Wirescapes and World War: Transforming rural Britain

Image from https://i2.wp.com/artinfo-images-350.s3.amazonaws.com/0610228/027.JPG

Julian Trevelyan – Landscape with Pylons (1938)

I am writing this on a train between York and Peterborough. Out of the window I can see row after row of electricity pylons, and a quick check of Google tells me I might soon be looking at row after row of wind turbines (though most of the news stories begin “Turbine plans scrapped”. I’m not going to read around on this, it’s just a foil for my blog post.) Yesterday I attended a conference at Leeds Trinity University on the electrification of rural Britain, which went a long way to explaining how we arrived at this contemporary landscape and where it might be going.

In part organised by the interwar rural history group, it attracted a wide variety of researchers, from history of science, environmental history, archeology, English literature and economics. It is hoped that the papers might be collected together for publication, so rather than give a full run through of them I want to share some of the main themes that emerged. A growing body of researchers are currently turning toward twentieth century Britain as an essential yet underrepresented period, particularly in the history of science. The agricultural and the rural are coming to assume a central position in this historiography, in large part thanks to the “central paradox of the present economic situation that the capacity of the world’s agriculture to supply almost every variety of foodstuff is greatly in excess of the existing demand, while at the same time in every country, including the most prosperous, large masses of the population are gravely and palpably undernourished.” (1935!!)

The electricity pylon as the harbinger of modernity (in all its good and bad connotations) was obviously very central to the proceedings. The painting at the head of this blog was highlighted – along with several other examples – by James Purdon, whose paper gave a fascinating and thorough overview of literary and artistic responses to rural electrification. Focussing in particular on poetry and painting, Purdon argued that there was a strong link between the pylon and surrealism. He also showed there was quite clearly an internally coherent body of work devoted to the growth of the electrical network, referencing authors too numerous for me to write down. Once, Purdon explained, he had been told that the only difference between the pylon debate and the wind turbine one, was that nobody had ever argued for the beauty of pylons. Don’t be so sure.
These high artistic representations of pylons contrasted quite nicely with the hand-sown pylon depicted by a WI member in her scrapbook (I think from around 1950, again my notes have failed me.) Rosemary Shirley, in studying how rural women recorded their own experiences, found this stitched pylon amongst a collage of images that suggests their naturalisation – by this time – within rural surroundings. From here Shirley went on to explain how these same women played a pioneering role in the expansion of the frozen food industry which, depending as it did on access to an electrical deep freeze, carried middle class associations. At this point I tweeted an hilarious Findus frozen meal joke, though it isn’t strong enough to bear an encore.*

A second very strong theme, was that if we disaggregate the agricultural from the rural, it seems clear that electricity was pretty insignificant. While there are exceptions with regard to the poultry and dairy industries, most farmers were very slow to join an electricity supplier, and when they did opt for electrification they often generated it themselves. This was at the core of Paul Brassley’s paper which looked to explain the much more rapid uptake of electricity amongst farmers in the 1950s. As ever his research was comprehensive, suggesting a number of possible answers including the nationalization of electricity in 1947, political pressure from the largely Conservative rural MPs, and the little known 1953 Moretonhampstead meeting of electricity board officials, which made an intensification of the rural electrification programme a central national concern. By the way, Brassley is still seeking the minutes of this meeting, if you know where they might be do get in touch!** I was surprised that the possibility that farmers in general were wealthier by this time did not come up. If it is agreed electricity generally only powered luxuries rather than industrial processes this would surely correlate with a rise in disposable income. Perhaps this was too obvious an answer, but that aside I think the challenge Brassley sets us, particularly historians of science and technology, to explain this change and who’s purposes it served is an exceptionally important one. Off the top if my head I would suggest it probably had a lot to do with making the countryside habitable for travelling urbanites, much in the same way that many a remote cafe now proudly displays ‘Wi-if’ in its windows. The limited demand for electricity was also central to Blaise Vyner’s archeological study of Linton hydro electric power station, originally built in 1909. Recently brought back into commission, he had been tasked with surveying the site and researching its history, concluding that its output must have been relatively weak, though no effort was made to improve it thanks to persistently limited demand.

Finally I want to reflect on the challenge that I am currently facing, and what questions I went to this conference trying to answer. I am about to start writing a chapter on the Second World War and how this changed the scientific institute at the centre of my study. While there are numerous accounts of Britain’s food control and production programmes, including some very recent work in this edited collection, often agricultural science is left out of the picture, or the peculiar expertise of agricultural scientists merged with various other experts called upon by the State in a time of crisis. It seems clear that most scientists (biological/physical/chemical/social) saw the war as a great opportunity. Measuring the extent to which this opportunity was seized, and the intended and unintended consequences of such ambitions, is crucial to my research. I see the programme of electrification as embodying many of these changes, in particular the way in which the purposes of technology are made ambiguous. This ambiguity can be crucial to scientists faced with changing economic and social contexts (to give an old example, a wheat geneticist who breeds a high yielding wheat can’t sell it on these grounds in a time of over production and depressed prices). At the same time of course, it is the source of much anxiety and confusion. The fate of agricultural science seems to me to be more sensitive than most to changes in the political ambitions of its patrons. Throughout the period of my study, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany remains a public institution, drawing its funding largely (though not exclusively) from the government. In the era of global food insecurity and Lysenko, such connections deserve serious scrutiny. The work currently being pursued by those I met at the electrification conference has certainly helped me to begin to understand these relationships better, so cheers to them!

*That was pretty much the joke. On an unrelated note, I have just finished reading ‘I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’, available at all reputable book shops and Tesco. I have a small habit of adopting the writing style of whomsoever I have read most recently. In this instance I think it unlikely that my prose has been Partridged, though should you find any examples please make doubly sure before contacting me, I’d be very embarrassed for you should you make such a clearly insulting blunder. In my book, whether fat woman or pregnant, she’s always best left standing.
**See *

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