First aid kits, torches ... fairylights?: Britons prepare blackout boxes

Casting an eye back to the 70s power cuts, we test the conversational gambit for this winter, ‘what’s in your BOB?’

For Steven Dowd, it’s four head torches and a handsaw. For Ian Welsh, a pack of camping freezer slabs and a pair of slippers, and for Ellie Moss, a community gardener in Eltham, a cheering set of battery-operated fairylights.

With warnings that the UK could be subject to planned blackouts for the first time in five decades, the question “what’s in your blackout box (or BOB)?” could become as everyday a conversational gambit this winter as bemoaning the British weather.

Earlier this month, in what it called an “unlikely” scenario, National Grid ESO warned that households and businesses might face rolling three-hour outages this winter if gas imports from Europe are insufficient for the electricity system operator to cover demand. They would be the first planned blackouts since the 70s, when Ted Heath’s government introduced domestic and commercial outages in response to the 1973 oil crisis and 1972 and 1973/4 miners’ strikes.

Dowd, a Sussex-based spinal injury survivor and lecturer in overcoming adversity, prepared his blackout box after the ESO’s announcement, informed by his enthusiasm for guerrilla camping and bushcraft. It contains a big blanket, a deck of cards, a box of tissues, head torches for every member of the family, a wind-up radio set to Radio 4 and “survivalist stuff”, including a handsaw and first aid kit.

Dowd hopes that any 2022/3 blackouts will subdue the twittering and blinking devices that dominate 2020s domestic life. “Even if we have power in our phones and pads, we have agreed as a family to sit by candlelight and take the opportunity to play games like in the old days,” he says.

In early 1972, when blackouts led to some homes being dark for nine hours at a time, stoic Britons sat for haircuts beneath streetlamps, drank ale by candlelight in pubs and relied on paraffin lamps, packs of cards and stashes of candles. Queues formed at hardware stores across the country as candle stocks ran low.

Drinking by candlelight in a pub in Newcastle upon Tyne in December 1970.
Drinking by candlelight in a pub in Newcastle upon Tyne in December 1970. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Welsh, 68, a sociologist, remembers the blackouts of his 70s youth in Sunderland. “We had candles, batteries, cards and dominoes as well as a camping stove to make a cup of tea and fry something up for dinner,” he recalls of his parents’ efforts to sustain their family of four through the gloom. During the 1973/4 three-day week, TV broadcasting ceased at 9.30pm, “which was a relief. There was only one TV in the house and my mum and dad watched awful variety shows like Opportunity Knocks.

Only 30% of UK homes had central heating in 1970, with many retaining coal fireplaces. Household appliances such as twin-tub washing machines and upright vacuum cleaners were, however, much less efficient, with the average home consuming 20% more energy in 1970 than 2019, despite today’s plethora of tech. Freezers, a rising trend by the decade’s end, were in only one in 10 households in 1974, compared to 98% today.

Welsh’s 2020s blackout box contains matches for the hob, wood for his stove, a pair of cosy slippers and bottled water, as mains water is electrically pumped to his hilltop home. Welsh is also padding his freezer with camping cold packs to extend the life of its contents if his electricity is cut. “Will it be fun? I don’t know, I might end up eating a lot of herb cubes and thawed foraged blackberries,” he says.

Six-year-old Paul Caldecott is the last remaining pupil at school during a power cut in February 1972.
Six-year-old Paul Caldecott is the last remaining pupil at school during a power cut in February 1972. Photograph: Chris Djukanovic/Getty Images

Blackout preppers abound on social media, including the “family preppers” Ashley and Eric Goshen in Michigan; British bushcrafter Michael McQuilton in Sweden; and Scottish Urban Prepper, aka SUP, whose YouTube videos advise corralling “blackout situation supplies” including a lantern, a battery operated FM radio, a powerbank and paraffin candles.

On Diggers and Dreamers, an online community for aspiring communalists, a lively discussion is under way about the appropriate contents for a 21st-century BOB. Emma Dyson, a crystal business founder in Worcestershire, suggests a survivalist “go bag”, including food, water purification tablets, torches and candles, as well as a tent for shelter in a possible apocalypse. Medway Prepper plumps for a traditional stash of candles, batteries and a camping gas cooker, as well as a solar generator and morale-boosting bars of chocolate.

“A tobacco tin and a bottle of Jameson,” Kent-based thatcher Benny Rance rejoins. “That’s me sorted for a couple of hours, at least.”

Sally Howard

The GuardianTramp

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