Regent’s Park Power Station And The First Electric Lighting In Tottenham Court Road

Today, we take electricity for granted, however in the history of London it is only comparatively recently that the city has been lit and powered by electrical power.

The old power station at Bankside has been transformed to Tate Modern and the power station at Battersea is finally undergoing a major redevelopment, however before these two well known landmarks powered the city, there were a number of smaller stations built at the start of London’s electrical age at the end of the 19th century.

My grandfather worked in one of these during the 1930s and 1940s. I never met him as he died long before I was born, however I have always been interested in discovering where he worked and if I could find any history of the power station.

The site he worked at was the Regent’s Park Central Station, an unlikely name for such an industrial activity, but at the start of electrical generation in London, the technology available only supported small scale, local generation and there was a need for a station that could serve the area to the east of Regent’s Park.

The Regent’s Park Central Station was constructed by the Vestry of St. Pancras, the first local authority in London to start the transfer from gas street lighting to electric and to provide a supply to private consumers. Construction started in 1890 and the station started generating electricity in late 1891. (The Vestry of St. Pancras was the original Parish Administration before the change to a Metropolitan Borough following the London Government Act of 1899)

So where was this power station and what did it look like?

I have been searching a number of archives but have been unable to find any photos of the power station. I have found an aerial view taken by Aerofilms in 1926 which does show the chimney of the power station. See the photo below, the power station can be seen to the left of centre. (Aerofilms link here)

EPW015727

To highlight the location, and to show where it was relative to other landmarks, I have marked some locations in the photo below. The photo has been taken north of the power station, looking south. Tottenham Court Road is on the left, running from the junction with Euston Road away towards Oxford Street at the top of the photo. Regent’s Park can be seen to the right.

Regent's Park Power Station 9

I knew roughly where the power station was located as in the accounts written by my father of growing up in London during the war, he referred to the power station being in Longford Street and Stanhope Street, so my next challenge was to see if I could find the location today.

As with much of London, parts of this area have seen some significant change, particularly the major building work that has resulted in the Euston Tower and Triton Square office developments. The following map  (Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland) shows the location of the power station, built within an area of land surrounded by houses, bounded by Longford Street and Stanhope Street.

Regent's Park Power Station 8

An 1892 issue of The Engineer contains an article about the power station and includes a number of plans and drawings, including the following detailed plan of the power station (I have rotated by 90 degrees to roughly align with the map above).

Regents Park Power Station 14

The challenge with locating the site of the power station today is that the routing of Longford Street changed in the 1960s as part of the redevelopment of the area. The following map shows the area today.

Regent's Park Power Station 10

Compare this map to the 1895 Ordnance Survey map. In 1895, Longford Street ran straight to Stanhope Street which continued down to the Euston Road. Today, Stanhope Street has been cut off from Euston Road by the Triton Square development and Longford Street now curves up to meet the end of Stanhope Street and Drummond Street. As can be seen from the 1895 map, this curve to get to Drummond Street (the road that is not named to the right of the power station) means that Longford Street now cuts across the lower part of the power station.

Having found the location of the power station and how the streets have changed, it was time to visit the area. I have repeated the 1895 map, and have now marked the approximate positions of where I took the following three photos.

Regent's Park Power Station 15

For the first photo, I walked down Drummond Street, and came to the junction with Stanhope Street. This photo is taken from position 1 and is looking down the new routing of Longford Street down towards position 2. Westminster Kingsway College now occupies the site of the power station and the houses that ran along Stanhope Street. The southern end of the power station building housing the engine and dynamos would also have run across the area now occupied by Longford Street.

Regent's Park Power Station 5

This photo is taken from position 2, looking across the houses that ran along Longford Street and directly into the power station which occupied the centre and left area of the college buildings with the engine and dynamo building extending onto the road.

Regent's Park Power Station 6

And this photo was taken from position 3, standing in the original section of Longford Street, which originally ran straight on. The revised layout with the curve round to the left can be clearly seen.

Regent's Park Power Station 7

So what did the power station look like? The “Engineer” publication also included drawings of the power station. In photo 2 above I am looking directly into the South Elevation shown below.

Regent's Park Power Station 12

The roof of the power station was constructed from glass panels. In my father’s account of growing up in the area, written just after the last war he refers to this roof. During September and October 1940 my grandfather was working the night shift at the power station. The following is my father’s account of one particularly heavy night’s raid when a land mine landed close to their flat during this time:

“After perhaps two hours, a warden appeared, told us of our miraculous escape from the land mines – we were not yet aware of what had happened – and suggested we should make our way to the nearest rest centre. now that the raid appeared to be easing.  However, mother’s priority was to get to see father although the thought of the glass roof and the electrical apparatus under it was not exactly comforting.

Mum said her grateful goodbyes from both of us, then passing through the passageway beneath Windsor House out into Cumberland Market to walk the quarter mile or so to Longford Street. the moon was still there, and from the east came the distant rumbles and flashes in the sky, marking the dying hours of the raid. Neither of us said much and hurried along fearing a sudden blast should the mines explode. The usual smell of smoke, and the far off sound of planes, bells of emergency and fire service vehicles making their way as best they could and hardly anyone around on their feet.

Answering the ringing bell at the generating station gate, father was shocked to see us standing there. He knew from reports that Saint Pancras was being plastered that night, but little else. in the warm again and with dad, more tea and the raid diminishing all the time we slowly made a sort of recovery.”

The power station was built for the Vestry of St. Pancras. A municipal electricity service to provide electrical street lighting and provide power for industry and homes in the local area.

The annual statements for the power station remain and make fascinating reading to understand the process for building a power station in the late 19th century and how quickly the use of electricity was adopted in the immediate area.

The construction of the power station was authorised by the St. Pancras (Middlesex) Electric Lighting Order 188x (the last number was not readable, but I believe to be 1888).

Loans were raised to fund the construction including an initial £70,000 loan, a temporary bank loan of £21,269 then in 1891 a loan of £10,000 from the London County Council.

Land was purchased for a total of £10,827, which included a number of houses along Longford Street which then contributed rent into the accounts of the power station.

Initial site clearance and erection of a hoarding was done by George Tatum for £36. Additional hoarding was provided by F.H. Culverhouse & Co. for £4, 17s, 6d.

Machinery and plant cost £24,878 and the laying of mains cables and services including royalties (presumably to land owners) came to £33,787.

The initial batch of public lamps cost £6,723 and £3 was spent on posters and £40 on advertising.

The station started generating electricity in 1891. The following table shows how the number of consumers, electricity generated, lamps and motors grew in the first few months of operation.

    30th Nov 1891 31st Dec 1891 31st Jan 1892 28th Feb 1892 31st Mar 1892 30th April 1892 31st May 1892 30th June 1892
Number of Consumers 57 72 81 93 103 108 115 119
Daily Consumption (Units) Minumum 17 33 79 174 104 201 187 144
Maximum 390 1825 3105 1641 880 1248 842 861
Average 220 665 1145 1067 640 757 625 540
Number of Arc Lamps 68 71 68 67 83 83 85 85
Number of Motors 0 3 3 3 3 4 4 3

The annual accounts provide very detailed information on the performance of the power station. Two examples of the information recorded are shown below.

For the month of January 1893:

260 tons of coal delivered at a cost of £260
Station staff: 18
Outdoor staff: 11
Total units sold: 49,750
Customers: 167
Units to private houses: 3,973
Units to other than private houses: 43,775
Public Lighting: 20,211
Complaints as to supply to Consumers and Arc Lights: 6

and for the month of December 1893:

306 tons of coal delivered at a cost of £272
Station staff: 19
Outdoor staff: 24
Total units sold: 57,784
Customers: 238
Units to private houses: 5,119
Units to other than private houses: 49,268
Public Lighting: 27,252
Complaints as to supply to Consumers and Arc Lights: 5
589,690 Gallons of water used = 5.4 gallons per unit generated
672,000 lbs of Coal used = 6.1 lbs per unit generated

Interesting that whilst the Station Staff stayed almost static, the number of Outdoor Staff more than doubled. I assume this was due to the manpower required to connect a growing number of new customers to the supply system across an infrastructure that did not yet exist and to maintain the connections of existing customers.

The volume of coal and water needed to support generation gives some idea of the complex  infrastructure and supply chain required to continue round the clock operation.

Also note that at this early stage, utilities were recording the number of complaints, something that utilities would continue to do well over 100 years later.

The accounts also record the average number of units consumed per household. These are shown in the following table and show a considerable increase per household during the last decade of the 19th century. Presumably due to the increased use of electric lighting and new electrical appliances being developed and bought by householders:

1892 18.8 1896 47.7
1893 24.7 1897 63.12
1894 29.57 1898 82.91
1895 35.29 1899 102.86

The generation of electricity allowed the transition to start from gas to electric street lighting and the Vestry of St. Pancras were one of the first municipal authorities to start this change.

The Engineer article and the accounts refer to some of the drivers for moving to electric street lighting and also some of the other day to day events for the power station and Vestry:

– In consequence of the War in South Africa, great difficulty in obtaining supplies of smokeless steam coal. As a result, the price of smokeless coal has increased between 50% and 75% on previous years contracts;

– Numerous complaints have been received of smoke nuisance;

– Four workmen employed by the department who were reservists and have been called up. Their wives are receiving half pay;

– For the gas street lights still in use in 1897, the wages of the lamp lighters increased from 21s 6d to 24s per week.

Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road were some of the first streets to be lit using electricity from the Regent’s Park Central Station. A number of experiments were undertaken to identify the best position for street lamps, their height and the type of light generated by arc lamps.

The best position for lamps was identified as being in the centre of the road and close to side roads. This enabled an even spread of light across the road, with light penetrating down side roads. Lights were installed and connected to the supply from the Regent’s Park station and in January 1892, Tottenham Court Road became the first street to be lit by electric lamps and electricity supplied by the Vestry of St. Pancras. A committee from the Vestry visited Tottenham Court Road and were most satisfied by the lighting from the new street lamps, which provided twelve times more light than the gas lamps they replaced.

The following map shows the position of the new arc lamps installed by the Vestry of St. Pancras.

Regent's Street Power Station 2

The original design of the street lamps.

Regent's Park Power Station 13

These original street lamps are still in place, although converted to modern forms of lighting and electricity (the original power station produced Direct Current unlike the Alternating Current (AC) of today’s electrical system). Just before visiting Longford and Stanhope Street I walked along part of Tottenham Court Road to take a look. The streetlamp at the junction with University Street and Maple Street.

Regent's Park Power Station 3

Looking up Tottenham Court Road to the junction with Euston Road. The final two street lamps at the top of Tottenham Court Road which also appear to have lost their glass domes.

Regent's Park Power Station 4

The St. Pancras Vestry was the first municipal authority in London to generate electricity. Others swiftly followed. Hampstead Vestry in 1894 and Islington in 1896. Shoreditch implemented an innovative way of generating electricity and profit for rate payers by using their refuse destructor as a means of generating electricity and disposing of waste.

By the end of the 19th century there were some 200 miles of streets across London lit by electricity generated by municipal authorities.

Victorian London is often portrayed through the perspective of fog and Jack the Ripper. I much prefer the view of an innovative city with a growing infrastructure and the sophistication and organisation to start the delivery of services that today we take for granted.

I hope that one day I will find some photos of the Regent’s Park Central Station, however it was still a moving experience to stand in Longford Street early one January morning and look at the site where my grandfather worked many years ago.

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15 thoughts on “Regent’s Park Power Station And The First Electric Lighting In Tottenham Court Road

  1. Vicky Stewart

    Excellent post! I hope someone can turn up with some photos. So your father left a diary as well! Loved reading his words which bring so much life to the account. Please include more extracts in future posts.

    Reply
  2. Donna Reeves

    I heartily agree with your comment on the portrayal of Victorian London. From my studies and general reading I would say that it must have been an exciting, progressive time – with new ideas, inventions and discoveries coming forward almost every day – some of them were strange, incorrect or unproven – but many Victorian people, at all levels of society, were keenly interested. Of course there was awful poverty, crime and squalor. It is perhaps sad that we see too much of the negative of Victorian London – because it makes for good TV, literature etc.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Exactly my view as well Donna. There was indeed dreadful poverty, crime and squalor, but the foundations of the modern city were being built.

      Reply
  3. Peter Holford

    That’s an impressive piece of research. I have done quite a bit of similar research in tracking down the addresses of ancestors in Pancras, Camden Town and Hampstead as well as the East End. It’s very rewarding when you make the breakthrough and identify a location. Unfortunately I never get the opportunity to follow it up with a visit because of distance – I make do with Streetview.

    I worked in a power station in the Manchester area in the 1970s. That was an experience! Hot, dirty, hazardous – I didn’t regret packing it in at Xmas ’73 and taking a drop in wages to teach in a secondary school.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your comment Peter. I also use Streetview – helps with research and preparation before visiting a site. It is a very useful research tool. I am not surprised you did not regret the change of role. The original coal fired stations were very dirty. As well as Streetview, there are a number of online maps that are really good. The National Library of Scotland has a number of Ordnance Survey maps online. I use the 1895 series as they have very detailed street level mapping of London which you may find useful.

      Reply
  4. CarolineLD

    Have you come across Ben Pedroche’s book, London’s Lost Power Stations and Gasworks? I don’t have my copy to hand so can’t confirm whether it has pictures, but it may. The author is also on Twitter as @ben_pedroche

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hi Caroline, yes, I do have a copy of Ben’s book which is really good, however it does not include the Regent’s Park power station. It is surprising how many of these smaller generating plans there were across London. The archives of the old London Electricity Board were moved to the London Metropolitan Archives and I have searched through these but no luck. Really interesting article you have on your site about Deptford Power Station, fantastic to get that folder of images.

      Reply
  5. Andrew

    Perhaps there are photos hidden away somewhere under an alternative name? I’m sure you know this is occasionally called the St Pancras or the Stanhope Street power station, or perhaps a view from Munster Square looking east past the church? What were the names of the public houses nearby?

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Andrew, I have checked under a number of different permutations such as St. Pancras, Stanhope Street and Longford Street, but with no luck. One of the pubs in Longford Street was the King’s Arms (the one in the centre of the street, not the pub on the corner of Stanhope Street). Have looked for photos of this pub but also no joy. I am sure there must be photos somewhere, just a matter of finding where they are and how they have been catalogued.

      Reply
  6. Annie G

    Fantastic research which I will read again in more depth when I am not in a bit of a hurry. Have you checked the Guildhall collection? I use this a lot and you may very well find some photos. They turn up all sorts of stuff. It is called Collage. If not, happy hunting!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks Annie for the feedback. Yes, I have tried Collage as well but no luck. I am sure there must be some photos out there – just a matter of luck I suspect.

      Reply
  7. Rob

    Fascinating piece. I found a couple of newspaper pieces about the power station from 1891/2 which I can email you if you like, but no photos sadly!

    Reply
  8. Mike Kay

    I work in the industry, ie the Electricity Supply Industry. I regularly used to walk along Drummond Street and Longford Street on my way from Euston to Marble Arch… and I had no idea that there I was walking across the site of an early power station. And seeing the pictures of the arc lights reminds me of the work of a lady engineer of the times, Hertha Ayrton. Not too fanciful to think that she might have had some professional connexion with the lamps of the Regent’s Park scheme.

    As ever, fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  9. Mike Kay

    Today (Thursday 28/4/16), Google is celebrating Hertha Ayrton’s 162nd birthday (see my previous post). I thought she was inappropriately obscure…. clearly Google thinks the same!

    Reply

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