The ‘Cathedral of Electrons’ in Battersea

Battersea Power Station 'A' 11th May 1934

The lop-sided Battersea 'A' Power Station 11th May 1934

It has occasionally been said that the rather sad and disgracefully neglected Battersea Power Station in South London looks a bit like a billiard table turned upside down. It’s not a particularly good discription – the proportions aren’t right at all. Although if it was a billiard table and the right way up and it was before 1953, it would have fallen over because it only had two legs.

Battersea Power Station as we know it today, with its familiar four chimney layout, was actually two individual power stations – Battersea ‘A’ and Battersea ‘B’ but constructed eventually in the form of a single building with the last of the iconic fluted concrete chimneys only being raised as late as 1955.

Most of the extraordinary detail of the power station, that once made the London writer Felix Barker to compare Battersea to the great church of Sainte-Cécile at Albi in the south of France, has now gone – obliterated, by over twenty-five years of seemingly complete indifference to one of London’s famous landmarks by the various property development companies who have sold it on rather than developing it.

The cathedral of rubble on 9th July 1981

The cathedral of rubble on 9th July 1981

During the 1920s electricity was supplied to London by small companies that were often dedicated to single industries or groups of factories. Any excess power was then sold to the public. However due to differing standards of voltage and frequency that were being provided, parliament in 1925, decided that the power grid should be a single system.

Several private power companies pre-empted the feared nationalisation (which wasn’t to arrive until after the war in 1948 with the British Electricity Authority) by forming the London Power Company which planned several very large stations for London. The first of these they came up with was in the Battersea area between the Thames and the Nine Elms Lane.

In 1928, with the architect Theo J Halliday in charge, construction started on the power station despite furious opposition by public figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. To appease the public, who were worried about the general size of the building and the pollution it might cause, the London Power Company hired the famous architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott of Liverpool Cathedral and the red telephone box fame. He was known to the press as ‘architect of the exterior’ and it was his idea to turn the previously planned square chimneys into the fluted classical columns we know today.

The initial construction of Battersea 'A'

The initial construction of Battersea 'A'

photograph of Sir Giles Scott in 1934

photograph of Sir Giles Scott in 1934

When Battersea ‘A’ started generating power for the first time in 1933 the brick solidity of the building was already getting fulsome praise from the public, as it has, generally, ever since. The huge beautiful red-brick solidity of the power station, along side Halliday’s extraordinary art deco interior, which included bronze doors showing figures representing Power and Energy opening on to a marble turbine hall, influenced the writer HJ Massingham’s brilliant description of the building as ‘the Cathedral of Electrons’.
Battersea Power Station's control room July 1933

Battersea Power Station's control room July 1933. The station would ultimately provide a fifth of all London's electricity.

Checking the Synchroscope in 1933

Checking the Synchoscope. It looked great but often caused cricked necks.

Battersea Power Station at sunset circa 1938

Battersea Power Station at sunset circa 1938

Work started on Battersea ‘B’ Station soon after the war, still under the auspices of the London Power Company. However by the time it completed building opened the UK’s electric supply industry had been nationalised into the hands of initially the British Electricity Authority which subsequently became, in 1955, the Central Electricity Generating Board and then finally (I think) the Central Electricity Generating Board in 1957.

The building of Battersea 'B' in 1951

The building of Battersea 'B' in 1951. 'One day, we will all have to wear day-glo high-vis jackets and hard-hats even when we're walking on the ground'.

The view over to the bucolic and rural sounding Nine Elms Lane. 14th February 1951.

The view over to the bucolic and rural sounding Nine Elms Lane. 14th February 1951.

In 1964 Battersea Power Station had a bad fire that caused power failures throughout London. Unfortunately it was due to be the opening night of BBC2 which in the end had to be delayed until the following day at 11am.

Incidentally Battersea Power Station is often described as Europe’s largest brick building but a quick Google describes two other buildings also as’Europe’s largest brick building’ – namely The Britannia Grand Hotel in Scarborough and the Malbark Castle in Poland.

The aforementioned Church of Sainte-Cecile in Albi, however, is often described as the world’s largest brick building, and as France is in Europe, that’s the building I’m going for. Churches though, are meant to look great. Power Stations, whether they have two or four chimneys, generally, aren’t.

The Jam – News Of The World

Pink Floyd – video to Pigs On The Wing which include fantastic views of Battersea Power Station

Rowan Atkinson’s spoof of BBC2′s opening night


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10 Responses to “The ‘Cathedral of Electrons’ in Battersea”

  1. davyh says:

    Well, I never knew it was once lopsided…

    Not an upturned billiards table; definitely an upturned Utility dining table.

    Very sad what’s happened to it – I blame Thatcher (as for most things).

  2. Planet Mondo says:

    Quality, quality, blogging. If only I could come up with something like this..

  3. belinda says:

    another fantastic read
    this awesome building that has always evoked so much establishment embarrassment- it just will not go away like a bad penny or the tower of london it comes back to remember our industrial past in the middle of london
    makes everything around look small and domestic .
    thank you so much for putting this together

  4. Annie says:

    Hi – I love your website with the inclusion of the Youtube footage!
    I am personally putting a book together on Battersea Power Station. It is a large format ‘coffee table’ book with lots of fantastic shots both old and new. There are several sections to the book including a large history section and ex-workers section. It is for these, I am very interested to get more photographs.
    I was wondering if you would like to contribute to the book in any way. Do you have any more shots and or would you be willing to have any of these shots included into the book. The shot of Gilbert Scott is wonderful and would i love to know where you got it together with some of the Station under construction.
    I look forward to hearing from you soon.
    Kind regards – Annie

  5. Sharon West says:

    A friend urged me to read this page, great post, fanstatic read… keep up the cool work!

  6. Brian Barnes says:

    looks certain that we are fast approching the next sale of the Power Station as the debt masters at NAMA call in £280 million and shares in the company plummet to 1.15pence with no partner on the horizon. The building is slowly deteriorating but as all around is razed to the ground it becomes more prominent Look me up to read more

  7. [...] It’s often been said that the rather sad and disgracefully neglected Battersea Power Station in South London looks not unlike a billiard table turned upside down…via The ‘Cathedral of Electrons’ in Battersea. [...]

  8. Lucy says:


    Giles Gilbert Scott actually wanted square, brick chimneys, but had to live with circular concrete ones. He was appointed to the project late in the game, and the foundations were already in place, which were not designed to support heavy brick chimneys. The circular concrete chimneys had been planned by the engineer Pearse, and are much lighter than brick ones. Scott was unhappy with the circular chimneys but went on to design brick tower bases that are probably the most architecturally pleasing features of the building. Scott got to design Bankside (Tate Modern) from scratch later in the 1960s and went with a square brick chimney for this design.

  9. [...] The ‘Cathedral of Electrons’ in Battersea [...]

  10. [...] Battersea with two towers 11th May around 1935  Source [...]

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