South London Memories: From power for the people…Battersea Power Station

Battersea power station was built in 1929 and opened in 1941. It’s had a long history, that includes a period of decay when it closed to a phoenix-like rebirth as a multi-billion regeneration of the area includes the building’s hull becoming a major shopping destination including thousands of new homes.

The towering building, dubbed by The Observer as “one of the finest sights in London” became a Grade II listed building in 1980.

Its architect was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed London’s red telephone boxes, the Tate Modern building, Liverpool Cathedral and the Cambridge University Library.

Battersea power station, at its height, supplied 20 per cent of all of London’s electricity needs, and was the third largest generator in all of the UK.

The rest of London’s electricity had to be generated by 28 other stations.

Battersea power station’s Station A was closed down in 1975, and in 1983, Station B was also axed and the site shut.

The nine billion-pound regeneration area, one of Europe’s biggest development sites, will still leave behind memories for former staff.

Above, Team Battersea Alumni from left, Peter Owen, Jim Barnes, Rita Kelly, Tom Bassett, Michael Winter and Brian Davidson. Picture: Charlie Round-Turner

Michael Winter, a shift change engineer, said: “I worked at Battersea power station from 1981 until the day it closed – and I was one of the last ones out the door.

It was an unbelievable place. I think what blew me away was the control room. It was absolutely massive and the number of people who worked in it was absolutely unbelievable.

“For many years it was the highest rated thermal efficient station in the country – if not the world.”

Jim Barnes, a former shift charge engineer at the station for two years until 1969, said: “Battersea used to be called ‘The Cathedral of Power’ and it has retained that status.

“Working at Battersea power station has always given me a special feeling.

“Particularly in the days when it was at full load, because everyone has heard of it and they immediately related to you.”

Rita Kelly, a shorthand typist for three years until 1957, said: “It was rather like a classroom in one way because we each had our own desk behind one another or in front of one another. There was dear Andy, who was our manager.

“And then there was Mr Seymour who was a so and so.
“He was the top man and quite stern. Behind his back we were quite rude really – we’d either blow a raspberry or just laugh, which wasn’t right really. But that was just how it was.

“In the summer, if the weather was good, we’d go up on the roof by the chimneys for our lunch. One day I wanted to get up the chimneys. I started to go up one and somebody in authority came and told me I had to get down so I did.”

Brian Davison, the first student apprentice, who began work there in 1948 and stayed for five years, said: “It was like going into a church – apart from the noise.

Battersea power station in various stages of its history. 

“The A station was wonderful. It was unique -– and that word sums it up to me. It was a one-off and I’m highly delighted that something that was iconic when it was built – and it was iconic – is being preserved and long may it last. If something was the second only to St Paul’s Cathedral, then it’s iconic.”

Tom Bassett, a mechanic for seven years until 1970, said: “It’s good to see the power station rising again almost from the grave. Battersea Power station is an iconic building because in its day it was the biggest power station in the country. It had the biggest turbines generating the electricity.

“And not only that – the architectural elegance as well made it something special.

“Coming back to Battersea power station was really interesting. I’ve met some of the people that worked here just after me.”

Paul Orrells, a student apprentice for five years until 1980, said: “Battersea was a fantastic place to work.

There was interesting work, varied work. Being a young boy doing your first apprenticeship, it was fascinating. It was the experience that set the ground work for the rest of my career of 41 years in the electricity supply industry.

“Lots of power stations get demolished totally never to be seen again. But to save the power station – albeit in a different use – to allow people to come back and see it in the future is fantastic. Hopefully one day my grandchildren will come and see it.”

The project’s director of placemaking Honor Fishburn said: “In addition to former workers, we’ve also heard from family members who came to Christmas parties at Battersea power station, locals who grew up near the building and consider it a key part of their neighbourhood, as well as people whose grandparents were involved in the original design and construction.

“All these individuals are part of the human history of the iconic building.”

Battersea power station in various stages of its history. 

The current redevelopment will be tackled by architect Frank Gehry, 90 – whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao sparked a revolution in architecture. Foster + Partners, whose chief Sir Norman Foster designed the Gherkin, Millennium Bridge and London’s City Hall.

The Gehry section has 600 affordable homes, aiming to ease London’s growing housing crisis.
The 42-acre regeneration has a total of 4,239 homes, offices and shops along with 19 acres of parks, and a new Northern line Tube station.

It could create 20,000 new jobs and inject £20billion into the UK economy.

Battersea is also home to the Battersea Academy for Skills and Employment, which will help match Battersea residents with jobs in the area, as well as provide relevant training that can be used in future.

The power station has featured in films such as The Dark Knight, Superman III, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and The Children of Men – as well as being made famous across the world by the cover for Pink Floyd’s album Animals.

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