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Electricity in Taunton

Electricity in Taunton Somerset

The history of electricity in Taunton is a long and complicated story so we shall just look at the era around 1900. The image shows the St. James Street generating works around that date.

Seen are the switchboard and a Ferranti rectifier. Sadly I cannot identify the people. Taunton came to understand the properties of electricity at a lecture given in 1809. Individuals in the town like Henry Massingham 
(public street lighting) and Francis Newton 
(built his own generators and established electrical engineering works at Rowbarton) contributed much to the use of electricity in Taunton. In fact, to use a pun we were streets ahead of most other towns in the UK particularly with the lighting. In 1893 Walter Easton demonstrated electric light in Vivary Park in 1893 using a Gramme dynamo, an arc lamp and his own steam engine. Developments continued quickly in the late 1800s. The Thomson-Houston arc light system, pioneered in America, was set up on The Parade in 1885.The generator was housed under one of the Market House arcades. Taunton’s first public supply of electricity was installed at his own boot and shoe store off Fore Street by Massingham in 1886.

In 1889 things had progressed to the point where a new company had been set up and land acquired at St James Street for a new generating station on the site of Priory Collar Works lately destroyed by fire. Massingham promoted an electrical exhibition at Taunton in 1891 at the St James Street works with 40 exhibitors. The Taunton Electric Lighting Company ran into financial trouble partly due to under investment and was taken over by the town council.

The Taunton Corporation Electricity Department was the result. The St James Street works were enlarged and four 30 light Thomson-Houston generators driven by two Ruston Proctor steam engines installed. At the time street lighting took precedent over a public supply. Meters made an appearance in 1894 but at that time electricity was fifty times more expensive than it is now. Costs only came reduced when steam turbines replaced the ship type expansion engines used to power the dynamos.

By 1900 there were 510 consumers connected in Taunton together with 68 arc lights ( themselves requiring a lot of maintenance ) and 340 incandescent bulbs. The works also supplied the tramway system which opened in 1901. The development of power production continued at Taunton until the council’s works were absorbed into the South Western Electricity Board ( SWEB ) in 1948.

The St James Street Power Station became redundant and was demolished in 1980. However, the town had a key role in electricity production in the southwest dating back to 1809.

By Nick Chipchase

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