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World War One and the electricity network

Did you know that Britain’s electricity system developed as a result of World War One?

When Ernest Edward Thomas fired the first shot of the Great War in August 1914 Britain’s electricity network was a confused collection of about 600 separate undertakings, some private, some municipal, often isolated from each other, with a plethora of voltages, frequencies and variations of AC and DC.

Many of the men working for these companies signed up for active service. From Bristol alone 102 men served in the armed forces: nine were killed in action, 17 were wounded, five won the Military Medal, one the Meritorious Services Medal, one the Italian Croce de Guerra and two were mentioned in despatches.

They were replaced by women who worked as clerks, typists, meter readers, showroom assistants and, eventually, on some engineering duties such as switchboard attendants.

The shortage of artillery shells during 1914 and 1915 led to the government emphasising munitions production and setting up a new Department of Electric Power Supply, which intervened to extract more efficiency from the electricity system.

This saw load factors increase – in Birmingham’s case from 25% to 40% but investment in new power stations was concentrated solely on munitions-producing areas.

Towards the end of the war the benefits of this piecemeal interventionism encouraged the government, and its new Ministry of Reconstruction, to set up four committees to investigate and advise on a national system of electricity supply.

Post-war electricity policy became the responsibility of the new Ministry of Transport, which introduced the Electricity Supply Act 1919. It created Electricity Commissioners who could set up voluntary Joint Electricity Authorities to merge local undertakings.

The lessons from the Great War had been learned but weren’t put into practice as very few schemes were set up. There were only two Joint Electricity Authorities in what are WPD’s four licence areas of today, both in the West Midlands.

Once again the government intervened and in 1925 the Weir Report, which recommended rationalising the electricity industry was published. Its recommendations led to the creation of a national ‘gridiron’ that transported power to local networks.

Thanks to Peter Lamb and Roger Hennessey from the Western Power Electricity Historical Society for their help in compiling this article. More information about the society can be found at

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