Armidale, Saturday 12 August 1922. Watched by the crowd gathered inside the works, Mrs Marshall cut the blue ribbon holding a bottle of champagne above the great six ton fly wheel as the 100 horsepower Ruston Hornby suction gas engine began operation. As the band played, the 110 customers of the City of Armidale Electric Supply Company Ltd received their first electricity.
Almost 34 years earlier, on Friday 9 November 1888, a similar ceremony had been held in Tamworth as that town of 3,000 people turned on its arc and incandescent street lighting, becoming the first town in Australia to be lit by electricity.
It was just ten years since US inventor Thomas Edison had developed the first commercially viable replacement for gas lighting and heating, seven years since the first streets had been lit by electric light in the Surrey town of Godalming.
Despite Tamworth’s early adoption, electricity generation and supply spread quite slowly. By 1906, there were only 46 electric light and power stations throughout Australia with an aggregate capacity of 23,000 kW. Of these, eighteen were operated by municipal or local authorities.
There were practical reasons for this slow spread. Power and lighting was seen as a municipal function. As happened in the City of Sydney, councils who had invested in gas lighting could be reluctant to invest further in or even allow a new and competing lighting supply, Ratepayers, too, were often opposed to any actions that might increase their rates. There were legal difficulties as well, for councils (and private interests, too) did not have the explicit power to act. Individual legislation was required.
There was initial interest in Armidale in electric supply. In 1889, electricity was much mentioned at the public meeting held in Armidale to consider the purchase by Council of the Armidale Gas Works established three years earlier. However, this was a matter for the enthusiasts, and Council decided to proceed with the purchase. Thereafter, interest lapsed.
By the spring of 1920, the establishment of a local electricity scheme was again a matter for debate, this time driven by enthusiastic aldermen. Ratepayer interest can best be described as tepid. After a poorly attended public meeting in October 1920, a subsequent Council poll was just as poorly supported. Scarcely 20 per cent of ratepayers bothered to vote, with 86 in favour of electricity, 53 against.
This tepid response left Council in something of a quandary. The enthusiasts still wished to proceed, but how to do it? Then, just when Council had decided that an electricity scheme was beyond its resources, salvation came unexpectedly.
I will continue this story in my next column.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 27 November 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.