Power cuts of the 1970’s – Out Of The Ashes

 child by candlelight

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Out Of The Ashes by Arlene Hassan

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I was about ten years old when the three-day week started in the early 1970’s.  There were endless power cuts and the electricity to homes, street lighting and non-essential business was often simply cut off.

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At our house in Motherwell, in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steelworks, we had a coal fire, as did most of our neighbours.  Like them we could rarely afford to buy enough fuel to last all week, so everything in the house that could be burnt and was not essential would end up on the fire.

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Much to my grief, during the worst weeks of the cuts the oil paintings by my stepfather, Joe, who worked at the steelworks, found their way onto the fire.  Joe was always the one to select the painting to be sacrificed and he would be the one who, without emotion, would snap it over his knee and place it on top of the bundles of rolled up paper and splinters of wood.

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With no radio or television, and without sufficient light to read by, the entire family would usually go to bed in the early evening – our beds had been moved into the living-room as it was the only room with a fireplace.  To begin with, these evenings were a bit of an adventure for us children.  The two oldest would tell ghost stories while I, the youngest, would cling to my mother in fear.  But my parents, exhausted by the struggles of everyday life, just wanted to get to sleep; chatting was discouraged.

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It was on one such evening that Joe put the last of his paintings on the fire.  I had hoped that things would improve and this painting would not have to be burnt.  It was my favourite. In my childish self-absorption it never occurred to me to think how it must have effected Joe.  The painting was of his oldest son as a toddler and he had no photographs of him at that age.  I was determined to watch every inch of that painting succumb to the flames.  As the rest of the family slept, I watched the yellow and red of the boy’s checked trousers mingle and melt into the rough side of the cheap hardboard which Joe had used as a canvas.

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As I looked up from the flames I saw the dark outline of a man.  I caught sight of him picking up the clock and the ornaments from our mantelpiece and putting them into his coat.  I let out a cry and my parents awoke to see a close neighbour of ours standing among us, stealing from us.  Joe calmly told the old man to put the things back and get out.

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The next day, the incident was not mentioned.  When the man passed my parents in the street, they exchanged a salutary nod as they always had.  My parents despised dishonesty but this man had been made redundant from the steelworks several years earlier and was struggling to bring up two small sons alone.  They had decided that he had been desperate and to take action against him (legal or otherwise) would only hurt the sons he loved.

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Eventually electricity supplies, and life in general, returned to normal but Joe never picked up a paintbrush again.  Although in earlier times some paintings had been given to friends and neighbours who had admired them, to my knowledge none has survived.

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From > In Your Own Words – Anna Murphy/The Sunday Telegraph
Picture > Candlelight by RainbowGrumpy – Deviantart

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article-1062089-02CC773200000578-185_468x286-001

Picture > Daily Mail Online

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My friend very kindly loaned me a book called In Your Own Words, an interesting collection of stories told by readers of the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, I thought I’d share a couple of those stories with you this year.  Some of are very amusing, but this story of childhood in 1970’s Britain during the power cuts was a little sad.

I was a child at the time of the power cuts, blissfully unaware of how much some people were suffering during that time, so this was a bit of an education to me as to how other people were affected.  I’ve heard of furniture being thrown on the fire in desperate times, but never heard of art being used for fuel.  I wouldn’t have thought much heat came from one small skinny painting!  What a sad way to lose years of hard work?

I remember those days in the early 70’s when the electricity would just turn off, sometimes without any warning.  Candles were always near by, ready to be lit, as the power cuts would often occur in the evening.  One of those cuts really stands out in my mind, as the lights suddenly went out, hysterically I over reacted and screamed the place down!  There was something about the sudden blackness that really freaked me out.

In an effort to calm my panic my Dad caught hold of me in the dark telling me everything was okay, pulled me towards the front door, opened it wide and pointed up at the moon.  It was a really clear sky, large bright moon, lots of stars, and most reassuring of all I could see my Dad standing next to me illuminated by moonlight.  *sigh of relief!*  Candles were lit, and I calmed down once I realised I hadn’t plunged into some kind of weird Twilight Zone where everything I knew had vanished into a dark hole!

On those occasions we could no longer watch television or play records and could only listen to a small radio powered by batteries.  As soon as candles were safely in place, playing cards and boardgames would be brought out, and to make it more fun my Mum would disappear into the kitchen to make pancakes.  My unpleasant shock was easily erased by yummy pancakes dripping with lemon curd or blackberry jam!

I realised by reading this story that my experience of those electricity cuts was idyllic, and turned out to be enjoyable and memorable evenings, very different from those who’s lives and jobs in one way or another were threatened by the power and coal strikes.  If you want to read a little more on what those electricity cuts were about there’s a very good Wikipedia page about it.

Does anyone else remember these 70’s blackouts in Britain, or possibly another kind of blackout anywhere else in the world?

Other articles about the 1970’s power cuts.
Memories of the 1970’s shortages and power cuts.

Forty years ago the lights went out over Britain.
DS Forums discussing memories of the 1970’s power cuts.

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Tiger Feet – Mud
(click picture for video)

xmas_mudTiger Feet was a big hit in 1974, and I know my brother will be smiling watching this!  I remember him trying to teach me the dance they’re doing during that performance on Top Of The Pop’s.  But I was more of a ballet girl, I struggled with some of those moves!

It’s one of those songs where you need to be at a party, music loud, fairly drunk and preferably teenage memories of strutting that dance at the school disco – old time 70’s rockers!! 

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Old Maid Card Game

Old Maid Card Game


I was so pleased to find an image of the Old Maid card game on Pinterest, it was one of my favourite games at the time of those powers cuts, I haven’t see it for years!!  Do any of you remember this card game?

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duskinwinter_karengadient1Dusk In Winter
stygianspirits_karengadient1Stygian Spirits
Art by Karen Gadient @ Fine Art America
karengadient.com

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37 thoughts on “Power cuts of the 1970’s – Out Of The Ashes

  1. We have occasional blackouts here, but nothing like what the excerpt and you describe. Burning one’s belongings sounds drastic in hindsight but survival is a strong instinct. I can only begin to imagine the heartbreak of burning a painting, the only image, of your child.

    Occasional electricity blackouts can be terrifying or an adventure fro young children. How did your mother cook pancakes during a blackout?

    1. Most events out of the ordinary can be an adventure when we’re children, although I’ve always been the kind of child who didn’t like change much. This one was a bit too sudden for my liking! I actually dislike power cuts these days for completely different reasons. They are rare in the UK, at least where I am anyway, but when the electric does go off for a very short time, I’m left wondering what to do, everything seems to need electric to function now. It’s not until it’s not working that I realise how much we rely on it. Reading books by candlelight really doesn’t appeal any more!

      I’m sure I would have been thrilled if my mother had built a fire in the back garden and done those pancakes authentic cooking style! 😉 But no, nothing like that, quite boring really, we had an electric oven and a separate gas hob – very handy for pancakes during power cuts! 😀

  2. The story is sad. I think I can understand how the man could be broken heart by having to burn his creations or beloved paintings, in particular the picture of his son.

    I only few bits of blackout times when I was young. It was so long ago 🙂 I was interested in playing with candles. With nothing else to do better, I just watched the candle light flickering or tried to hold the candle and walk around in the dark house. Of course, I also was scare of the dark 🙂 I do not recall any long blackout back then.

    1. It must have been a terrible decision to make, burning all that art, I think I would prefer to feel cold, if I had to make that choice! Oh yes, I loved playing with candles too, although I don’t think my Mum was too thrilled about that. I loved the way my Dad could put out candles by briefly licking his fingers and then quickly pinching the flame, I thought that was really brave. He kept telling me it didn’t hurt, so long as he did it quickly it was safe to do – I still can’t do that today!! 🙂

      1. Oh yes, I liked that trick too. I do not recall who showed that to me when I was young too. I had the same impression that was brave. I did try later on when I grew older. Yes, your dad was right about how to do it. It does not hurt by the frame but it can get hot by the melted wax at the base. 🙂

  3. Suzy … Thank you for sharing Arlene Hassan’s story, “Out of the Ashes.” How very sad that his stepfather, Joe, had to sacrifice a painting of his son just to warm their home during these blackouts.

    I recall one time, when our girls were young, in Liverpool, New York. An ice storm knocked out power to our area for 3 days. It began, as I recall, on Ash Wednesday … which I referred to as “Ice Wednesday.” We did make a game of it, bundling up, nodding off in sleeping bags. I don’t remember what we had for meals if the power was out. For us, it was fun … but it got old real quick.

    As you pointed out, it was much harder for many others. Joe must have had a warm heart and he was very compassionate to forgive his neighbor who tried to steal from them.

    1. It is a sad way to lose memories and the proof of creative talent. I still can’t imagine how much heat they got from those paintings. Maybe they were painted on a thick piece of board, can’t imagine a thin board or regular canvas wouldn’t have burnt for very long!

      An ice storm?! That sounds alarming, and three days too!!! 😯 Ours was probably off about three to four hours in any one day, very minimal really. And exactly the kind of weather you don’t want to lose your heat or cooking facilities! It sounded like it waited for the perfect day to arrive Judy – but Ice Wednesday is a good one! 😉 I think you have to make a game of situations like that when you have children around, they’re going to get really bored and miserable very quickly in a situation like that if there’s no fun. I remember having a lot of fun with sleeping bags too, they were a real novelty back then! 😀

      It probably helped that the neighbour didn’t succeed in stealing anything, but it must have been a very strange situation. I guess in times of stress people cease to think logically, good that he had nice neighbours, I’m sure some others might not have been so forgiving!

  4. What a nice combination of memories, Suzy! We didn’t have power cuts for economic reasons, but here, in northern New England, the winter storms which down trees and break power lines under the weight of ice habitually give us power outages that can last for days. The house grows colder and colder, children grow more and more whiney, junk food and the loss of our wired devices drives everyone crazy. Flashlights, candles, woodstoves and transistor radios are suddenly very important, as well as snuggling, story-telling, and going to bed with the early onset of night. Games play their part, too. “Old Maid” was my favorite card game when I was very young. I still played it, as an old maid myself (!) with young nieces and nephews who loved it and always requested it on visits. I won’t say much about Tiger Feet, except that watching the video brought back memories of my mis-spent young adulthood 🙂 and, finally, I very much enjoyed visiting Karen Gadient’s site. Thanks for a rich posting, chock full of fun!

    1. Thank you Cynthia! 🙂 Mm… power off for days is not nice at all! 😦 I was wondering when I was putting this post together how many people are effected today with power going off. It’s a rarity in the UK now, but we can still get it during bad weather too sometimes, and that often effects people for days. I think Scotland is very prone to that kind of power loss, large areas of Scotland are very rural, finding those broken lines must be a big job!

      I can imagine everyone losing their wired devices must be really frustrating, I’m sure it would drive me crazy. There’s so much that relies on electric these days, it’s difficult to know what to do without it!

      The thought of playing old maid as an old maid made me laugh! 😀 I remember thinking that when I was a child – would I still be playing that card game when I was older? Well, I haven’t been, but I should seek out another set of cards for my old age perhaps?!! I loved her spectacles!

      Mis-spent youth? I’m sure no bit of youth is entirely mis-spent, everything has a learning curve! 😀 I’m glad you enjoyed this Cynthia, thank you, and also for visiting Karen’s site, she’s a talented artist! 🙂

  5. First: thank you for featuring my artwork!

    I remember a few blackouts when I was kid (New York/New Jersey) but nothing like what was described here. Mostly I remember gas shortages, far too many arsons, and a lot of crime. I guess I don’t always have a shiny view of my world from back then, but at least I can remember my mother as she worked on the painting I still have with me.

    1. You’re very welcome Karen – thanks for allowing me to include it, I hope you get some visits from it over time! 🙂 I had a real job deciding what to include, so many of them are beautifully colourful, and I kept changing my mind. I should have just asked you to pick what ones you’d like to promote, that would have been a little easier!

      When you say gas shortages I’m guessing you mean gas for vehicles? Any kind of shortage can be very disturbing, we are encouraged to build our comfortable lives round all these utilities and to have them restricted for whatever reason is a hard adjustment.

      Sounds like a very troubled time with crime and arson – still, at least you can say it wasn’t dull! That’s so good you still have your mothers paintings, it’s lovely to have creative things left behind from our family, something very reassuring about that. I’ve managed to keep my Mum’s poetry, and various other writings, and my brother has a beautiful solid wood coffee table that our carpenter Dad made with his own hands – precious items to us, and much better than priceless heirlooms any day!! 🙂

      1. Yes, petrol shortage, but that was the least of our neighborhood problems back then. Still, I tend to remember the happier moments in growing up. You’re right, though… it wasn’t dull. 🙂 I also suppose all that non-dullness is good inspiration for writing or art. Well, even with art, I try to keep it positive!

        I agree that the most important things are those handmade items: paintings, journals, anything made personally and from the heart. We were robbed some years ago and they took the fancy stuff and left the handmade stuff… and you know? Good for them. We have what matters. 🙂

  6. What great recollections (two different perspectives of the same time period) to share. I had never heard of this before. It’s very interesting.

    1. Thank you! 🙂 It opened my thoughts to what was really going on at that time. That’s the trouble when you are a little kid you have a completely strange view of why things happen, very much focused on your own life, I had no idea what other people were living through.

  7. Oh this was such a sad story to me! the artist having to burn his paintings and then never picking up a brush after that. It must have broken his heart. And the sensitivity of the writer to sit there, knowing that this was her stepfather’s last creation that was burning, she watched, savoring every last piece before it was all destroyed. And seeing her family forgive the man that came to steal, she must have realized at a very young age how desperate those times were for everyone. I love your memories! by contrast. Seems like your family enjoyed some good and memorable times, making the best of the dark. Probably bonding all of you closer together. I can remember a very bad ice storm in Long Island, during that time, and our power was off for a week. It was fun at first, bringing a candle to the bathroom at night. But after 1 day it got old! Thanks for all of these threads that you have weaved together so well, with the beautiful artwork, and the games that were played back in that time. brings back memories.

    1. It is sad to burn something you’ve lovingly made. We never had any expensive or personal paintings in our home, but we did have a few hand painted ones, and it would have been sad to even see those go on a fire. Can’t imagine what it would be like to burn your own! I think moments like that do bond families in a better way than films and TV do. We enjoyed watching TV together, but I actually rememberer the evenings when the games came out much better.

      Oh, I can imagine a week or more of no power could really wear thin after a while. And today people rely on power so much, I think we’d be driven crazy within a few hours! 🙂

  8. Hurricanes are what usually get our power, but that’s in the summer and the lack of power isn’t a warming issue. That story is heartbreaking, the poverty and desperation. That poor man, caught stealing, life is a daily struggle for so many people. We have never experienced regular blackouts or too much demand on the power grid here. Outages are usually dealt with quickly. I do remember ice storms taking the power for a week at a time when I was young, but we had a gas stove like your family, so we could cook, and we had gas heat, so we were warm. Eventually my dad got tired of it, and he bought a back-up generator.

    1. Oh yes a gas stove is always extremely useful in power cuts. When your neighbours with their all electric homes are dreaming about a nice warm tea or coffee – or meal even, you’ll be drinking and eating that warm meal! 🙂 My landlord wants to replace my gas cooker with electric, because he feels long term it’s more safe. I know what he means, but I think that’s a bit of an illusion, electric can be dangerous too, he’s only looking at it from a landlords point of view, I’m pretty certain he has a gas cooker at home, and he wants to take away my only assurance of warmth if the electric does goes. I’m arguing my case to keep the gas!

      I like the idea of a back-up generator, that’s a perfect solution, that’s catching on in the UK to have one of those, because some areas of the country have suffered quite frequent power cuts to do with flooding, and not always directly where they live either, something a lot of people don’t give much thought to – where their electric supply is coming from. 🙂

      1. My dad just put a big propane tank behind some bushes, ran a line to a fireplace and another line to a generator. Now he’s secure. He can’t run everything off it, but they can run most things they need.

  9. Suzy – this is a wonderful post! It is a story that speaks of resilience that is born in the midst of difficult times where every day is a fight for survival. It is always about understanding and compassion. But most of all it is a story of hope that comes from sacrifice and personal loss. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much Rebecca! 🙂 Times like that really do show up how much resilience some people have, and also reveal how vulnerable we all are to relying on these wonderful utilities we have come to completely rely on. I shall try and remember never to burn my paintings in a crisis though – not the best solution!

  10. Wow Suzy, you have brought back memories of a time that I had clearly put away in the recess of my mind. I remember those days because our children were small and we would bring out the old maid game along with many others, and play by candlelight. I remember one of the holders we put a candle in was a blue metal one that belonged to my mum; it was one she used as a child,it had a handle and reminded me of Wee Willy Winky!! Oh the memories are flooding back now! 😊 xx

    1. I guessed you would have memories of this time Christine! Ah, so you played Old Maid too! 🙂 I noticed there was a lot of images of that card game in the Pinterest search, and it’s interesting to know for sure that it was as much loved in America as the UK. I love those old metal candle holders, so traditional and cute, but also very practical. I’ve only ever seen one in real life and it wasn’t in my family, but I do remember my parents talking about using them as children in the 1940’s, and also joking about them in reference to Wee Willy Winky! Might not be so fun if we had to rely on them for light though, it’s much more enjoyable to have candle moments out of choice, and not dire necessity! 😀

    1. It is quite a haunting memory, watching someone burn precious art, I can’t imagine what that must have been like! My Dad used to often joke about us being poor, and we did have some hard times financially during the 70’s in my family, but not so bad that my parents needed to burn anything meaningful just to keep warm, that was more their own experience of childhood, not a nice way to live. Sharing a fire with others is wonderful, it’s not something I experience a lot, but when I do I often feel it links in our minds to keeping each other warm, sharing our warmth, they’re good feelings and the very basics of life. 🙂

  11. Such a sad, sad story. I didn’t live through power cuts like that here in the US but i did grow up in a household where the power or water or phone was frequently disconnected for lack of payment. So i can somewhat relate. I’ve never had to burn my belongings for warmth though thankfully. You experience sounds quite lovely 🙂

    I do remember Old Maid…have never heard of tTiger Feet 🙂

    1. I can see how you would relate to that story Melanie! I don’t think it matters much what has deprived you of basic needs, the feeling of deprivation is pretty much all the same, and it must be a horrible memory. I know both my parents experienced a childhood where they went without some very basic necessities – sometimes food! And especially my Dad remembered a lack of needs provided due to lack of payment. He used to laugh about how his mother would tell them all to keep quiet and hide away from windows when the rent man came loudly knocking on the door – she wasn’t thrifty with money! Must have been very stressful at the time though.

      It’s so good that so many remember Old Maid! And I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of Tiger Feet! They didn’t reach very far with their music, Mud were a very quirky British band. 🙂

  12. The story has touched me deeply. It reminded me of one incident which still terribly hurts me. At my husband’s home there were some old photo albums full of rare black and white pictures of his family. I always used to admire the collection. One day my brother-in-law told us he found some burnt remains of those photos in our backyard. And we knew who did it. It was my mother-in-law who had the habit of throwing out all the old things. But we were all shocked and asked her why she did it and she said they were so old and that she had saved the colour ones! All the childhood pictures of my husband and his siblings were gone! I am still not sure she was in her normal senses when she did that because she was going through some health issues since then.
    Power cuts! You should come to India! You can still experience them. 🙂

    1. Oh no, that must be so upsetting! 😦 Does sound like she wasn’t thinking clearly, that’s really sad. It’s a common source of conflict in many families where one sees something as less value than another. We all think differently on what we value. I know I’d be really upset if that happened to any of my old photographs. Old photos are family history, and very precious – colour or black and white.

      So you have lots of power cuts? That’s what I was thinking when I put this post together, power cuts may be a thing of the past for me, but how good is the availability of power for many people round the world? This is what I love so much about having a blog, I feel to some extent I’m receiving a good education in how life is for people in many countries, and that’s so good, coming straight from a real person, real life, no second hand altered news item on the TV. They hype stories up or down on the news, and I’m left not knowing what the reality is for someone thousands of miles away. I really appreciate those pieces of information.

      If you have power cuts often, that must cause you some problems with using the internet sometimes? In my corner of the world people get upset if their internet speed slows down, and when I say ‘people’ I include myself in that! 😀

  13. Thanks for sharing the Hassan account of those days and your own. The thought of the paintings being burned one at a time for survival is heart-wrenching. I can’t imagine what must have gone through Joe’s soul as he sacrificed those paintings.

    1. It is, an unbearable thought really. It’s sad to lose family pictures or art for any reason, but just to keep warm for a little while is a tragic way for them to go. Although I suspect this kind of occurrence has probably happened to many people in different eras, fuel for heat or cooking is an essential for life, and paintings or a loved piece of furniture I guess gets devalued very quickly in a crisis like this one. 🙂

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