Lately, we have been reading about the rising costs of heating and fuel around the world which reminded me of childhood memories of the ‘Meter Man’
The main power we used when I was a child was coal and gas. Our electricity meter was in the cupboard, under the stairs, similar to Harry Potters’s bedroom. The cupboard was a tiny addition just enough room to hold the meter. The only time it was opened was to insert a shilling for an allotted amount of electricity and gas. However, we usually packed it full until someone forgot and, we are all watching the telly, when….a blackout! Everything electric shut off.
Everyone I knew had a meter there were no monthly electricity bills at least not for our working-class family. We all had a handy supply of shillings ‘for the meter’ a kind of ‘pay as you go’ system.
The British Shilling
For some strange reason, we did not have any torches – or a flashlight as you call them here. Instead, we would scramble around in the dark, to the cupboard under the stairs to find a shilling, – usually piled on the top of the meter, thank goodness – hastily shoving it in the meter or ‘feeding’ it as we used to say, and everything lit up again and back to the programme on the telly.
An Old Shilling Meter Of The Type We Used
Once a month, the ‘meter man’ would come, open the meter with his special key and sit in the kitchen with a cuppa and count out the shillings in the meter, calculate what we owed and then leave a pile of shillings for us. That rebate at the end of the month was a godsend we would pack the meter until you could not get any more in. Sometimes, though, we forgot to feed the meter, hence the blackouts!
There is an old 1966 movie called ‘Funeral In Berlin with Michael Caine as British Spy Harry Palmer. Palmer goes to someone’s flat in London and the man there asks him for a shilling to put in the gas meter or no heat or electricity and no cup of tea.
Arriving in Canada in 1979, was a shock to see the waste of electricity, water, and all the sources that as a child were drilled into us NOT to waste. The first thing we noticed downtown was all the offices ablaze late at night.
Montréal From Mount Royal, Pre-1970
Not to say that we in England did not leave lights on at night, but they were street lamps and certainly not office lights left on all night. Even the Christmas decorations were turned off after midnight. However, as the capital city, London was the biggest culprit, with Piccadilly Circus ablaze with advertisements at night.
The Outskirts of London at night
I have to say, that even when I was a child, we were ALL very careful about heat and not wasting it. The usual cry when we left a door open or failed to close a window ‘Shut that door! Were you born in a barn?! We had curtains up inside the front door and long slinky ‘sausages’ made from one old nylon stocking and stuffed with rags, on the floor of each door to keep the draughts out.
British homes were never really insulated well. In fact, they still are not. My son’s home in London built in the late 1800s has stone blocks with ‘air spaces’ in between for ‘airflow’ because of the humidity! He is just as vigilant about keeping an eye on the meters as we were. We taught him well. I just hope that the so-called ‘new builds’ in England, are better insulated. If not all the heat just goes out the walls and up the chimney.
Houses in the UK were and are not ever, really warm and cosy as they are here, in Canada, even with the addition of central heating which is strictly regulated or timed, as Hydro Quebec is urging us to do now, to come on in the morning as we get up, turn off as we leave and on again at night.
Today, it is a case of ‘been there, done that’ and still we do it. Old habits die hard. Although now we are retired we keep the heating on at a nice comfortable 21C and during the Summer, the A/C is on ALL DAY!! Gasp! My husband still patrols the timers though…
I have to wonder, how we are going to cope in the future with climate change and fuel prices soaring. How will North America manage? Will we be bringing back the old meters? Only time will tell.
During research for this article, it would appear that in England, pre-paid meters are indeed now being used again. Called smart meters they can be paid with a credit card, as defaulting on monthly billing payments seem to be on the rise.