THE EPSOM AND EWELL ELECTRICITY UNDERTAKING, 1902 - 1948

Clock Tower
Illuminated Epsom Clock Tower During the Coronation Celebrations in 1937
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Electricity these days is taken from the National Grid - a high-voltage transmission system which links power stations and major substations across the UK. This allows large amounts of electricity to be transmitted to wherever there is a demand. Before the National Grid was established, electricity was supplied by a mixture of private companies and municipal councils. Many incompatible systems were in operation, so one street could be supplied with a completely different voltage to the next.

In this article we look at the early days of electricity supply in the Borough, up to nationalisation.

Background

The power of electricity was known about as long ago as 2750 BC when Ancient Egyptian texts referred to receiving shocks from electric fish. However it wasn't until Michael Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831 that the concept of electricity as a power source became apparent.

It was the development of the electric light bulb that propelled the use of electric power on a large scale. Although Electric Avenue in Brixton was the first street to be lit by electricity in 1880, Godalming in Surrey became the unlikely focal point; as with other locations, the town's street lights were lit by gas. In 1881, the annual gas contract expired. A tender of 210 was provided by the local gas company, and 195 by electrical contractors Calder & Barrett using new arc lights and incandescent lamps. Not only was it cheaper, it was found to be cleaner and more effective - so Godalming became the first town in the UK to be lit by electricity. Within a year, the first domestic supply had been installed, but it wasn't cheap - the cost of lighting 5 bulbs in a day would be a week's wages to the average person at the time.

The creation of the Electric Lighting Act of 1882 enabled the Board of Trade to authorise the supply of electricity by a Local Authority, Company or Person, giving powers to dig up streets to allow installation. A subsequent Act of 1888 improved the conditions and resulted in far more applications; besides, there had been technical improvements in generation and transmission in that time, and subsequently 12 small generating stations were built in Surrey - including one in Epsom.

The Epsom And Ewell Electricity Undertaking

Epsom Generating Station
Epsom Generating Station after closure, circa 1960
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The Urban District Council set up a generating station in Depot Road off Church Street. This first supplied electricity on 5 February 1902, illuminating the town's street lights and replacing the gas lights that had been in operation since 1840. The station was powered by steam with a capacity of 110 kW. It was known as a Low Tension 3-wire Direct Current System, and similar plant was installed in Dorking and Leatherhead. A domestic supply for lighting was initially available at 6.5d (2.71p) per unit.

1902 confirmation of electric supply
1902 confirmation of electric supply. The 'Motive Power' option was for trams.
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

At that time, Ewell was not originally served, although some of the larger residences such as Ewell Castle already had their own supply, as did Ewell Court, where the last of the gunpowder mill buildings on the River Hogsmill was converted to supply electricity.

As demand increased, it was soon necessary to install further steam-driven plant, and in 1904 a Bellis & Morcom (Birmingham) Compound Steam Set was added, followed in 1906 by a Triple Expansion Set by Browett, Lindley & Company of Salford. This brought the capacity up to 300kW.

In 1913 diesel engines were added at the Generating Station to pump water to the reservoir on the Downs as part of the Council's Water Undertaking; subsequent additions were all diesel powered.

A major exclusion from the set up was the Epsom Hospital Cluster, which initially had its own power station.

Epsom Cluster Power Station
The former Epsom Hospital Cluster Power Station, now a Fitness Centre
Photo by Nick Winfield

The System Expands

By the First World War, Epsom only had 567 consumers. Nationally, only 6% of British homes were connected. Electricity was still too expensive both for consumers and industrialists, and was still not standardised - within Greater London there were by now 80 electrical undertakings operating 70 generating stations employing 50 different systems of supply at 24 different voltages and 10 frequencies!

Demand increased during the First World War, which highlighted the inadequacies of some of the set-ups. The Electric Supply Act of 1919 was subsequently passed creating Electricity Districts overseen by Electricity Commissioners. Power generation would be centralised on a small number of large stations owned by Joint Electric Authorities. Between 1918/19 power from Epsom Generating Station was finally extended to Ewell.

Engine Room from 'old' end, 1925
Engine Room from the 'old' end, 1925, showing:
a 200kW Consolidated Diesel Engine Set;
a 150 KW Bellis Morcom Steam Set;
a 300kW Browett Lindley Steam Set;
a 200kW Vickers Petters Diesel Set.
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Setting Up The National Grid

Electricity was still nevertheless comparatively expensive, whilst it was noted that France and Germany, both centralised states, were able to produce and consume twice as much compared to our fragmented and inefficient system of 600 separate undertakings. Consequently the Prime Minister at the time, Conservative Stanley Baldwin, introduced the 1926 Electricity Supply Act to connect the 122 most efficient power stations in the country by a National Gridiron, consisting of 4000 miles of transmission line, mostly by 26,000 pylons, utilising a standardised system at 132 kV, 50 Hz.

Politically the set up of the National Grid was a compromise, as it was initiated by the state but ultimately run by the Central Electricity Board, one of the first public corporations. Construction of the Grid was to be a long-term project and wasn't to be finally completed throughout until 1938, employing 100,000 men.

Meanwhile, Local Authorities introduced an Assisted Wiring Scheme in 1930 to encourage growth; by now every road in Epsom and Ewell was adequately cabled. Connection costs to each house were supplied free for the first 60 feet. Under a scheme to relieve local unemployment, much of the old equipment was renewed.

It was decided to further upgrade the set up to cover the outlying districts such as the Chase Estate and Langley Vale areas, and to electrify the Council's Housing Estates. By now, it was clear that Alternating Current was the preferred system as Direct Current was more expensive and suffered power loss through transmission. Alternating Current Plant was therefore installed at the Generating Station connecting to various substations around the borough; these would convert the High Tension Alternating Current to Low Tension Direct Current. This was also a cheaper option than laying costly Direct Current feeder cables.

Woodcote Hurst Substation
Woodcote Hurst Substation,
designed to blend in with surrounding properties
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Epsom Joins The Grid

Epsom finally became connected to the National Grid in 1930. Surrey had become part of the South East England Electricity Scheme, and Epsom was supplied via a ring from Croydon Power Station, which connected Leatherhead, Dorking and Reigate. This was an AC Current supply running in 33,000 Volt cables. The AC supply was converted to DC by Rotary Converters at the Generating Station and by mercury arc rectifiers at substations for local distribution. From then on the Epsom generators were used as standby. As the set-up improved and became more efficient, the price per unit showed a further reduction, with the average price per unit falling from 3.091d (1.29p) to 1.50d (0.63p).

Engine Room from new end, 1930
Engine Room from the 'new' end, 1930, showing:
a 550kW English Electric 'Fullager' Diesel Set;
2 x 300kW English Electric Willans Robinson Diesel Sets.
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Rotary Converters from 'new' end, 1930
Two Rotary Converters from the 'new' end, 1930
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Pound Lane Substation
Mercury Arc Rectifiers at Pound Lane Substation
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Transformers were added at Epsom to enable the 33,000 Volt supply it received to be converted for domestic distribution.

Transformer outside Generating Station
Transformer outside Epsom Generating Station
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Epsom Substation 33kW Switch Controls
Epsom Substation 33kW Switch Controls
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

By 1937 the number of consumers had risen to 5,313 and that since the introduction of an 'All-in Rate' in 1924, the amount of units consumed per head of population had risen from 67 to 282; up until then, a two-part Tariff was in operation, with domestic consumers at one rate and large consumers such as the Water Department supplied at low charges. 158 miles of cable had now been installed and the 1104 street lights improved utilising mirror reflectors in side streets and refractor fittings on the main roads. Sodium lighting was also in experimental use on a short stretch of main road. (For more on street lights in the area, see 'Old Street Lights of Epsom and Ewell'). An auxiliary connection was built at Leatherhead to the Woking - Wimbledon circuit for emergency use.

By 1938 the Epsom Generating Station had a generating capacity of 1600kW. Installed equipment now consisted of a 300hp Carels diesel driving a GEC 200kW dynamo, a Vickers/Petters - J Holmes 200kW set, two 550 hp Willans diesel/English Electric 300 kW sets and a Fullager 600 kW alternator set.

The Electric Showrooms

Electric Showrooms
Electricity Offices in Depot Road
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Demand was greatest in the mornings and evenings, leaving troughs during the day and night. In an attempt to fill these troughs, electricity boards opened Electricity Showrooms encouraging people to use electrical appliances, particularly high current applications such as immersion heaters and cookers. Offices and Showrooms were opened in Church Street and featured a lighting room, interview room and showroom.

Showroom Interior
Showroom Interior
Photo courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Nationalisation

By the start of the Second World War (1939), 66% of homes nationally were connected with an annual growth of approximately 750,000 consumers per year, the fastest in the world. The 'Epsom and Ewell Electricity Undertaking' was nationalised in 1948 and became part of the South Eastern Electricity Board (later SEEBOARD), one of 12 area boards replacing the 600 power companies throughout the UK. Leatherhead joined Dorking to become Dorking District, then in 1952 Epsom amalgamated with Dorking to become Dorking and Epsom District.

Epsom Generating Station finally shut in 1954 by which time it was capable of producing 2,050 kW. It was demolished in the 1960s and the site is now a car park. The Electricity Showrooms were converted to a pub in 1996.

Nick Winfield
May 2014