Thursday, December 08, 2005

Déjà Vu?

Fuel Crisis 1947
The Link above is to a public information film telling the nation to 'Watch Your Meters'.

The possibility of a coal crisis was recognised early but the country still faced great hardship. According to the 'Cripps Plan', the government's response to the possibility of winter shortages, absolute priority for coal delivery was to be given to power stations, and the normal quota of solid fuels was halved for industry, although supplementary supplies were to be provided for essential goods.

However, not only did the plan hope for a mild winter, it assumed a higher level of production than the civil service predicted and was in fact produced. When a harsh winter came, further restrictions had to be put in place. Large sectors of industry could not be supplied with electricity. Domestic usage was also rationed. The most explicit result of this was massive temporary unemployment that, according to historian Trevor Burridge, was as high as four and a half million in February. The crisis lasted three weeks until the cold weather subsided and coal supplies could be restored. By 12 March unemployment had been reduced to three quarters of a million.

Attempts were made to increase and modernise coal production. The decision by Emmanuel Shinwell (Atlee's Minister for Fuel and Power) to abandon open cast mining was reversed. Lignite was used to temporarily bolster coal and coke supplies. Temporary licences were granted to small privately owned mines. In deep mines, use of conveyor belts was increased to free up extra man power for the coal face. Collieries with low productivity were closed down so that their workforce could be diverted to collieries with higher production levels.

It is difficult to measure the impact of the Fuel Crisis, as there were so many other factors prominant in defining Britains economic position: in particular the Anglo-American loan agreement.

Comparing this to this winter's potential Gas shortages leaves us wondering whether we should have learned from this experience of civil servants' optomistic over-predictions and underestimation of the weather's severity, and leads us to ask whether the market conditions are right for the best response to any problems that may arise.


Ashworth, W., The History of the British Coal Industry, vol. 5 1946-1982: The nationalized industry, (Clarendon Press, 1986)

Burridge, T., Clement Attlee, (Cape, 1985)

Harris, K., Attlee, (Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1995)


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