Electricity rationing

In January 1940 the British government introduced food rationing gradually over several years. Unlike food it was hoped that fuel would be used economically with voluntary rationing of lights, fires and baths making significant savings. Official rationing of fuel had been opposed for a variety of reasons, the main being that it would require a large number of civil servants to support it, which was not practical in war time. Instead a propaganda drive through the press, radio and advertising was adopted for the British public to ration themselves.

Advertisement encouraging the voluntary rationing of electricity [IET Archive NAEST 157 12 03 – Slide 57]

Despite the efforts for voluntary rationing the government announced on 17th March 1942 that coal, gas and electricity were to be rationed.

A report within The IET’s archive collection on the undesirability of electricity rationing was written by Cecil Thomas Melling, electrical engineer. 

Cecil Thomas Melling

In 1934 Melling moved to the electricity supply industry with a brief period at the Yorkshire Electricity Power Company.  He then moved to Edmundsons Electricity Corporation, where he was active in modernising their system of distribution and thus increasing supply while reducing costs.  Melling left Edmundsons in 1943 and, after expanding his experience in the electrical supply industry with 5 years as Borough Electrical Engineer at Luton, was appointed Chairman of the Eastern Electricity Board, a post he was to hold for 11 years.

Melling was awarded a CBE in 1955 and became President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in 1962.

Melling’s report

Melling’s report was written 4th October 1939 (ref. SC MSS 159/02/07/01) and is part of a larger collection of his working papers. The report can be viewed below:

The report opens with the assertion that fuel rationing may be necessary during war times and that if this was the case it should apply equally to coal, gas and electricity. However, fuel rationing should not apply to the smallest consumers, “to whom it would mean undue hardship.”

Melling put forward in his report that although the Electricity Supply Industry knew about the fuel rationing it was not secured by The Fuel and Lighting Order, 1939 (which required registration of consumers with a licensed merchant recording the quantities of coal and/or coke acquired in each quarter of that year) for the following reasons:

Firstly, it was seen as against the national interest because it caused unnecessary discomfort and by,

 “encouraging the burning of raw coal in preference to the use of electricity for cooking, thereby wasting high quality fuel; increasing traffic on railways and roads, and increasing the use of labour, petrol and horses in the distribution of coal to domestic premises instead of encouraging the burning in Power Stations of low quality coal which would be of little use for other purposes.”

Practically it would also incur additional administrative expense and require new staff that would be better immobilised elsewhere in the war effort. 

For those who already exercised restraint and voluntary rationing it imposed further hardship while at the same time allowing an ample ration to those who in previous years had been extravagant. In addition, consumers would have to pay a higher average price whilst those who inadvertedly exceeded their ration would have to suffer the threat of being cut off. Consumers would have been required to learn to read their own electric meters as a safeguard against over-consumption which would have led to unnecessary confusion.

Melling raised the point that there was a difference in the ratio of units of electricity versus therms of gas proposed in the rationing scheme which led to further discrimination of electricity consumers,

“by allowing a minimum of only 200 units of electricity against 100 therms of gas, instead of allowing 2,000 units – a figure based on the gas industry’s own estimate of equality.”


“by basing the ration of gas and electricity on the previous years’ consumption, in spite of the more rapid development of electricity than that of gas for domestic purposes.”

Rationing not only caused considerable distress to domestic users who were already feeling the full effects of the war but it caused further misery to electricity supply undertakings by crippling development beyond the restrictions enforced by war conditions. With the imposition of rationing consumers, Melling projected, would have to return their electric cookers and other appliances on hire or hire-purchase, due to the difficulty of small consumers obtaining a reasonable ration. This in turn would lead to heavy financial losses to undertakings already saddled with rising costs and reduced revenues.

The notion of rationing of electricity was flawed because there was an unfair comparison between the usage of gas over electricity. Even before the rationing scheme came in to force in 1942 there was a drastic reduction in the use of electricity due to the cessation of street lighting, shop window lighting, neon and other advertising signs. Also, Melling points out, consumers had been evacuated from highly electrified districts to rural areas where the degree of electrification was considerably less.

Melling reports that there was also already a voluntary economy of fuel by consumers in the National interest. Two London companies alone reported a reduction in electricity output by 48% and 34% respectively.

“The full operation of the Fuel and Lighting Order to electricity consumers cannot save more than about one million tons of coal in a full year above that saved by voluntary means. This represents less than two days’ normal output of the coal mining industry. This saving is not worth the price which consumers, electricity undertakings and the National interest must incur by the Fuel and Lighting Order, 1939.”

Finally, Melling concluded that the rationing of fuel was drafted without adequate practical guidance from the Electricity Supply Industry. In his opinion the scheme was not representational because advice was given by the Electricity Commissioners who as a judicial body were insufficiently acquainted with practical matters of electricity supply. There was also inadequate consultation with Electricity Supply Undertakings.

Melling ended his report by stating that there was no wish on the part of the Electricity Supply Authorities to avoid a rationing scheme, but in the interests of all concerned and for the reasons set out in his report, this should be postponed until more consideration could be given to it.