History with Brian James: Early electricity for Young

Geo Cranfields house (corner of Clarke Street and Boorowa Street). Photo: contributed
Geo Cranfields house (corner of Clarke Street and Boorowa Street). Photo: contributed

This, coupled with the associations approaching 50th anniversary, prompted me to record a little of the early history of electricity supply in NSW.

The earliest recorded practical use of electricity, that I have been able to find, was at Broken Hill.

On April 2, 1887 the Broken Hill Proprietary Company installed the first electric light plant. It comprised three Western Arc lamps, one over each of the Rasp and McCulloch Shafts and a third in front of the smelters.

The first electric light plant to operate in the residential and commercial areas was on 20 th September, 1889, when the York hotel was lighted by one 3,000 candle power arc lamp which was erected on the hotel tower, and lighting for the interior was made available next day.

The Municipal Council of Tamworth was the first to light their streets by using electricity. The Council having had gas installed in 1881, saw the light, and on November 9, 1888 at 7.30pm the new lights using electricity were switched on, and the town was lit.

The installation cost £3,000 and comprised four 3,000 candle power arc lamps and 85 incandescent lights each 16 candle power, only nine years after Thomas Edison perfected the first incandescent lamp.

As it is today, there were many critics who in view of Alderman Smith having pioneered the projects, it was referred to as "Smith's folly" the 3,000 power lamps were too bright - electricity was too dear.

The myth still persists today - there are blackouts when the leather belts slipped off the pulley - the poles and the overhead wires were ugly - as to why the incandescent lamps are enclosed is a proposition we cannot solve at all, except on the assumption that the corporation knew so little about electric lighting that it thought that the wind might blow them out - and in any case there are many useful works to which the money could have been devoted with much less chance of financial disaster to the rate payers.

The town of Young (originally named Lambing Flat) claims to be the first town to install electric lighting not only in its streets but also in its homes. It was in November,1887 that the then twenty three year old Mayor George Cranfield had the firm of Harrison and Whiffen of Sydney visit Young to discuss the lighting of the streets and homes by means of electricity. George Cranfield, who as a boy in London had studied the new science of electricity at evening classes, brought electricity to Young at an installed cost of £ 6,090.

On April 15, 1889, 56 16-candlepower lamps were switched on by Governor Lord Carrington, and very soon after 15 homes were supplied, many to bark humpies.

The council charged one penny per light of 16 candle power per night, collected by a council employee calling each Monday morning - no meters , no accounting - no paper work.

As in the case of Tamworth criticism knew no bounds - the wood poles were unsightly, one council meeting spent the entire evening deciding whether the poles in Main street, should be round or square - the power house should not be in the centre of town, because of noise and pollution, for the Engineer had stated that the power can be transmitted some 1 1/2 miles.

The Burrangong Argus stated," Surely it is the most distressful light that ever yet was seen for nothing seems to go right with it."

I am indebted to members Roger Baker and Ron Greer and to Mr VJ Giuliano, Editor of the South West News Pictorial for their help in compiling some of this early history.

This article was part of the Presidents Address at the 47th Annual Conference of the Electricity Supply Engineer's Association, August, 1972.

  • Brian James supplies his column to the Young Witness for publication each Tuesday on behalf of the Young Historical Society Inc. On this occasion Brian would like also to thank Peter Kinsela who supplied the information from the Electricity Supply Engineer's Association of NSW.