B- b- b- 'lectric light!

Below are two contrasting views, one technical, the other personal, of the first electricity supply in Godalming, transcribed from documents in the Museum's archive collection.

From Electrotechnische Zeitscrift
Letter from George S. Tanner

(Translated from Electrotechnische Zeitscrift, April 1883 p.184-5) 

The small town of Godalming with about 2000 inhabitants on the River Wey, halfway between London and Portsmouth, has progressed to electric street lighting instead of gas. When the contract with the local gas company elapsed last September, the Town Council decided not to renew it but to introduce electrical lighting for the streets. Messrs Calder & Barrett undertook the installation and running on the condition that the cost of it would be the same as for gas, namely 4000 Marks per year and one hoped to manage with this sum especially as it was hoped to use the water-power of the river by which a fall of 1.5 metres offered enough volume of water.

The exclusive rights of use of the water at this spot belonged to the R. & J. Pullman tannery and a contract was made with them that in compensation for using the water rights they would be given lights. They had 3 arc lights and 7 incandescent lights. For the town itself there were 4 arcs and 27 incandescent lights. The arc lamps were differential on a Siemens pattern, giving at least 300 candle-power whilst the filament lamps (Swans) were about 30 candle-power.

The current was delivered by a Siemens A.C. alternator turning at 840 rpm. A Siemens dynamo at 1200 rpm gives a current of 12 amps. The alternator feeds two circuits; one of these is for the 7 arc lights and the other for the 34 Swan lamps. The first circuit is at 12 amps and 250 volts whilst the 34 Swan lamp circuit is of 33 amps and 40 volts. Both circuits together need ten horsepower.

It was thought at first that an undershot (high breasted) water wheel of 4.12 m. diameter would provide sufficient power but this soon revealed itself as insufficient so then a second water wheel was coupled with it. Both wheels, when a complete head of water is available, are sufficient but when the river is swollen after heavy rain the drainage channel does not offer sufficient capacity to get the water away quickly and the lower level of water climbs so much that the available fall is often reduced to only a few inches. As a result of that and since the whole available power of the wheels is used for the Pullman works, it was necessary to set up a steam engine as an

auxiliary. This steam engine normally works with only 1.8 atmosphere of steam pressure but is also able to take over the load itself.

The strength of the current in both circuits is controlled by means of Siemens dynamometers which the attendant can observe from his observation station and it is up to the attendant, according to his readings, to control the speed of the machine. The 7 arc lights in one of the circuits seem to fulfil all wishes as regards their stability and light output. The 4 arc lights in the main street light it very well and according to the plan the Swan lights assist the arc lights by lighting the dark corners and side streets.

It cannot be doubted that this system would have met with great success in spite of the fact that the Swan lamps are less suited to open air lighting but unfortunately the physical or geographical arrangements could not meet the demands of the system. Within the Pullman factory and office the light given out by the Swan lamps is quite satisfactory. In the side streets of the town, on the other hand, they are not sufficient. Their dull red glow contrasts most unhappily with the few still burning gas lamps. The main reason for this lack of success by the Swan lamps is the distance of the source of electricity from the town and the comparatively small diameter of the cable.

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Letter from George S. Tanner

12 July 1954 

Dear Mr Mealor,

I see in the Surrey Advertiser that you are collecting information about the installation of Electric Light in Godalming in 1881.

Born in 1868, I was 12 then 13 in November of 1881 so I can remember it, but my memories are mostly on the humorous side.

My father was one of the first to have light in our shop and dining room and generally through the house, old 18 High Street. The rear of the premises up to the actual front part was rebuilt in the early nineties and the front in 1900 so there is nothing remaining of the part then lighted. I rather fancy it was in 1881 that the Water Works company began.

The lamps were much as they are now but slipped into two brass slides like an inverted letter U. In those days we boys often had magnets to play with and the similarity intrigued me, so one day in our showroom when no one was about I took a needle to see if the electricity would act as a magnet and held it across the base of these two slides. The needle vanished and on my finger and thumb were deep white hollows where the needle had been. It had instantly fused. This was never done again as you can imagine.

The wires were not insulated then. The dynamos were at Pullman's Mill and the river gave the power so the wires were brought overhead from there along the bottom of the Vicarage garden. At that time the wooden bridge was out of repair. The present brick bridge (which I remember being built) had taken its use and so it had decayed and become fenced in with a closed fence and the wires were carried along overhead of this, not very high up.

There was opposition as you can guess to anything new and the story goes that two men with their cargo of beer came along one night and one lifted the other up to tear the wires down. But when he grasped them the current imprisoned both.

There were some arc lights. One by the Pepper Box, and one by the Milk Bar and I think one by the Sun and also one by High's in Bridge Street. The lighting was by two pencils of carbon and where the points of these met the light came. Every now and then these carbons were replaced and the bits often thrown down. I had a piece for years; it may be amongst odds and ends now.

The story goes that old Mr Bridger who at one time was Mayor (or several times so) had shares in the Gas Company. He, it is said, liked his liquid nourishment. The arc standard by the Market House was loose and one night he was 'out to get one back' for the Gas Company and so embraced it and shook it and was heard muttering, "B- b- b- 'lectric light!"

When the floods came this upset in some way the water power and so the dynamos were taken to a large shed at the back of the old White Hart and an ordinary traction engine used with a wide strap on its wheel to connect to the dynamo. There was a very nice German here to see after the technical side. I cannot recall his name but strangely something in my mind echoes to the name of Urban. I remember so well, he was in our dining room one day and the conversation turned upon noses and he said that they denoted character and to emphasise it he gave a demonstration with his own nose to express his meaning. Queer how a young mind retains such things, the idea of such a thing was new to me.

I do not recall how the whole thing ended, being sent to boarding school at that time it severed my contact with the town's life. And so we had to return to gas again until the present installation came. I do not suppose all this has much value for your information, but now on the edge of 86 I feel that these little memories should be passed on.

Kind regards. Yours faithfully, George S. Tanner

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