©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 05, 2017
Webpage updated: April 05, 2022




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.

However, it was to be over thirty years before any further use was found for electricity in the Town.  That was in May 1884, when the new Promenade Pier was lit by 18 arc lamps and 32 incandescent filament lamps.   Power was supplied by two Brash generators driven by 16 horse power Otto gas engines.

To encourage the supply of electricity to the public, the Parliament passed the Electricity Act in 1882 but its terminology discouraged, rather than encouraged, private companies from entering this new business.  It took a second Act of Parliament in 1888 to spark off real interest locally.

Plymouth Electric Lighting Order 1894

Thus, in 1889 the Devon and Cornwall Electricity Supply Company was formed by a consortium of local businessmen but they had difficulty negotiating with the three local authorities of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport.  Plymouth was the first Borough to give way, following pressure from local shop owners, and because of their own desire to electrify their tramway network.  The Corporation therefore applied to the Board of Trade and were granted the Plymouth Electric Lighting Order 1894, which authorised the preparation of a scheme for supplying the Borough with electric power.

Dr John Ambrose Fleming FRS (1849-1945) was invited to advise the Corporation on the type and size of an electricity system to power both lighting and tramways.  He proposed a power station at Prince Rock, a tramway from there to link up with the existing horse tramway at the Theatre Royal, and public street lighting in the main shopping area and on the Hoe.

Like Plymouth, Devonport Borough Council also 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.

In the meantime, on November 9th 1895, Plymouth had set up an Electrical Lighting Committee to consider Mr Fleming's recommendations.   On April 27th 1896 they appointed Mr J H Ryder as the Borough Electrical Engineer and a Mr E G Okell as his assistant.  It was presumably no coincidence that Mr Rider had previously served at Bolton in Lancashire, one of the Towns visited by the Committee.

Plymouth Corporation Electricity Works

Work started on constructing the Plymouth Corporation Electricity Works at Prince Rock in 1897.  The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman J T Bond, on Thursday April 21st 1898.

It was the first such works in the country to be designed to supply electricity for both lighting and traction but due to some delays in completing construction it was not the first in actual operation.  However, at the time it was the only electricity works to supply the power for both purposes from the same engine at the same time.

Messrs W G Heath & Company, a local business, was contracted to install electric lighting in the streets and to erect the wiring in Ebrington Street and Old Town Street for the new tramway service.

Alderman John Pethick, the Mayor of Plymouth, opened the Plymouth Corporation Electricity Works on the morning of Friday September 22nd 1899.  He also inaugurated the new electric tramway route from Prince Rock into the Town Centre.

After the officials and guests had toured the Works, they boarded the five waiting tramcars to make the journey into the Guildhall for a celebratory luncheon.  The Mayor, together with Alderman C H Radford, chairman of the Electric Lighting Committee, and Mr Rider joined the motorman, Mr W A Smith, on the platform of tram number 1 to lead the procession.

When opened the site covered an area 150 feet in length and 130 in width.  The engine room measured 100 feet by 40 feet and housed two 150 brake horse power Belliss compound vertical condensing engines capable of 375 revolutions and two 300 bhp Ferranti compound vertical condensing engines capable of 250 revolutions.

The Bellis steam engines were coupled through coil clutches to 100 kilowatt Ferranti alternators and 100 kilowatt Westinghouse dynamos, while the Ferranti steam engines were similarly linked to 200 kilowatt Ferranti alternators.  Additional equipment consisted of three Ferranti rectifiers, each for fifty 10 ampère arc-lamps and three six-inch Gwynne centrifugal motor-driven pumps for lifting sea water into a tank for the condensers.  Each of the engines had a Körting ejector-condenser, supplied with sea water from a tank.  Also inside the engine house were three switchboards, a Ferranti standard type one for controlling lighting, another Ferranti one for working arc lamps, and a Westinghouse one for operating the tramway system.  The final piece of equipment was a overhead travelling crane of 40 feet span, capable of carrying 15 tons.  It was worked by hand.  That still left room for an additional set of machinery of up to 700 horse-power.

In the boiler house, which measured 100 feet by 56 feet, were three Lancashire boilers manufactured by Messrs J Musgrave & Sons.  They were 30 feet long by 7 feet  6 inches and had a pressure of 160 lbs.  These were supplied with coal by three Vicars' mechanical stokers.  In addition there were a Green's 256 tube economiser; two three-flow electrically-driven feed-pumps made by Messrs Hayward Tyler and capable of supplying 4,000 gallons of water per hour; and a live-steam injector.  The boilers could be fed with water either directly from the Town's water mains or from cast-iron storage tanks on the roof, over the coal store.  One tank held fresh water and the other sea water, the total capacity being 28,000 gallons.

The coal arrived in a siding in the yard off the London and South Western Railway Company's Cattewater branch.  The siding ran into the engine room, where the overhead crane could lift the coal to overhead stores, from which it would fall by chutes to the mechanical stokers.

There was space in the boiler room for three more boilers and an economiser of equal size.

The administration block measured 10 feet by 20 feet.  It was constructed of limestone obtained on the site and was faced with red brick.  There was a separate coal and miscellaneous store house measuring 40 feet by 56 feet and the open yard was of 40 feet length by 60 feet in width.  Overlooking the collection of buildings was the 180 feet tall chimney, which had an internal diameter of 8 feet.

It was stated that the cost of the undertaking was £56,000 and that the charges for electricity were 4½d per unit for domestic users; 3½d per unit for the tramways undertaking and £16 per street arc-lamp per annum, inclusive of trimming.

Capacity at Prince Rock 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 East 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.

Electricity for Plympton and other districts, 1925

On January 7th 1925 Mr Henry Hurrell in partnership with Mr William George Heath and trading as the Plympton Electric Supply Company, of 41 George Street, Plymouth, applied to the Electricity Commissioners at Gwydyr House, Whitehall, London, for permission to generate, store, supply, sel and distribute electric energy for private and public purposes within the parishes of Bickleigh, Brixton, Cornwood, Egg Buckland (sic), Ermington, Harford, Holbeton, Newton Ferrers, Plympton Saint Maurice, Plympton Saint Mary, Plymstock, Revelstoke, Saint Budeaux, Shaugh Prior, Tamerton Foliot, Wembury, Weston Peverell (sic), and Yealmpton.

Electricity showroom

A major sales campaign was mounted in 1931 with the opening of the first electricity showroom at No. 1 Drake Circus.  Electric cookers and other items were made available for hire, rather than purchase, and cookery demonstrations were held.  Residents were even offered a "Hire Purchase Wiring Scheme".  At Milehouse, opposite Home Park, two demonstration houses were built that had only electricity for power, easily identifiable by their lack of a chimney.   To maintain the high profile, the Hoe, the new Tinside Lido and Devonport Park were festooned with electric light bulbs and tram number 22 was especially decorated as well.

The illumination of Smeaton's Tower in 1933

The illumination of Smeaton's Tower
in 1933.

As a result of seeing the benefits, the domestic demand for electricity began to increase fast and soon it was necessary to install a Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company Ltd 15,000 kilowatt turbo-alternator to replace all the original plant at Prince Rock.   This brought the total capacity of that power station up to 34,850 kilowatts.

The new plant was formally handed over to the Corporation by Sir Felix Pole, chairman of Associated Electrical Industries Ltd, and was set in motion by Sir Andrew Duncan, chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board on Tuesday May 10th 1932, in the presence of the Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman G P Dymond.   After a tour of the Power Station, Sir Archibald Page, of the CEGB, switched on the main control.

Comparative statistics

Some interesting statistics were published in May 1932.  There were only 187 consumers in 1901 and only 1,753 in 1914.  This jumped to 21,831 by 1929 and 36,870 at the start of 1932.

During the same period the capacity of the generating plant had risen from 800kw to 34,850kw and the number of units of electricity sold from 432,532 in 1901 to 25,112,584 in 1932.

Enter the Central Electricity Generating Board

In July 1934 Mr H Midgley was appointed as City Engineer, replacing Mr Okell, who was about to retire.  The following year the power station was joined to the National Grid and thus was placed under the direct control of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Over in Europe the war clouds were gathering.   When it became obvious that air raids were likely, Mr Midgley started to make plans for maintaining power supplies during these raids.  Although there lots of minor incidents throughout the Blitz, the only major interruption occurred following the complete destruction of the main switchgear at Prince Rock on January 13th 1941, which disconnected not only its own generators but also the link to the National Grid.

Luckily, the Royal Dockyard was able to come to the City's rescue.  It had its own generating station, built in 1906, and its capacity was something like 19,850 kilowatts by the outbreak of the War.  It originally operated on a direct current basis, as used on the warships, but in 1926 had been converted to alternating current.  It was hurriedly connected to the National Grid and was supplying Plymouth's vital services within three days of the damage at Prince Rock.  This was not lost on the people of Plymouth, who had to make do without gas for six weeks after a similar occurrence at the Gas Works at Coxside.

During the Second World War the smaller alternators were removed and replaced by two 20,000 kilowatt turbo-alternators and four 100,000lb per hour boilers, for which the building was extended.  By 1945 the output had risen to 66,400 kilowatts.

Prince Rock 'B' Power Station

Plymouth's last electric tram ran on September 29th 1945 but still the demand for electricity for domestic purposes was larger than the supply.  Early in 1946 the Central Electricity Generating Board took the decision to erect a new power station at Plymouth to house two (later amended to three) 30 megawatt turbo-alternators.  It was to be built alongside the existing station and to be ready by 1951.

Prince Rock Power Station, Plymouth.

Prince Rock Power Station, Plymouth, with
the newer Plymouth 'B' in the foreground.

The project was to be supervised by Mr H Midgley, the City Electrical Engineer, and Messrs Mouchel & Partners Ltd were appointed as Consulting Engineers, with Mr J H Somerset, FRIBA, as Consulting Architect.  Contracts had been placed for the three turbo-alternators and associated boilers, a turbine house crane, circulating water pumps, main foundations and structural steelwork, when, on April 1st 1948, the electricity industry was nationalised and the whole undertaking was transferred to the British Electricity Authority.  The consumer side of the business, i.e. the domestic supply and sale of equipment, was transferred to the South Western Electricity Board (SWEB).

Clearance work started in 1948, with work on the foundations starting the following year.  Erection of the steelworks commenced in November 1949, with the roof and walls following in April 1950.  Boiler erection started in May 1950 and the turbo-alternators were installed in November 1950.

Of the three units installed, the first was brought into use in December 1951, the second in mid-1952and the third in 1953.  Its capacity was further enlarged in the 1960s, coincidental with the closure of the Royal Dockyard power plant in March 1961.

The Plymouth Electricity Power Station at Cattedown, December 1958.
© City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery.

Closure of the Plymouth power stations

Just a decade later the Plymouth 'A' Station was found to be uneconomic so in 1974 it was closed down.  It was demolished soon afterwards.  The newer Plymouth 'B' was put into reserve in 1981, after which Plymouth was fed solely by the national grid system.   That one was demolished in 1992.  The old Devonport Power Station in Newport Street, Stonehouse, which had lost its notorious chimney in 1930, was pulled down in 1990.  The memorial stone has been preserved.

'Ebb' and 'Flo', the chimneys at Prince Rock power station fall during demolition work.

Ebb' and 'Flo', the chimneys at Prince Rock
Power Station fall during demolition work.