The role of electricity in post-war planning

Cecil Thomas Melling was an electrical engineer with an esteemed career. In 1919 he began his apprenticeship with British Thomson-Houston in Rugby and continued with an apprenticeship with Metropolitan-Vickers in 1920. By 1922 he became a research engineer in their high frequency laboratory. Later his focus was on transformers and large machines. 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. He was President of the IEE in 1962.

On 3rd March 1942 Melling wrote a report [ref. SC MSS 159/02/08/02] of which only the typescript copy survives in the IET Archives. In it he described the role of electricity in post-war housing.

Firstly, he outlined two opposing standpoints unique to post-war planning when the war was not yet over. For instance, there was the importance of having plans ready to put in to operation immediately once the war was over in order to ‘turn over production to peacetime use and absorb the demobilised Services and war production labour’. However, given the uncertainty of war and the economic status of this and other countries meant that it was impossible to make adequate plans.

‘In fact some of the post war planning are in the nature of deciding on the wallpaper before it is known whether there will be enough money to build a house at all.’

The key therefore to successful planning was to be flexible enough to allow for modification at short notice.

As part of the planning process development plans had been made before the war by local and county authorities via various Town and Country Planning Acts that had been administered by the Ministry of Health. The plans could not be rigid as further plans had to be added as a result of the damage caused by enemy action and Melling highlighted the city of Coventry as an example.

Melling noted that the physical side of reconstruction would be a major problem with an estimated 2,000,000 houses required in addition to the non-domestic buildings damaged by enemy action and the construction of new roads and public works.

There were several government departments instrumental to the post war planning but feeding in to these were the professional institutions and voluntary organisations. As it affected the electricity supply industry two committees had been formed, namely, The Institution of Electrical Engineers [IEE] Post War Planning Committee and E.L.M.A. Committee referred to as the Co-ordinating Committee of the Electricity Industry.

The IEE Committee considered the various technical aspects of electrical manufacture and supply coming within the scope of the Institution such as education, training and personnel; fundamental and applied research; electricity supply, distribution and installation; production, manufacture and employment; telecommunications, reconstruction and development; general policies and problems of standardisation of material and design.

Post war activities were also being scheduled by the British Standards Institution and the Electrical Research Association.  

Melling noted the problems of post-war planning that would have confronted the electricity supply in general. As a result of the reduced economic status of the country post war a larger amount of foodstuffs would have had to be grown in Britain rather than importing. This was good for the electrical industry because of the future development in rural electrification. On the downside it might also bring a strong case for reducing the price for rural supplies. Melling also noted the danger of over optimism for the supply industry,

‘In making long term plans for post war construction the electricity industry even more than other industries will have to safeguard against too optimistic a forecast based on the artificial boom during the first few years of peace…’

With regards to town and country planning Melling reported that until there was an official announcement of the Government policy on the decentralisation of industry and the relocation of the built up population to improve congested urban area, it would not be possible to plan the most economic layout of electricity supply systems.

So far as the domestic side was concerned Melling was of the opinion that post war electricity supply would be in competition with gas but it was essential that better appliances were manufactured. It went beyond manufacturers improving the appearances of such appliances but the need for more research in to electric heating of buildings, for example reverse refrigeration.

‘The whole question of electrical equipment in the home must be more intimately linked with the building methods…’

A further report by Melling presented to the Electricity Committee on 13th March 1945 [SC MSS 159/03/01/13] is concerned with the use of fuel within post-war houses rather than their building structure. The object of the report was to suggest how far electricity should be used in preference to other fuels with the conclusion that fuel using appliances must be fit for purpose and desirable by the householder. In view of these two points Melling proposed that electricity should be the fuel for all new household purposes with the exception being the provision of an open fireplace in the living room and the bedroom directly above. This was in response to the public’s preferences. However, he noted that electric plug points should be made available as an alternative means to use electric fires if desired.

In order to produce a balanced report Melling listed the arguments brought forward by the gas industry for their preference over electricity. Melling’s counter arguments to these help us to better understand the advantages of choosing electricity as the preferred fuel and the development in the electrical industry in the run up to the war.

The arguments against electricity can be summarised as thus:

  • Electricity cost more
  • Gas was preferred for cooking
  • Electricity was slow especially for boiling water
  • Electricity supply suffered from frequent breakdowns
  • Heating rooms with electricity gave a “dry” feeling to the air

Melling reacted by stating that all consumers in the temporary houses would adopt the Two-Part Tariff (whereby there was a fixed charge per quarter and all units were ½ d. per unit).

“All units used for cooking, water heating and refrigeration therefore, would be supplied at ½ d. per unit, and in comparing the cost of electric operation with gas, this is the figure which must be taken for a fair comparison. To be competitive gas would require to be more than 6d. per therm, and in Luton [which Melling was using as a case study] the price of gas at present is 10d. per therm.”

With regards to the preference for gas for cooking Melling replied that this was true up until c1930 as gas was generally the only alternative to solid fuel. Since then however, both solid fuel and gas cookers had been displaced by electric cookers. At the beginning of the war the rate of increase was at its greatest but cooker manufacture had to give way to munitions production. But in 1945 Melling stated that there were around 1,750,000 electric cookers in use.

“Progress must be made and this implies that in the post-war era, electricity will displace gas cooking. Already in some places such as Welwyn-Garden-City 65% of the householders use electricity for cooking, and the demand for cookers is still increasing rapidly.”

In the early period of electric cooking the criticism that boiling water was slower than on gas rings was correct due to the primitive designs of boiling plates and the Electricity Undertaking’s inability to cope with demand. However, Melling pointed out that with the new cooker designs and increased hotplate loads this was no longer an issue and experiments to test the speed at which water boiled proved that electric cookers were faster. He also reminded the Electricity Committee that the majority of water boiled for tea was done via an electric kettle and this was far easier and faster than boiling water on a gas ring.

With regards to the assertion that electricity supply suffered frequent breakdowns Melling wrote that during the war a supply of electricity was better than that of gas. During peacetime the breakdowns were confined to the old D.C (direct current) areas and in the period 1943-1944 averaged 45 minutes per consumer per year. In the A.C (alternate current) areas there had been no breakdowns aside from some minor wartime breakdowns of the Central Electricity Board Supply.

As for the argument that electric fires dried out the air Melling conceded that this was true for both gas and electric fires but of obsolete designs. It had now been overcome by both industries in their modern appliances which did not dry the air unless there was low voltage or low gas pressure.

Melling concluded his report by listing the advantages of electric cooking and therefore the preferred fuel for post war housing. In essence electricity was cheaper, more efficient, quicker, cleaner, quieter and free from the trouble of obstruction of gas pipes. The public also agreed, according to organisations that carried out their own surveys, the results of which Melling referred to. For example, the Society of Women Housing Managers reported that over half of the tenants asked chose electricity for cooking and the electric fire was chosen by the largest number for heating bedrooms. These results were echoed by the Standing Joint Committee of Working Women’s Organisations, who also added the preference for heating water by electricity.

The temporary housing provided by the Government post war was to be equipped with electricity for lighting and for an electric immersion hot water heater. The cooker and wash boiler (for washing clothes) would either be gas or electric but Melling writes that the Local Authority would wish to provide fuel which, in addition to being efficient would also meet with the preference of the householders – an estimated 80% of new houses built in Luton (Melling’s case study) would want electricity. Melling concluded that the decision was made by the Local Authorities for the temporary housing scheme in Luton for an all-electric operation.