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By Paul Coleman on

Coal – Britain’s Buried Treasure

Postgraduate researcher Paul Coleman explores how electricity use was encourage in wartime Britain.

During the First World War, Britain was primarily reliant on coal-fired power stations for its supply of electricity, unlike countries such as the USA or Germany, which could make greater use of hydroelectric power. Demands were also placed on coal supplies by the gas industry, railways, the Merchant Navy and the Admiralty, as well as by domestic users across the country, with many families still reliant on coal fires for heating and cooking. In addition, coal exports formed a major part of Britain’s overseas trade.

However, during the first six months of the war, coal production declined as miners joined the armed forces, and by the end of first year of the war approximately 250,000 miners had left.[i] Coal was a vital resource, essential to the manufacture of gas and the production of electricity. If the electrical supply had to be curtailed or stopped, there would be no electrical searchlights, and, in addition, food supplies would be in danger because of the refrigerating plants in cold storage warehouses.[ii] In June 1915, the Electrician reported that the generation and distribution of electricity had reached a state of efficiency in its usage of coal that its use ‘was of material advantage in saving the greatest asset of the nation at this time’.

While the wartime disaster was averted, the importance of coal to national security had become obvious and electricity had been revealed as a more economical use of the national coal reserves. The Electrical Development Association (EDA) was set up in 1919, with the task of encouraging greater use electricity for both industrial and domestic purposes. As such, one of the key topics dealt with by the EDA was the preservation of coal resources and the role that greater use of electricity could play in this.

Cover of EDA 16 – Britain's Buried Treasure
Cover of EDA 16 – Britain’s Buried Treasure

Leaflets such as Britain’s Buried Treasure (EDA 16) talked of the depletion of Britain’s coal resources, and the ways in which using electricity could help to reduce the amount of coal used. Stating that people did not want coal itself, but rather the light, heat and power that is released when it is burnt, arguing that it was better for both individuals as well as the nation that this process was carried out under scientific control in modern power stations. This would not only allow for more of the energy released to be utilised, but would also prevent the release of smoke soot and other emissions within the home, improving health as well as reducing the amount of work to be done around the home in terms of cleaning and preparing and lighting fires.

Pages from EDA 16 – Britain's Buried Treasure
Pages from EDA 16 – Britain’s Buried Treasure

This is perhaps best illustrated in a leaflet produced in 1919, titled the Land of Beautiful Reality (EDA 6). This leaflet tells the story of Barbara, an exhausted housewife, tired from a day spent cleaning dirty grates, lighting fires, cooking meals and carrying the coal required for all the fireplaces in the house. After dinner, she falls asleep and dreams of a “kindly Goddess” who replaces the old dirty grates and kitchen range with shiny new devices that needed “no cleaning, caused no work and reduced the household duties by half”.

Cover of EDA 6 – 'The Land of Beautiful Reality'
Cover of EDA 6 – ‘The Land of Beautiful Reality’

When this is revealed to merely be a dream she reluctantly goes back to her life of hard work, but soon discovers that her husband, “that adorable man of hers”, has replaced all the coal fires with electric fires and the kitchen range with a modern oven, as well as many other useful electrical gadgets. The change in Barbara is monumental; rather than being exhausted she is now able to greet her “adorable man” at home with “smiles that spoke of health happiness and contentment”.

EDA 6 – 'Electricity - the Silent Servant'
Excerpt from EDA 6 – ‘Electricity – the Silent Servant’

The remainder of the leaflet refers to electricity as a silent servant, which carries out your wishes at the touch of a button. The leaflet focuses on the ease and convenience of using electricity. While making no claims to being cheaper than the alternatives of coal or gas, the EDA claimed that using electricity was less wasteful and that every unit of electricity paid for would be converted into useful heat with nothing wasted up the chimney.

Illustration taken from EDA 6
Illustration taken from EDA 6

While leaflets such as this made much of the convenience, modernity, and health benefits of using electricity in the home, it is clear that one of the main focuses of the group at this time was the preservation of the nation’s coal resources, which underpinned the industrial and economic future of the country. As we are now recognising the consequences of using fossil fuels, it’s really interesting to look at this literature and see that conservation of coal and using different forms of energy are nothing new. Maybe we need Barbara and her “adorable man” to promote wind and solar energy next.


[i] 1 Supple, The History of the British Coal Industry: 44-48.

[ii] 2 “Coal Supplies”, The Electrician, No.1935, No.11, Vol. LXXV, Friday June 18 1915: 403.

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