Swansea Histroy Web. looking at Swansea's early electricity supply.

Early Electricity in Swansea

Incinerating town refuse and electricity

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Swansea is notable for pioneering attempts at creating a local electricity supply industry in the 1880s. Although the pioneering efforts of towns like Halifax and Oldham are well recognised in the development of municipal electricity schemes, Swansea's story has never been satisfactorily told. This is quite a shame because Swansea is certainly one of the earliest authorities to develop a local electricity industry and the municipal scheme that was started in the 1890s was very successful right up to its nationalisation in 1948. By the early 1880s, the idea of lighting a town by electricity became technically and economically feasible. The government passed a series of Electricity Acts (notably in 1882 and 1888) which encouraged the process. It became something of a fashion for town councils to obtain provisional orders under these Acts with a view to building electric lighting schemes for their main business and shopping streets.

Left: An incandescent light bulb from the early 1900s. It was the search to get bulbs such as this into domestic use cheaply that eventually transformed the electricity supply industry.

An early light bulb from 1900.

In 1889, the Swansea Town Council obtained their order and tendered for such a lighting scheme. Six contractors indicated their interest in providing a system, and a contract was prepared. The successful contractor, Crompton and Company ran into technical difficulties concerning the best electrical system to use and were unhappy about the short operating lease awarded by the local authority. They eventually withdrew from the agreement which resulted in an unfortunate delay in building the scheme with no further progress made between 1890 and 1894.

The period 1890-94 was one of considerable technical development with new forms of boilers, turbines and generating equipment transforming the economics of the fledgling electricity industry. The public health movement of the 1850s had transformed many aspects of daily life with steam engines used heavily to provide pumped clean water, and improved sewerage schemes to dispose of waste. One of the increasing concerns of local authorities was the disposal of town refuse. Earlier in the nineteenth century, refuse would have been freely dumped in the sea, local rivers or thrown into convenient holes in the ground. Victorian towns are ringed with old rubbish dumps that are often the source of bottles and other finds for present day treasure hunters.

The high concentrations of ash from coal fires and animal dung from the thousands of horses that walked the streets meant that the rubbish was relatively quick to break down into a fairly innocuous mix. However, the increase of inorganic material, rag, wood and other material that would not break down readily was a cause for concern. By the 1880s, the cost of moving the increasing bulk of refuse generated by large urban areas prompted the search for an alternative method of disposal. Not surprisingly, burning or incineration was considered as an early possibility. Experiments in the Midlands in the mid 1870s confirmed the possibility that refuse could be incinerated efficiently, the resultant gases produced were (at the time) considered harmless and the resulting clinker could be sold for road ballast.

By the late 1880s, it was realised that the high temperatures needed for efficient combustion of town refuse were equivalent to those being obtained by the finest steam coals. The idea of burning refuse to generate steam for steam engines began to emerge. Further work on efficient new types of grate and boiler designs meant that by 1892 the incineration of town waste and the subsequent generation of electricity was an economic reality.

Below: The revolutionary developments of the County Borough of Swansea were not often greeted with enthusiasm by the more conservative elements of the town (who were after all the main ratepayers!). A Bert Thomas cartoon from 1905 summarizes the concerns of that year, the Cray reservoir scheme was an expensive disaster, the telephone service was a success, the Dust Destructor (incinerator) was not working properly and the town's electricity generation system had yet to make a profit.

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Swansea's Little Ventures. Bert Thomas cartoon from 1905.

SHW Microhistory: 1. SHT 1858

1858 in 1982!

Swansea Harbour Trust's habit of dating the dock bollards with the year of their manufacture has left the port with a fascinating legacy of historical bookmarks. Unfortunately insensitive development by the local authority has meant that some of the best bollards have been destroyed, but enough survive to make any walk around the dock area interesting.

One of my favourites is this 1858 example which originally stood at the starboard approach to Weaver's Basin (the original North Dock Half-tide Basin).

A number of these larger bollards were inserted in the quayside walls to cope with the bigger ships that were using the port in the later 1850s. This one was used extensively to work ships in and out of the North Dock. If you look closely at it you can still see the marks where countless ropes and hawsers have dug into the iron over the years of its service. The picture above shows the original aspect of 1858 with Weaver's Flour Mill in the background. 1858 survived the Sainsbury's redevelopment and can still be seen at the rear of their rather nice restaurant.

More SHW Microhistory

1858 in 2002.

 

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