Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

History revisited - bringing to light the advent of electricity

Continuing the story of Armidale’s electricity supply, the tepid response by ratepayers at the October 1920 Council poll on the establishment of an Armidale electricity scheme left Armidale Council in something of a quandary. The enthusiasts still wished to proceed, but how to do it?

By November, a Council committee was investigating the possibility of supplying Armidale from a hydro-electric scheme. The possible use of hydro-electricity to meet electricity needs and to support Northern industrial development was much under discussion at the time.

The chief protagonist was Earle Page, a South Grafton doctor who had just become member for Cowper in the Australian Parliament for the newly formed Country Party. Page was a passionate advocate for Northern development, as well as a key leader in the campaign for self government for Northern New South Wales,

In March 1917, Page had toured hydro-electric projects in Canada and the United States. In 1918, he became mayor of South Grafton. In that role he initiated the Nymboida hydro-electric scheme, as well as pursuing his broader vision of the electrification of Northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland.

Armidale’s electricity protagonists were interested, but cautious. The Nymboida project was still just a project. It would be September 1923 before Page, now Commonwealth Treasurer and Acting Prime Minister, laid the foundation stone, November 1924 before the power was turned on. Then, too, there was the case of Hillgrove.

The mines at Hillgrove required a heavy investment in power to light the mines, carry men and ore up the sheer gorge sides and to operate the processing machinery. The steam engines used consumed large quantities of water and timber. The residents of Hillgrove complained about constant problems in getting access to water supplies monopolised by the mining companies.

Hydro power was seen as the answer. Work began in 1893 on a plant on the Gara River. When the lights of Hillgrove were turned on in late February 1895, Hillgrove became the first town in Australia to be lit by hydro power. There were immediate problems with the small dam size, the wood flumes carrying the water to the power plant and with drought. In the end, the venture would fail, but it showed what was possible, as well as the costs and risks.

By August 1921 when Council had decided that it was all just too hard, salvation came in the form of H A Marshall, a Sydney electrical engineer. At this point, I have very little information on Mr Marshall. That’s a pity, for he is quite an important figure in Armidale’s history.

Mr Marshall was clearly something of an entrepreneur, for on August 12 1921 he presented a proposal to Council construct a generating plant if Council would provide a franchise for electricity supply. This was accepted, and the City of Armidale Electric Supply Company Ltd was formed.

Twelve months later to the day, the new plant built at a cost of £14,000 opened. Armidale was lit.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 4 December 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013.

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