Monday, 15 May 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: West Bankside - Electricity and the City

A visitor to London, following the south bank of the River Thames from London Bridge towards Westminster Bridge, having passed the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, continues along Bankside, passing beneath the Millennium Foot-Bridge. To the left is the Tate Modern, housing one of the great modern art collections of the world, but until 1981 the building was a power station, supplying electricity to the homes and businesses of London.

Bankside power station in 1985. Photo: Cjc13 (licensed under CCA).

The first Bankside power station was built at Meredith's Wharf in 1891. It was owned and operated by the City of London Electric Lighting Company, and supplied electricity to Southwark and (via cables across Southwark Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge), the City: the electric street-lights first went on in Victoria Street, just across the river, on the 25th June 1891. Someone witnessing this might have recalled the evening, just nine years previously, when he or she had seen the lights of Holborn Viaduct lit up by electric lighting from Thomas Edison's very first London power-station.

Thomas Edison's Holborn Viaduct power station (image is in the Public Domain).

The grandparents of that witness might have been present at the Royal Institution in 1831, when Michael Faraday first demonstrated the electric dynamo, establishing the principle by which all electricity is generated to this day; and in 1809, when Faraday's mentor, Sir Humphrey Davy, first demonstrated an electric light-bulb, powered by an enormous arsenal of batteries.

Michael Faraday. Photo: Wellcome Institution V0026348 (image is in the Public Domain).

Faraday's dynamo (1831). Photo: Royal Institution (image is in the Public Domain).

Sir Humphrey Davy demonstrating an electric light in 1809 (beneath him, in the cellar, are the batteries powering it). Image is in the Public Domain.

The Bankside power station was fueled by coal, which could be delivered directly from the river, but its capacity to produce electricity was very soon outgrown by demand. A larger coal-driven power station ("Bankside A") was built in 1893, and was expanded in 1895. Electricity was cheaper, safer, and more convenient than the gas lighting that had illuminated most of London's streets since the 1840s, but it came at the cost of increased pollution, attracting complaints from city residents as early as 1900.

Bankside A was damaged by German bombs during the Second World War, and, in 1947, the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert-Scott was commissioned to build a new power station ("Bankside B" - the building that we now know as Tate Modern). Although this was originally planned to be coal-driven, a national coal shortage prompted a rethink, and it became one of the first oil-powered power stations, burning sixty-seven tons an hour at full-load, and drawing ten million tons of cooling water from the Thames.

"Bankside A," standing amid bomb damage in 1947. Photo: Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society (image is in the Public Domain).

The turbine-hall of "Bankside B" in 1991. Photo: Cwrcun (licensed under CCA).

Attitudes to power generation in cities were changing, however, in the environment of post-war Britain. Improved transmission technologies made it possible to locate power stations at a far greater distance from urban centres; and the burning of fossil fuels had contributed to a series of devastating London smogs, culminating in December 1952, when five days of smog brought the city to a stand-still, and claimed the lives of somewhere between four thousand and twelve thousand Londoners, damaging the health of many more. The Clean Air Act followed in 1956.

Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952 (image is in the Public Domain).

Piccadilly Circus during the Great Smog of 1952 (image is in the Public Domain). 

Oil, however, was a cleaner fuel than coal, and Bankside B continued to produce electricity until 1981. The project to turn the building into an art gallery began as a student project by Sarah North and Antony Gormley, some of whose photographs, taken in 1991, can be seen here. The actual conversion project began in 1994. The gallery opened in 2000, and a new extension was opened last year.

Behind the gallery is Southwark Street, from where our visitor might catch a No.344 bus, heading south to Elephant and Castle (still within the Borough of Southwark). Here, in the middle of a traffic roundabout, is a monument to Michael Faraday, who grew up nearby, the son of a blacksmith, and who served as an apprentice to a book-binder before being taken on as an assistant to Sir Humphrey Davy. One has to wonder how many passers-by actually know what this monument (designed by the architect, Rodney Gordon) represents, but its symbolism would certainly not have been lost on Faraday himself, the man to whom, more than any other, we owe the electricity supply that we take for granted today.

The Faraday Memorial at Elephant and Castle. Photo: Danny Robinson (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I never knew about the Great Smog of 1952. Fascinating info and pictures.

  2. My mother had a clear recollection of it. She was nursing at a London hospital. As the smog closed in, a group of porters went out to fetch some mates from the docks - ex Navy men, who turned up with great coils of rope. They strung the ropes at waist-height across the hospital courtyard so that doctors, nurses, and patients could feel their way from one building to another.

  3. Incredible. Thank goodness for the Clean Air Act. Long may it live!