United Kingdom

‘Terrible and Horrible’: What Life Was Like During the Blackouts of the 1970s

Warnings of power outages this winter shuddered at Britons who experienced the “terrible” power cuts of the 1970s.

The head of the National Grid has said British households could be turned off between 4 and 7 p.m. on “really, really cold” winter weekdays if Europe cuts gas exports.

John Pettigrew said electricity and gas could be cut off on “those deepest, darkest evenings in January and February” if energy supplies from Europe prove insufficient due to the disruption of the war in Ukraine.

Teenagers forced to drink by candlelight in Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, in 1970


Countries across Europe cannot rely on Russia for their gas as the colder months approach and analysts said that, despite rationing, further austerity measures from Moscow could lead to the continent running short of supplies.

Unlike today, most of Britain’s electricity came from coal, and so a crisis erupted in the 1970s when miners voted for a six-week strike above wages between January and February 1972.

Miners picked up power plants in an attempt to curtail coal supply, leading to massive power outages across the country and businesses being forced to close.

This disagreement lasted until 1974, when then Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath was forced to introduce a three-day work week to conserve energy.

Alison Hopkins, a retired IT sales manager and former city councillor, recalled the tedium of blackouts as a seventh-year student in the 1970s, spending hours in the dark several nights a week.

“It was just deep, boring, boring,” Ms Hopkins, 67, told UKTN. “We should be trying to figure out how you would prepare your meal around 9 p.m. if the power went out for three hours.”

Ms Hopkins, who lived in Brent in the 1970s, said blackouts were common, with the lights turning off during peak hours into the evening hours, but sometimes also in the middle of the day.

She added that some people had three-day weeks and newspapers would provide a timetable of when there would be a power outage.

Christine Drexler, assistant manager of a bookstore, works by lamplight in January 1974


Ms Hopkins started working at a company that became BT and said: “It was so damn boring, you had no light in your office and you had to go home early, you couldn’t get into a shop, you couldn’t get coffee.

“It was dull, cold and annoying and when we got into the 1970s we were short on sugar and toilet roll.”

Ms. Hopkins, who then lived with her parents, Donald Mcintosh and Charmian Mcintosh, said she was lucky enough to have a gas fireplace in her family’s living room, but relied on camping gas lanterns to get around the house after dark.

Jaine Lunn, 63, had a similar experience as a high school student living in Doncaster, but recalled that she often used candles in the house and that batteries and torches became scarce in local hardware stores.

Alison Hopkins said the blackouts were a ‘nightmare’ and lasted for months

(Alison Hopkins)

During school blackouts, she recalled being sent home early and eating cold sandwiches for dinner at home by candlelight.

“It happened very regularly, it happened at different times of the day,” Ms Lunn said. “Sometimes they told us in advance. They put in the news what time you would be cut off.

“The real hassle was figuring out when to do your laundry. The washing machine would just stop spinning and it would be full. We had to do our homework by candlelight – it was a nightmare, it took months, it was terrible.

“I just remember coming home from school and it was dark and you were bored. In the end you just packed up and went to bed cold.”

Blackouts were not a new phenomenon in the 1970s, as this 1962 photo of the London Bar at St Pancras station shows


Ms Lunn, who lives in Wembley, said her parents both grew up in the war and in the 1970s were shocked that the power was still being cut.

With her five siblings, Ms. Lunn said she drove her parents “crazy” and sometimes had to pass through the village after dark to check on her grandparents and stay with them until the power outage was over to make sure they were okay.

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Bobbie Rawson, who works in the hospitality industry, was only around eight or nine at the time of the blackout. However, she remembered the power outage with more fondness.

“Usually we were all in one room with candles, playing games,” said Mrs Rawson, who lived in north-west London at the time.

She added: “Usually Mum and Dad would come home from work and the TV would be on, but now it’s ‘Wow, they want to play games, this is great.’

“We played a version of hide and seek and we called it blackout. I remembered just being told the electricity won’t turn on tonight, but it was a lot of fun for me.”