Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: May 11, 2017.
Webpage updated: May 11, 2017

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The earliest record of electricity being used in Plymouth for purposes of providing lighting was in 1849 when Mr J M Hearder installed an arc lamp at the top of the Devonport Column.

To encourage the supply of electricity to the public, Parliament passed the Electricity Act in 1882 but its terminology did not encourage private companies from entering this new business.  It took a second Act of Parliament in 1888 to spark off real interest locally.

Two private companies were trying to obtain Provisional Orders from the Board of Trade in 1895, which, it would seem, Devonport Corporation were intending to veto.  Then they suddenly realised that in this particular case, the Board of Trade had powers to dispense with the local authority veto, which would mean that one of these companies -- if not both -- would succeed in getting their Order.  Seeing this as a threat to their profitable gas supply business, Devonport Corporation decided to apply for a Provisional Order itself.  The Devonport Electric Lighting order was duly approved in 1896 and an Electric Lighting Committee was set up in August the following year.  Devonport sought the advice of an expert, Professor Alexander Blackie William Kennedy (1847-1928), who had planned the system and works in the City of Westminster.  Following his advice, they adopted a "direct current" system that made it incompatible with Plymouth's network.

Devonport was having problems trying to find a site for its power station.  Each suggestion was opposed by either the Admiralty or Lord Saint Levan, who between them owned almost all the land in the Borough.  Luckily, East Stonehouse Urban District Council had obtained its own Provisional Order in 1898 and agreed to transfer this to Devonport along with the site of a former flour mill in Newport Street, alongside Stonehouse Creek.  The site cost 15,000.

On June 1st 1899 Devonport appointed Mr Charles Furness as its Borough Electrical Engineer and the following February he submitted his detailed plans for the generating works and the supply of electricity to both the Devonport and District Tramway Company and the Stonehouse and Devonport end of the Plymouth, Stonehouse & Devonport tram system.

Even the site in Newport Street was not without its problems and it took some time to clear it.  As a result it was not until February 21st 1901 that the Mayor of Devonport, Mr H J H Graves, laid a memorial stone, construction and installation work being already under way.  Supplies to the Devon & District tramway were started on June 26th 1901 and that to the Plymouth, Stonehouse & Devonport Company on November 18th 1901.

The engine and boiler-room measured 110 feet by 45 feet 6 inches and had a chimney that was 170 feet high.  On the quay outside was a coal store for 1,200 tons.  There were five boilers in the boiler-house ranging from 250 to 700 indicated horse-power.  there was a compound steam pump plus an electrically-driven pump for feeding the boilers.  In the engine room were four high-speed compound engines coupled direct to multipolar dynamos.  These were capable of 1,900 nominal horse-power lighting 45,000 lamps of 8-candle power each.  The plant consisted of a Browett-Lindley steam engine driving an ECC 150 kilowatt 525 direct current generator.  Known as the "Number 1 Set", this supplied power solely for traction.  This was quickly reinforced by the installation of two Ferranti steam engines, each driving an ECC 350 kilowatt generator but it was not until a third generator capable of providing an additional 500 kW that Devonport were able to consider supplying street lighting and, even less, domestic lighting.

Mr G H Smith, chairman of the Electricity Committee, formally opened the Devonport Corporation Electricity Works on Monday April 28th 1902.  The cost of the enterprise was 78,756.  At the luncheon held after the ceremony, the Mayor of Devonport, Mr Edgar M Leest, was asked to christen the Number 1 generating set and he duly obliged by naming it "Alice" after the Lady Mayoress.   That evening Fore Street, between the Royal Dockyard Gate and the Technical College, was illuminated with 16 arc lamps.

But Devonport still owned a very successful gas works and saw little to be gained from encouraging the use of electric power, other than for the tramways.  Furthermore, there was much disquiet in Stonehouse because despite passing their Provisional Order over to Devonport, that Corporation had still failed to provide any lighting by the summer of 1902.  And the residents had to suffer the black smoke emanating from the Works' chimney!

Capacity at Plymouth's Prince Rock Power Station was slowly increased by adding new plant and by the time of the amalgamation of the Three Towns in 1914 it had reached 3,150 kilowatts.  The works was then supplying 1,753 private customers.   The Works in Stonehouse at that time had a capacity of 2,800 kilowatts.  It is interesting to note that the amalgamation of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport that was largely brought about by the needs of the armed forces failed when it came to generation of power because the two power stations could not be linked together and had to be run separately.

Devonport's Power Station ceased to generate power in March 1929 but remained in use as a sub-station for converting AC power from Prince Rock into DC lighting.  It was to be 1937 before all local consumers had been converted to AC, by which time the majority of tramway routes had been changed over to motor bus operation. 

During 1935 the Plymouth Power Station was joined to the National Grid and thus was placed under the direct control of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

The old Devonport Power Station in Newport Street, East Stonehouse, which had lost its notorious chimney in 1930, was pulled down in 1990.