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Ten things you didn't know about Battersea Power Station

Written by
Time Out London contributor

Failed development proposals and a flying pig are only the most familiar bits of the story. Peter Watts shares fascinating facts from his new book about London’s favourite cathedral of power

1. Politicians claimed it would 'bleach babies'

When people heard the proposal, in 1927, for a huge coal-burning power station to be built next to the Thames, they took it badly. It would ‘kill every green thing within two miles of Battersea, rot all the buildings and bleach all the babies’ one Conservative MP squealed, while a letter to The Times said that ‘at least 20 square miles of artistic London will be blanketed with soot and almost impossible to live in’. Protesters included politicians, archbishops, doctors, mayors and even King George V – most of whom lived on the opposite side of the river in Chelsea.

2. There weren't always four chimneys

To deal with the pollution problem, a pioneering gas-washing system was developed to remove particles of sulphur from the smoke. For this to work, two chimneys – each twice the diameter of a Central line tube tunnel – had to be placed at either end of the massive central boiler house. This took time. More than 20 years, in fact. So when Battersea Power Station began operating in 1933, it was only half built. The plan called for two identical power stations to be built side by side, so two chimneys eventually became four, with the final one not completed until 1955.

3. Giles Gilbert Scott only did the outside

Although Scott – the man behind Waterloo Bridge, Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) and the red phone box – tends to get all the credit, he was just called in to prettify the exterior and spruce up the chimneys (which he originally wanted to be square). The overall design of the building was by Leonard Pearce, chief engineer of the London Power Company, while the swanky interiors were created by James Theodore Halliday. After the power station opened to wide acclaim, Scott did share the love. He wrote to The Times saying: ‘The general public only see the exterior and consequently the interior and its wonderful engineering, with its terrifying machinery, hardly gets the notice it deserves.’ 

4. It burnt money - literally

‘To look into a furnace resembles looking into the heart of the sun,’ wrote one journalist when he saw the power station’s boilers in operation. These didn’t just burn coal. During WWII, when a German invasion seemed imminent, surplus banknotes were taken from the Bank of England to be burnt in huge bundles so that they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the enemy. Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, workers recall that the American Embassy would send round gun-wielding guards who used the boilers to dispose of confidential documents.

5. Cats loved it

Battersea Power Station generated such heat that it attracted a small army of stray cats – around 200 of them. An extermination programme was introduced in the 1970s, and by the time the power station was decommissioned in 1983, there were just six felines left.

6. It heated houses across the river

From 1950, water from the power station boilers was pumped through a tunnel beneath the Thames to provide hot water and central heating for Pimlico’s Dolphin Square flats and Churchill Gardens housing estate. Power station Power station workers could walk through the tunnel and pop out of a manhole on the estate.

7. It survived glam rock

Battersea Power Station has been a cultural icon ever since Alfred Hitchcock used it in the opening scenes of his 1936 film ‘Sabotage’. The building has appeared in Beatles films, computer games and numerous ‘Doctor Who’ episodes as well as on that Pink Floyd album cover. Less well known, perhaps, is the ‘Get Down and Get with It’ promo that Slade filmed there in 1971 for ‘Top of the Pops’, with Noddy Holder dancing on the roof dressed as a spaceman.

8. Thirty years ago, you could have bought it for £1.5 million

When the power station closed down in 1983, a competition was organised to see what could be done with it. This was won by a consortium led by developer David Roche. ‘For a few weeks, I had the right to buy all of it for £1.5 million,’ he says. ‘Now, that wouldn’t buy me a flat in it.’ Roche soon sold it to another member of the consortium after the first of several property battles.

9. Michael Jackson wanted it to be a 'fantasy centre'

In 1997, with the still derelict power station owned by Hong Kong developer Parkview, Michael Jackson took a tour with a view to creating a ‘self-contained fantasy centre’. Other proposed uses for the building have included football ground, cinema, casino, mosque, museum, gallery, Noddy theme park, ‘urban ruin’ and racecourse.

10. Prince Philip isn't a fan

‘Why don’t you just knock the bloody thing down?’ he asked one owner. Now Battersea Power Station is being transformed into shops, offices and luxury flats by a Malaysian consortium. Additional blocks of flats have obscured long- cherished views of the power station from the train line into Victoria. By the time they’ve finished, the only place you’ll get a good view of the power station is the Chelsea side of the Thames, where 80 years earlier locals had campaigned against its construction.

'Up in Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station' by Peter Watts is published by Paradise Road Press at £20.

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