Children of Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever

Stephen Halliday is fascinated by stories of electrical pioneers

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Reviewed by: Stephen Halliday
Author: Gavin Weightman
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Price (RRP): £25

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This book contains many surprises. I was intrigued to learn that the first community to receive a public electricity supply was the small town of Godalming in Surrey, in 1881. Godalming’s electricity was generated by a water mill originally installed on the river Wey to power a leather processing business, so it can also claim to be the first town to be supplied by hydro-electric power.

Since many councils ran their own gas companies they were reluctant to allow entrepreneurs to set up electricity companies in competition, a situation reinforced by Joseph Chamberlain’s Electric Lighting Act which became law in 1882, the year after Godalming switched on its lights. This allowed local authorities to veto the establishment of electricity suppliers by preventing them from digging up roads to lay cables.

Such obstacles, however, would not deter the entrepreneurs who now appeared. Sebastian di Ferranti, a descendant of the Doges of Venice and a Liverpudlian photographer, lit the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street – home to various Pre-Raphaelite paintings – and several surrounding shops with cables trailing across rooftops.

He then built a huge power station at Deptford, with Pre-Raphaelite décor, which opened in November 1890, the transformer room bursting into flames a fortnight later. 

The American Charles Tyson Yerkes, having been jailed for fraud in his native Philadelphia and run out of Chicago, arrived in London in 1901 accompanied by a bevy of mistresses and raised money to electrify the District Railway (now the District Line) and to build three more underground lines.

The City distrusted him so most of the money was raised in the USA and in Europe. When he died in 1905, leaving his enterprises on the verge of bankruptcy, the City smiled.

At one point, faced with rival schemes to provide electricity to London, the government appointed as arbitrator an old Etonian who was an authority on railway safety and the rules of Association Football. You couldn’t make it up.

This is a fascinating read. 

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Dr Stephen Halliday, University of Cambridge