The Clandestine Story of Electricity Supply

We come into a room. We press the switch. The lights come on. They always come on—and that’s the trouble. My guess is that we all take electricity for granted. We not only assume that electricity, in unlimited quantities, is always there, we just are not interested in knowing why this is, or how it gets to the switch, and we shut our eyes to the question asking for how much longer it will continue to get to the switch.

In my world this complacency about supply, and uninterest in how it is supplied, extends to a history of power supply engineering. OK, there are textbooks of sorts that are littered with complex formulae, metal compositions and magnetic flux diagrams. There are textbooks about controlling power station emissions and steam pressures and how to choose the best kind of high voltage insulators and cable sizes. There are histories of particular plants (often with no contextual matter). There’s the odd business history and some other bits and pieces. There really are, though, very few accessible histories of the development of the generating plant and the distribution system as far as and within the home, and how (in parallel) the sales forces interacted with ordinary people to sell consumer equipment (needed to improve supply economics so we all had a light that would turn on when we pressed the switch). There are even fewer means by which one can actually see all this stuff (which the more I think about it, the odder it seems).

It is with all this in my mind that I was horrified to read that the electrical museum at Christchurch (Dorset) has, according to the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times, closed for good. I knew this museum and was very fond of it. Unlike so many modern museums it was full of stuff.  The Museum was housed in the old power station that provided a local domestic supply as well as one for the tramways. The building was long redundant, though there is still a huge amount of distribution plant on the wider site, partly explaining why it was retained for the purpose of a museum by Southern Electric when privatized. It was packed with material.  It included a range of interesting old generation equipment, dating back to Victorian times. Then we had examples of power distribution equipment, with explanations of how engineers would go about the task of design and installation. Then we had a large number of consumer items showing where the electricity went. The museum (in my opinion) has just the right amount of labelling (in my experience nobody reads expansive labelling) and the space was sensibly laid out for what it was attempting to do. It was a wonderful place. I know of no such other collection all in one space: they may exist, but they are not common. You could TOUCH the exhibits as well as look at them and understand their sheer scale.

The museum had been an extraordinary survival, with eccentricities that cannot have helped its cause (whatever that was). It only opened in summer, it did not open at weekends (catching me out more than once), marketing was weak and, incredibly, it was free, notwithstanding supporting nine staff, who have now apparently lost their jobs. One role of the staff was to show people around, especially school parties. It may be a truism that if I like and approve of something it is the kiss of death for it, but even I wondered how much of this ‘altruism’ the present owners Scottish & Southern Power could sustain.

Evidently it could not sustain the consequences of a recent report into the state of the building (repairs are needed, allegedly costed at ‘six figures’) and questions were being asked about its level of accessibility (judged OK in 1981 when it opened, but the world has changed). The Bournemouth Echo reports: “An independent review found that the Bargates museum, set in an Edwardian power station, does not fulfil its visitor needs and has restricted disabled access.” Well, these thorny issues have been completely solved, by closure. It is now not accessible to anyone and not fulfilling any needs. Well done chaps.

In this day and age it is perhaps unrealistic to expect very large organizations to operate publicly accessible private museums, however important they are. I believe that the loss of this museum is a significant loss in the way we understand what is arguably Britain’s single most important industrial business, the distribution of electricity, a matter that impacts heavily and immediately upon us all and facilitates so many other technologies that would be impossible without it. In particular I fear for the security of the exhibits and the loss of understanding that will happen if consumer devices are separated from the distribution and generation technologies (a motor is after all a generator in reverse). I cannot believe I am the only one on the planet that cares about these things, but the extraordinary disregard in which we as a nation consider our electrical history (and maybe future) gives me little cause for hope. It is a private collection, and presumably the owners are free to do as they like. They have made noises about continuing to support education about the subject (and we can all contemplate web-based systems) but that is nothing like seeing the stuff itself (let alone touching it). How many of the exhibits there may be unique survivors I could not say, but there will surely be some.

The building is listed, by the way, which is another factor that may influence future events as it cannot easily be redeveloped. One might hope local museums could take it under their wing, but the problem is it is really an industry museum that could be located anywhere, and there is not all that much in it (the tram excepted) that is peculiarly local. Fragmentation of the power industry makes it hard to see how anyone but a national body could help. They have their own priorities about which more might be said, but not by me.

So, that is my new year’s message from the south coast. I’m not really sure what I can do beyond telling people the news. It isn’t anybody’s ‘job’ to retrieve the situation, or to discourage closure of other specialist museums that are no doubt threatened and that hold irreplaceable items or which tell uniquely important stories.  So, like everyone else, I will continue to press the switch and expect light to come on and should just stop worrying myself why.

PS – if interested in knowing more about the place and what was in it, see:

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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