Battersea Power Station: A History

Battersea Power Station: A History


In May, BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys’ Michael Portillo remarked, “perhaps no building has been as distinctive as one that arose in the 1930s and that still looms over the Thames – Battersea Power Station.” This is less of an opinion than a statement of fact, as the power station is one of the most famous buildings in London. It’s on t-shirts, postcards, iPhone covers and even 2021 London Olympics pin badges. Sir Elton John performed beneath its iconic chimneys, and Pink Floyd used it for the cover of their album, Animals. Today, a redevelopment programme worth £9 billion is bringing the power station back to life.

In 1925, ten smaller electricity companies merged to form the London Power Company, to consolidate London’s growing electricity demand. The company decided to build its first super power station at Battersea, due to its proximity to the Thames. The river provided the water for the power station, but also allowed for the coal to come in on barges. There were also surrounding railway lines in the area that could transport coal.

There was much opposition to its location, as people felt it was too large, obtrusive, and a risk for polluting local parks. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury was against it. However, the company chose to go ahead with its plan. In an attempt to suppress these protests and appease public opinion, the company’s officials hired the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He was famous for his previous works, mainly designing the London Red telephone boxes and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral.

The construction took place in two principal phases; station A was built in 1929-35 and Station B was built in 1937-55. The completed power station is one of the largest brick buildings in the world: its footprint is 6 acres, the top of the chimneys is 200 feet, and just the space within the main Boiler House is big enough to fit St. Paul’s Cathedral. At the time, it was seen as an architectural triumph, due to the combination of the detailed brickwork of the outside and the Art Deco interiors. The power station was praised as “the cathedral of power”, and provided a fifth of London’s needs for decades.

However, the power station soon started going through turbulent times. In 1964, it experienced a fire on site that caused power failures throughout the city. Later in the 1970s, there were increased concerns about public health and air quality. As a result, Station A was shut down in 1975 and Station B was shut in 1983.

For years, Battersea Power Station lay derelict because it was protected by a Grade II listed status awarded in 1980. Although there were multiple proposals to repurpose the space, none of them were successful.

That is until 2012, when the Power Station was bought by its current shareholders, SP Setia, Sime Darby Property and the Employers Provident Fund and brought back to life. Renowned architect Rafael Viñoly and the Battersea Power Station Development Company came up with an extensive plan to put the power station and its surrounding area to full use. They are remaining loyal to the original architecture of the power station, both in the inside and outside: even the current bricks used are from the same brickmaker that supplied them originally.

There will be over 100 shops, restaurants and bars and more than 250 apartments inside Battersea Power Station. It will also occupy Apple’s new 500,000 square feet London headquarters. Around the power station, a new community is emerging, with the construction of 20,000 new homes as well as shops and restaurants.

The growing neighbourhood requires additional transport infrastructure, which is why there is a Northern Line Extension to Battersea Power Station, to be completed in Autumn 2021. Passengers at Battersea Power Station will be able to travel to and from the West End or the City within 15 minutes. Overall, the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station is estimated to contribute just under £15 billion to the UK economy in its first twenty years of operation.

Battersea Power Station has a very rich history, and after decades shuttered, is being put to use again. Its redevelopment is leading to the emergence of a new, vibrant community, and will make a very significant contribution to the local and national economy.

About author

Selin Akdemir

Selin recently finished A-levels at Francis Holland School SW1 and is preparing to study law at King's College London, class of 2024.