In the episode Power to the People of Yes, Prime Minister:

[Agnes Moorhouse] pointedly asks Sir Humphrey the costs of certain everyday items, which he struggles to answer.

One of these questions is:

How long can you run a one-bar fire with 50 pence in the meter?

The "one-bar fire" part seems to indicate an electric heater with some kind of standard intensity setting.

But the "50p in the meter" part really confuses me. That sounds to me as if the heater was coin-operated, which doesn't make much sense to me.

Were there actually coin-operated electric heaters in the 80s in Britain? Or does it just talk about how long you could run the heater before your electric bill increased by 50p? Or does it mean something else?

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    @NapoleonWilson Since Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister is the same show (and since this seems to be a very rare show here), I thought they could share the same tag. And yes-minister makes more sense to me for that.
    – svick
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 0:48
  • Since Yes, Prime Minister is called a sequel to Yes, Minister and also has a separate IMDb entry, I thought it would be more accurate this way.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 10:52
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    Um, but we've had no answer to the query asked by Agnes in the show; namely, how long COULD you run a one-bar fire with 50 pence in the meter (in 1985)?
    – user19170
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 15:39

4 Answers 4


Were there actually coin-operated electric heaters in the 80s in Britain?

It's actually very similar to that. It's not the electric heaters which were coin operated, but the whole electricity system for the house. You'd deposit money directly into your electricity meter which would then allow you to use power equal to that cost, and someone would come and collect the coins out of it periodically, it's called an Electricity prepayment meter, and it looks like this, though this is a slightly later model that only takes £1 coins, older versions would accept smaller denominations:

Image of a coin operated power meter

These were very popular for rented accommodation as it meant that if the tenant didn't pay their electricity bill, the property owner wouldn't be held responsible, as well as removing the need for tedious paperwork whenever the property changes hands.

They actually still exist in a very similar form even today, and my house had one until a few years ago, where instead of being coin operated, they had a form of electronic card which you would remove from the meter, take down to the local shops and "top up" with real money (the shops have a special machine for this), then you plug the card back into the meter and it adds the balance stored on the card onto your power allotment. These newer models look something like this:

Image of modern prepayment meter

So for exactly what that meant, the question is basically a shorthand of saying:

If you put 50p into your electricity prepayment meter, how long could you run an electric heater with a single bar (heating element) before your power shut off?

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    Wow, I never realized they still existed in the 21st century. Do they shutdown power if you go to the shop to "top up"? Not very nice to the fridge if there is a huge queue or you run late for the day...
    – PlasmaHH
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 12:56
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    The green tag you can see to the right of the picture is a "key", which is what you take down to the top-up shop. Once it's put back into the slot it transfers its credit to the meter. The meter works fine without the key inserted, so there are no "service gaps" while you're out.
    – rojomoke
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 13:02
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    @phyrfox: Or cable TV, or cell phone bill, etc... Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 19:12
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    @phyrfox Actually, we do have them over here. I had one over in Arizona while I was going to college. The system in question had a grace window it would let you run over if you needed to (which you'd pay off when you put more money on it), and would beep periodically if you were low. It was actually pretty great because it would tell you your cost per hour at any given time so you could easily cost out different appliances if you wished and approximate overall price/time accordingly. (My overall electricity costs went down since expensive things were obvious)
    – Lunin
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 5:38
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    Here in the uk we have both gas and electricity prepaid meters, but what is much more disturbing is in the developing world there are increasing use of water prepayment, which has led to cholera and other diseases. foodandwaterwatch.org/global/africa/prepaid-water-meters Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 20:49

@Crow's answer is great. The only thing I'd add for clarification is that a one-bar heater is an electric heater using a single wire filament, typically wound around a single horizontal supporting bar (often something like a glass rod). You could have multiple elements stacked vertically, hence one-bar, two-bar etc). They've largely been superseded by other, more efficient, forms of space heating, e.g. halogen heaters.

The heating element would sit in front of a curved metal shroud to reflect radiant heat forward, and by the 80s would have had a protective metal grille in front of it. (In earlier decades, it might have been completely exposed!)

An electric fire

One bar would have typically used around 800W - 1kW of power. While imprecise, even Sir Humphrey would have had a sense of how much heat output you'd get from a single bar.

(Photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/jocelynb/426268348, CC BY-NC 2.0 licence)

  • 2
    Gotta love 230/240V systems, that a 1kW heater is on the low end. In the US, 1.5kW is the biggest heater you'll usually find for home use. A common arrangement would be two coils (600W and 900W) allowing for three settings (600W, 900W, and 1500W).
    – hobbs
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 21:21
  • Historical note - we had these in our college dorm rooms, coin operated, and would sometimes use them to make toast, by sticking a fork through the bread, then jamming the fork into the grill...
    – Floris
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 22:24
  • We learn something every day. I was aware of metered gas (for cooking and, I imagine, heating) but not of metered electric power. Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 19:26

Along with electricity meters there were also individual bar heaters activated by a coin and which would have been installed in bedsits or rooms in university halls of residence where the user would not have control over the overall electricity supply.

As per the previous answer, the 50p coin would keep the heater running for a fixed amount of time. The fact that Sir Humphrey doesn't know how long this would be is being used as a sign that he is out of touch with the people.


Not only were there coin-operated meters in the UK, but there still are -- though for obvious reasons, they're becoming rarer by the day. Source: I stayed in an AirBnB that had one two years ago.

The meter is typically mounted somewhere accessible such as the kitchen. When you put a coin in, a knob is unlocked, allowing you to turn it a certain distance, causing a dial indicator to increase. Using electricity causes the dial indicator to decrease. When the dial decreases past a certain point, your power is cut off. This is the power to the whole residence, not just the heater.

Generally the mechanism only takes one type of coin. At one time in history it was a 50p piece. The one in my AirBnB took £1 coins (dating it to 1983 at the earliest).

In 1985, electricity was a little under 4p/kWh so 50p would keep a one-bar fire going for a bit over 12.5 hours.

If there's a power interruption in a British household even today - an RCD trips, or there's a power cut - it's pretty common for someone to say "put another 50p in the meter!"

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