I learnt about the Hove Electric Lighting Co. Ltd. from a description of what seemed to be a small power station whilst reading Queenspark Book No. 36: “A Working Man”. After looking up the buildings in Cromwell Road in Hove in a Kelly’s directory, I found the business name. Not being able to find anything more, I decided to research it myself. The East Sussex Records office has first three log books of the power station and it is these that this and the next post are based on.
Ideally, I should hunt down all the available material and the write it up in a single post, so these posts are really my notes which at sometime in the future may get consolidated. If anyone has already done something similar and better, I apologise.
In the last decade of the 19th century, many small electricity companies were established by entrepreneurs or by town councils. I find them interesting because with some stretch of the imagination the municipal ones might be described as micro-grids under local democratic control with all their assets located in the community they serve. This is in contrast to the situation today where power stations are often located on remote headlands and are managed in distant boardrooms. There are technical, commercial and political reasons why this transition took place, but something might be learnt from the early history of the industry.
It seems that the power station started operation in the week ending 24-Nov-1892. During that week it produced just 95.79 units (kwh?) but by the end of the second week this had risen to 435.3 units, after which the demand was determined by the seasons and the number of houses connected, during the first two years the peak generation was about 2,500 units/week in the December 93/January 94 period, it is probable that it would be much higher in the next winter.
At the start of operations there were just four houses connected to the grid, this suggests the bulk of the load was coming from street lighting and council premises. There are several references in the logbooks to arc lights at the town hall either being left on or going out. There were two forms of lighting in use, arc lamps which were capable of illuminating a large area and incandescent lamps, typically rated at 33 watts. The downside of arc lamps was their high current drain, maybe 10 amps and the need for constant maintenance, in 1894 this required a full time person. The supply was 110 volts DC, thus a 10 amp arc lamp was consuming a unit of electricity each hour, the generating efficiency was low with 10 lb of coal being required to generate a unit of electricity, thus leaving several arc lamps burning when not needed could significantly increase coal consumption. Arc lamps are sometimes described as “carbons”.
In just less than two years, the number of private houses connected to the grid rose from 4 to over 200. Connecting a property to the electricity supply required investment both on the part of the electricity company who had to make cabling, distribution and metering points available and the householder who needed to install wiring and light fittings. In the early 1920s, it cost about £30 to wire up a three bed room semi in the north of England for electric lighting. Some of the first houses in Hove to be connected had more than 100 lamps, so the outlay would have been great, not only was there the cost of the electrical work but cost of redecorating after wires had been run through walls, floors and ceilings. My own house was initially piped up for gas lighting, when electric cabling was installed, channels were cut into brickwork and wooden pads used to secure sockets and switches and there was a lot of “notching” of joists to run conduits under the floor. The company inspected each property before connection, there is one reference to minor non-compliance that was accepted on the condition that remedial work was carried out “after the season”.
The graph below shows the increase in the number of connection over a two year period.
What is more interesting is the nature of the connections. I walked around most of the streets mentioned in the log books and it appears that connections were split into two groups. The first was retailers, I guess that installing electric lighting was seen as getting a competitive edge over one’s rivals, much the same as air conditioning is today. Electric lighting would create a better retail environment than gas lights could which were dirty and could fill an unventilated space with foul air (e.g. increase the level of carbon monoxide). the operation of electric lighting is just flicking a switch and occasionally changing a burnt out bulb. Gas mantles have to be individually lit and regularly cleaned. The second group might be described as posh residences. Posh is probably the correct word, the people who owned these houses would most likely have been on the port side outward and on the starboard side homewards when travelling to and from India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia or New Zealand. The houses are big and would have required several servants to function. In modern marketing language, these people were “early adopters” who were prepared to pay a high price, the cost of electricity might have been around 5d/unit (more than £1.00 in today’s money). None of the houses I walked past were the sort of place where craftsmen, teachers, clerks or shop assistants might have lived, it might be thirty or forty years before such people lived in homes with an electric light switch.
The map below shows the streets mentioned in the log books, those marked red are predominantly residential whilst the blue ones are mainly retail. Except in the shopping area along Church Road and Western Road, there are only a few customers in each street, however, the mains for distribution would have been available for additional customers.
There appears to have been a ready market for electricity, as mains became available in a street, houses were soon connected to it. There were a small number of disconnections for reasons not specified, but one reference suggested that electricity was becoming indispensable, a house was disconnected one day, but reconnected on the following one.
The data available does not show levels of household consumption, but it suggests that the average during the winter months was around 10 kwh/week and less than 5 kwh during the summer, this might put average household consumption in the range 200 – 500 kwh/year. The current average in the UK is about 3,500 kwh/household/year. The principal use of electricity was for lighting, but there are two references to electric motors, one is for a half horsepower one in a dairy
Electricity was creating new types of job. The dynamos in the power station were driven by reciprocating steam engines which at that time was a mature technology, but establishing safe and reliable distribution systems was a new challenge. by the middle of 1894, there were four distinct groups of works in the company, about half a dozen people worked in the power station, two were involved in connecting properties to the mains, two more maintaining those mains and two going round testing and reading meters.