A few eyebrows were raised recently by the listing of the 1960s brutalist Moore Street substation in Sheffield, as part of English Heritage’s recent focus on post-war modernist architecture. The building has become a local landmark on the ring road in Sheffield, especially since National Grid started floodlighting it at night.
There is nothing quite like Moore Street in Birmingham, but the city has played an important part in the nation’s electricity industry. Not so long ago, power stations would have been a startling and imposing feature on the Birmingham skyline in a way difficult to imagine now, and less than a century ago most households wouldn’t have had any electricity supply at all.
In the early years of electricity generation, power was provided by a ragbag of local companies and forward-looking municipal corporations. The City of Birmingham operated its Electric Supply Department from 1903, and built the Summer Lane power station shortly after. It was built next to the canal to allow coal to be brought from the Black Country, not too far from Snow Hill. It can be seen in this aerial photo in 1921, beyond the old general hospital.
As Britain recovered from the War, industry was in crisis and needed a cheaper and reliable supply of electricity. The Weir Committee proposed the creation of the national Central Electricity Board (CEB) to solve the problem of inefficient and fragmented electricity supply with a ‘national gridiron’, the first integrated electricity grid system in the world.
Under the direction of the CEB, Britain embarked on the single biggest construction project that the country had ever seen. Across the country, small and inefficient power stations – including Summer Lane – were closed down and a generation of new ones proposed. They were to be linked by the new national grid of substations and power lines, carried on distinctive pylons chosen by leading architect Sir Reginald Blomfield.
The City of Birmingham’s Nechells Power station was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1923. Hams Hall power station – just over the border in Warwickshire and at the time one of the largest in Europe – followed in 1929, and became the pivot of the Midlands network. It was built on the former estate of Charles Adderley, the 1st Baron Norton, who also donated the land to create Adderley Park in Saltley.
The grid was complete by the late 1930s, and proved its worth by keeping the lights on during The Blitz; supply could be switched from the rest of Britain after Battersea and Fulham power stations in London were both bombed. The post-war Atlee government nationalised the electricity industry in 1947. Further larger power stations were built at Hams Hall in the late 1940s (Hams Hall B) and again in the 1950s (Hams Hall C). A second power station was completed at Nechells in 1954. The picture below shows a view from near Aston Park in a 1968 slide from the excellent Phyllis Nicklin collection (see here and here for a couple of others).
These power stations, and especially their enormous cooling towers, are now all demolished and will probably be missed by few. Nechells power station closed in 1982, but the the turbine hall has been incorporated into the StarCity development. As a youngster, I watched from the end of our road as the last cooling tower of the Hams Hall B substation being demolished. (Following privatisation in 1990, the chimneys and cooling towers of Hams Hall C were unsportingly demolished under darkness in 1993.) The unique space-age control centre still remains and looks fascinating, but lies redundant and is closed to the public.
The most interesting footprints of the electricity industry left in Birmingham are the remaining substations from those early efforts to bring electricity to the people of the city. The substation tucked away on Upper Trinity Street in Bordesley (pictured above) has an impressive City of Birmingham crest proudly bearing the ‘Forward’ motto, hinting at the proud civic aspirations involved.
Bournville substation (above left), next door to Bournville railway station and dating to 1920, is also very impressive. Part of the original Summer Lane site is still there too, being used as a substation, which can still be seen near the Centro offices.Perhaps most interestingly, Selly Oak substation (above right) was ingeniously located in a redundant water pumping station, which was put out of use after the opening on the Elan Valley Aqueduct in 1906. My photo was taken from Bristol Road, but the best view is from the train, on the approach to Selly Oak station. It is a fine Martins & Chamberlain red brick and terracotta building in the Gothic style, and is Grade II listed. So, Birmingham does have a listed substation after all!