Godalming Power Station, site of
Westbrook Mills (demolished), off Borough Road, Godalming, Surrey, UK
opened September 1881
Power Generation |
photo The Graphic, 1881
In 1881, in the Surrey town of Godalming, the world's first public electricity supply illuminated the local streets. Godalming Power Station was driven by water, and was thus also the first hydroelectric power station in Britain.
Although electricity was a well known phenomenon, it had proved difficult to see how it could be used in practical ways. We take it for granted now — flicking on the light switch without a thought. But although it is fairly straightforward to make electricity, it cannot be stored. It has to be generated on demand and distributed to where it's needed.
Since the winter of 1836, the Godalming Gas & Coke Company had lit the town's streets for 10 months each year using gas. There was no street lighting in the summer. Late in 1881, the local council decided to award electricians Messrs. Calder and Barrett, of Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, a twelve month contract to provide electricity to the street lamps. They used the existing posts and lamp housings but provided the generating equipment. It was all about money: their cost estimate undercut the gas company's quote.
The two Poncelet waterwheels at E. & J. Pullman's Leather Works at Westbrook Mill were used to drive an alternator and an exciter, both of which were manufactured by Siemens. The electricity generated was taken by overhead cable to the High Street. There were two circuits. The first was 250 volts and 12amps. It supplied seven Siemens arc lamps in series: three at the mill and four on posts in the town. The second circuit supplied 34 incandescent lamps at 40 volts. Most were located in the town, except for seven at the mill and Mr Pullman's house.
One difficulty was that the arc lights at the mill glowed brightly but those in the town much less so. Carbon resistors were set in series at the mill lamps to try to equalise the light intensity. Another difficulty was that the waterwheels could not supply the required ten horse-power consistently. A portable steam engine was soon brought in.
It seems that Calder and Barrett got out of their depth and Alexander Siemens stepped in after April 1882. It is believed that he replaced their generator with a traction engine in a shed behind the Old White Hart. However, the whole enterprise was costing him money and when the contract came up in 1884, he declined to tender unless the council applied for a licence under the Electric Lighting Act (1882), giving him a legal footing. The town abandoned its pioneering electric system and went back to gas.
However, the time had come for public electricity supply. Godalming's initial supply was followed just 12 days later by a larger installation at Chesterfield. Norwich soon followed. In January 1882, Thomas Edison opened the world's first steam-powered electricity generating station at Holborn Viaduct in London. And he went on to open the world's first commercial power station later that year in Manhattan, New York.
Pullman's premises were gutted by fire in 1914 and demolished in 1952.
"The Electric Light at Godalming, 1881" by Kenneth Gravett
Surrey History, Vol.II No.3, Surrey Archaelogical Society, Guildford, 1981-82
Godalming Power Station, site of
Photos taken in this area
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