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By Jan Hicks on

Pylons: Controversial giants in the landscape

Who knew pylons were so fascinating? Science and Industry Museum Archives Manager Jan Hicks, that's who...!

Please note: Electricity: The spark of life ended in April 2019. To find out what exhibitions and activities are open today, visit our What’s On section.

I love pylons. When I look at pylons in the landscape, I see a group of climbers roped together, marching across the land. There is something stately and magnificent about these steel and wire structures that makes me forget that they carry up to 400 kV of electricity in their wires. When I’m out and about, I often stop to take photographs of pylons that catch my eye, although I haven’t yet submitted a picture to the Pylon of the Month website.

I’m in no way an expert on pylons, but I wanted to include the story of British pylon design in our upcoming exhibition, Electricity: The spark of life. The Science and Industry Museum holds the archive of the Electricity Council and its predecessor organisations, and I already knew that there had been a competition to choose the design for these towers. When I carried out some more research into this design process, I discovered that not everyone wanted them in the landscape, but some people loved them so much that they wrote poems about them.

Photograph of a man climbing a pylon, c.1930 – don’t do this yourself!
Photograph of a man climbing a pylon, c.1930 – don’t do this yourself!

In the UK, pylons are officially called transmission towers by Distribution Network Operators. In his book Electricity before Nationalisation, Leslie Hannah explains where the name pylon comes from:

Pylons were the monumental gateways to Egyptian temples. Naming steel towers that would carry the National Grid transmission lines pylons reflected popular interest in Egyptology at the time.

(Hannah, 1979: 116)

The National Grid is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Before it was set up, the UK’s electricity supply was fragmented, with different companies supplying electricity at different voltages, sometimes in the same city. During the First World War, many of the UK’s heavy industries were taken over by the government for war work. In order to keep factories running, a reliable and secure electricity supply was needed, something that Britain didn’t yet have. After the war, the increasing number of companies generating and supplying electricity showed that Britain needed to develop a national electricity supply network.

The 1926 Electricity (Supply) Act created a government body called the Central Electricity Board (CEB). The CEB was tasked with creating the UK’s first synchronised, nationwide AC grid. Construction of the National Grid was the single biggest peacetime building project that Britain had ever seen. It laid the framework for cheap, abundant electricity for everyone.

Central Electricity Board map showing the main grid transmission lines
Central Electricity Board map showing the main grid transmission lines

The grid mostly used overhead cables to link the most efficient power stations in the country. These cables were carried by transmission towers, or pylons. In 1927, the CEB ran a competition to design the pylons. The architect Sir Reginald Blomfield chose the design, which still graces the UK landscape today. Some people think that Blomfield came up with the design himself, but the structure is a modification of a design submitted to the competition by the Milliken Brothers, engineers based in the United States.

I found references to Sir Reginald Blomfield’s decision making among the pages of the CEB minute books and annual reports in the Electricity Council archive, but there was very little detailed information about the competition itself, or the Milliken Brothers’ design.

Minutes of the CEB 22 July 1927 appointing Sir Reginald Blomfield
Minutes of the CEB 22 July 1927 appointing Sir Reginald Blomfield
Minutes of the CEB 16 September 1927 referring to the design of the pylons
Minutes of the CEB 16 September 1927 referring to the design of the pylons

Gerald Bloomfield, a researcher based in Canada, has been making extensive use of the Electricity Council archive to track the development of different sections of the grid. In an as yet unpublished research paper, Bloomfield says that:

Blomfield’s appointment as a consultant to the CEB was an attempt to reassure the public that new technology, large-scale standardisation, and a new public authority could be made acceptable. His immediate task was to recommend a standard tower design which could carry the 132,000 volt power lines across the country with minimal visual disturbance.

(Bloomfield, unpublished research paper)

The first pylon was put up at Bonnyfield near Falkirk in Scotland on 14 July 1928, but the CEB’s new transmission grid didn’t begin operating until 1933, when it was run as a series of regional grids. The grid became a truly national system in 1938, ten years after the first pylon was set up.

At the time the grid was being formed, writers and thinkers like Rudyard Kipling and John Maynard Keynes were opposed to the insertion of pylons into the landscape. Their opposition was on similar grounds to that offered by people today who don’t want to see wind turbines on the horizon. Kipling and Keynes were co-signatories to a letter to The Times opposing the construction of pylons in Sussex, claiming that the new steel towers and their connecting wires across the Sussex Downs was nothing less than ‘the permanent disfigurement of a familiar feature of the English landscape.’

Sir Reginald Blomfield responded on 1 November 1929 with the words:

Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills—one may not like it, but the world moves on.

Other writers and artists of the time were on Blomfield’s side, including my favourite British sculptor Barbara Hepworth who, on seeing a line of pylons through the window of an electric train, said that she was inspired by the sight of ‘pylons in lovely juxtaposition with springy turf and trees of every stature’.

That’s pretty poetic as a sentence goes, but a group of actual poets, who became known as the Pylon Poets, also wrote odes to the at times terrifying beauty of pylons. Chief among them was Stephen Spender. One of his poems can be seen at the end of this article from The Guardian. For anyone interested in an academic appraisal of the work of the Pylon Poets, this essay on Amodern is worth a read.

Clearly, I’m with Blomfield, Hepworth and Spender in my love for pylons, but how about you? Do you, like Bill Bryson defending the Lake District a few years ago and people living in the Highlands of Scotland, believe that pylons are a razor cut through the landscape? Or perhaps, like me, you can see a beauty and grace in the way they cross the land, carrying the electricity we all rely on so heavily.

Some of the images of pylons we have in the archive collection here at the Science and Industry Museum will appear in Electricity: The spark of life, but I’ll leave you with this photograph of a buckled and exhausted looking pylon from the W T Glover collection held at the museum. Even the biggest giants can be brought down by fatigue, it seems.

W T Glover & Co photograph of a pylon failure
W T Glover & Co photograph of a pylon failure

20 comments on “Pylons: Controversial giants in the landscape

  1. Great article Jan. When I see the ugly transmission towers they have to live with in some other countries I realise how good our pylon designer have been.

    1. Thanks, John – I’m glad you enjoyed reading the article, and I agree – we definitely have the nicest pylons in the world!

  2. Being an active Lancashire Pylon on twitter, ( @PylonPenwortham ) I’d like to say thank you for an excellent and interesting article on my history!
    I wish I had known about the exhibition, I would have attended to find out more!

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment! Electricity: The spark of life is on until next April so hopefully you’ll have the chance to come and visit us.

    2. Hello PP, good to hear from you. You used to be my local pylon, when I lived in Penwortham. How’s the view over Mill Brook today? The exhibition doesn’t open until 18 October, so don’t uncouple yourself from the network just yet. And as Kat says, you have until April next year to charge across the M61 and take a load off.

  3. Hello Jan, I was so pleased to find out there is a community of people who like pylons. I am very concerned for the environment and find the objection to the sight of pylons an unnecessary distraction from the issue. I am impressed with their design and function. They bring us the magic of electricity and have a 1930’s 50’s retro sci- fi appearance and feel about them, especially when they buzz and spark. There’s a pylon I have come across with cables that sing in the wind, a beautiful and eerie sound.

    1. Hello Michael, thanks for getting in touch. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pylon sing. I imagine it is beautiful and eerie. There are two ways of being concerned about the environment, I feel – a concern for the balance of nature and our planet’s long term survival, which is an issue close to the heart of the Science Museum Group through its sharing of stories about Climate Change and Climate Crisis, and a concern for the visual aesthetic of the landscape. Finding sustainable ways to live often involves engagement with technological development.

  4. Ho Jan
    my 12 year grandaughter would like to know where the pylons and cables that we can see from Red house Common, off Warrs Hill Road ,North Chailey, East Sussex come from and go to- I havent been able to find a map for her, and dont have all the ordnance maps to be able to track them as they march across the landscape. please can you help.

    1. Hello Terie, thank you for getting in touch. The Science and Industry Museum is closed at the moment as part of the Government’s measures to slow the spread of Covid-19, and staff are working from home. This means that we can’t access the archive material and I’m unable to check the sources in the Electricity Council archive for you. You could try contacting your Distribution Network Operator, UK Power Networks. This DNO owns and maintains the power cables in your area and will have up to date maps for the transmission towers that carry those cables. They have a contact us page on their website East Sussex Record Office at The Keep has the archive for SEEBOARD, the South Eastern Electricity Board. This was the organisation that first supplied East Sussex with its electricity, and its records might include information on the transmission network. The Record Office also holds Ordnance Survey maps from 1870 to 1990. The Keep is also closed at the moment. You can view digital copies of the Ordnance Survey maps for England and Wales via the National Library of Scotland’s online resource Until you can visit The Keep, this might help you to trace the route of the transmission lines in your area.

  5. Hi Jan, thank you , this is really helpful.
    The pylons are part of our lives here, the lane to the local primary school runs under the cables and we often heard sizzling on damp misty mornings as we freewheeled down the hill on our way to school, and on the way home in the afternoon I would let my children bike ahead of me with the proviso that they “wait under the pylons” until I managed to catch up! The nearest farm to us was home to a herd of cows known as the Pylon ayrshires until the farmers retirement in 2015.
    thanks again

    1. Hi Terie.
      I think the line you’re referring to is National Grid’s line between Bolney and Ninfield. It gathers power from power stations along the south coast and from the submarine cables that connect to France, and supplies power to UK Power Networks, who then distribute it around the towns and cities of Sussex and Hampshire.

  6. I am looking for information on the company “Watsham’s Ltd”. The company was involved with pylon construction and based in Nottingham. My father worked for the company from 1933 to 1966. I believe the company constructed the line from Pembroke power station in south west Wales. Whist working in the area he met my mother.

    Any information would be appreciated

    1. Hello Thomas, whilst looking for something else I have just noticed your mention of Watshams Ltd. I can remember in the mid sixtys people who were working for Balfour Beatty mentioning Watshams in the context of OHL construction, and they were a very familiar name in the industry. I did some research and found that the company built hundreds of miles of 132 and 275kV lines from the 1930.s to the 1960’s and then refurbishment work of 275 and 400kV lines up to about 1979. They were purchased by the Hawker Siddley Group and continued for a while then droped out completely, hope this helps.

  7. I understand not everyone like pylons across the landscape so ,would it not be possible to disguise them as trees with false foliage?old christmas trees?fire hazard maybe ??

  8. I have always considered that pylons are a part of the rural landscape. Is there a photographic record of pylons that have been diverted by new roads?

    1. Thank you for getting in touch, Bruce. We don’t have such a photographic record in the archive collection at the Science and Industry Museum. In the UK, transmission towers are managed by Distribution Network Operators. In the north west of England, where the museum is based, the DNO is Electricity North West. I imagine that, where a new road is to be built and a transmission tower needs to be relocated, the DNO would be in correspondence with the Highways Agency, and might well keep photographic records. As I don’t work in the industry, I can’t say for certain that this is the case, however. There is a list of DNOs on Wikipedia

  9. My father worked on pylons in south Wales in the 1950s. I think the company he worked for was JL Eaves construction but I can’t find any info to confirm this can you help

  10. Why not take all the workers & resources off HS2 to build the new pylon routes we need more than HS2?

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