from the Scientific Department to Fry. “Mr Baldwin, in all the circumstances of the case, decided there was no step which he could take.”
But not everyone was so easily convinced. On 12th April, after the controversy had burst into the correspondence columns of The Times, a letter bearing the royal coat of arms landed on health secretary Neville Chamberlain’s desk. George V was recuperating from problems with his lungs, and he was keen that his subjects shouldn’t suffer the same way. “The King has been reading the recent correspondence in The Times on the subject of the proposed erection of an enormous Generating Station in Battersea, and is in entire sympathy with the views expressed,” wrote his assistant private secretary Alexander Hardinge. “His Majesty feels the greatest concern at the prospect of the atmosphere of London being still further polluted by the large quantity of noxious fumes which this station must inevitably emit… His Majesty asks why it should not be possible to follow the example of foreign countries where power stations are erected at a considerable distance from the towns which they serve… His Majesty considers this project of the London Power Company particularly ill-advised, and trusts the Government will take steps, before it is too late, to prevent it being carried out.”
Chamberlain forwarded the letter to the prime minister’s office, assuring them that “His Majesty quite realises what a terribly strenuous time Mr Baldwin must be having.” They wrote back pointing out slightly tersely that “the Prime Minister had already directed his mind to the problem before the agitation was raised in the press” and assuring the King that “the whole question is now being investigated by the Departments concerned”. But if Baldwin expected any comfort from that direction, he was disappointed. HT Tizard of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research had established that there were actually ways of removing sulphur dioxide from fumes – but “the fact is that all these methods involve expense and quite considerable expense, and the question is whether you can force the Battersea Scheme Promoters to go to any expense in removing sulphur”.
Yet more letters rolled in, from the Royal Institute of British Architects objecting to the effect fumes might have on London’s buildings, and from Westminster City Council, who had passed a resolution of “considerable alarm” and demanded that the power station be shifted to “a site outside the Metropolis where the emission of fumes, smoke, soot and dust cannot prove to be injurious to health and property” (or at least not that of their voters). That was out of the question for financial reasons: the Cabinet were told that transmitting electricity from a site outside London would cost an extra £3 million, not to mention the “very serious” problem of finding space for thirty-six 66,000-volt cables beneath “the already overcrowded roads of London.”
On 6 May, the chairman of the company building Battersea weighed in with his own magnificently huffy letter to The Times: “It is no doubt true that the problem of dealing with sulphur fumes is a comparatively new one in its application to Power Stations, but it is manifestly unfair to the London Power Company to pronounce it in advance to be incapable of solution, and to do so casts an unmerited slur on the present state of advancement of the arts of engineering and chemical science.”
And, amazingly, it turned out he was right. The company came up with an effective method of gas-washing later that year; the following November the government’s scientific advisers confirmed that “we are satisfied that the elimination of sulphur gases at the exit in these experiments was nearly complete”. Construction continued, and by 1933 Battersea was generating electricity, its twin chimneys standing proudly on the London skyline.
Two chimneys? Yes. The ruin we all know and love is actually that of two power stations: the mirror-image Battersea ‘B’ did not begin operation until 1953, the year after the ‘Great Smog’ caused by a combination of exceptional weather and excessive coal-burning in the capital killed more than 4,000 of its inhabitants. It closed exactly 30 years later, meaning that it has now been falling down as long as it was ever producing electricity.
Extracted from The Prime Minister’s Ironing Board and Other State Secrets by Adam Macqueen published by Little, Brown at £12.99. DG readers can get £2 off plus free UK P+P by calling 01832 737 525 and quoting ref. LB 180.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.