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‘The house was freezing’: life during blackouts of 1970s Britain

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: David Bagnall/Alamy</span>
Photograph: David Bagnall/Alamy

When Judy Young first saw the government’s response to concerns over power supplies could be potential blackouts this winter, her first thought was: “Thank God I haven’t got young children any more.”

On Tuesday, it was reported that under the government’s latest “reasonable worst case scenario” plan, Britain could experience several days of blackouts in January if the country is short of power.

Young, a retired headteacher and now portrait painter who lives in Herefordshire, said the blackouts of the 1970s were particularly challenging with her two very young children.

“It was difficult being in a blackout with young children who you can never take your eyes off even for a second, especially not if you’ve got candles all over the place,” she says.

“The house was freezing and it was dangerous with such small children to have any kind of oil heater which they could burn their fingers on.”

She says that during the electricity blackouts, the family had to quickly adjust to the fact that they might be left without power for hours, and so make the most of the time in which the electricity was on, including cooking when they were able to.

But despite the difficulties, she remembers the amusement the children felt at the time.

“I can still in my mind picture their small faces, smiling with excitement at the thought of having their meals as picnics in the sitting room, and having their baths in a tin bath in front of the fire,” Young says. “They loved it. After the power cut, they used to beg for it to happen again. They didn’t remember being so cold and miserable.”

Chris Lilly, a 69-year-old retired teacher, remembers experiencing a power cut while watching Live Like Pigs by John Arden at the Royal Court theatre as a drama student in 1973.

“At the beginning of the play, they told us that they were expecting a power cut, and they were happy to go ahead if we were too,” Lilly says. “Then they gave half a dozen of us on the front row torches, and the play progressed.

“Everything was going swimmingly, and then the lights cut out, and that’s when we had to turn on our torches,” Lilly recalls. “It was kind of like blitz spirit.”

Although the thought of having to rely on torches while at the theatre may seem bizarre nowadays, at the time it was nothing unusual for Lilly. “The blackouts were very matter of fact, it was very ordinary,” he says. “There were power cuts, and you were told when the power cuts would be in the newspaper, so you could accommodate to that.”

Jenifer Gould, a local councillor who grew up in Dorset, was a child at the time of the 1970s blackouts. Experiencing them was so formative for her that as an adult she always makes sure there are candles in the house.

“Lighting the candles when we lost the electricity has just stuck in my mind,” she says. “Without having a huge idea about what the power cut really was, and why it was happening, we knew something was going on when the candles came out.”

Gould remembers that the blackouts felt like a “normal thing”.

“I don’t remember it being a big issue, because we didn’t just rely on electricity. We had a radio with batteries, and we had gas cooking,” Gould says. “It never felt like a shock when it happened, and I don’t remember my parents making a big fuss whenever it happened. It almost felt fun, and a bit exciting.”