We have just received a donation of a ‘shift engineer’s memo book’, originally used in the Islington Power Station at Eden Grove in the early 1900s. This wonderful donation has been made by RWE Generation UK plc and was handed over to the IET Archives by the company’s former Managing Director Generation, UK, Kevin Nix who recently retired from the company. Kevin has very kindly written a guest blog for the IET Archives about this donation and that blog appears below. The memo book has been catalogued with an archive reference SC MSS 288 and can be consulted at the IET Archive Centre by appointment.
‘A Remnant of the Early History of Power Generation in London’, by Kevin Nix
During 2015 we had the sad task of closing our Power Station at Littlebrook. It ceased generation on 31 March. The current station, Littlebrook D, was in in operation for over 30 years but generation on the site goes back 75 years. As part of the preparations for final closure of the site we tried to preserve as much as we could of the generation heritage at Littlebrook. As the last remaining large power station in London, Littlebrook had become a home for a number of items from earlier London power stations, long since closed.
In pulling together what we had, we uncovered some very interesting items from one of the earliest power stations in London: The Metropolitan Borough of Islington Power Station in Eden Grove North Holloway. The plant was commissioned in 1896. Its original capacity was 160kW at 2000V single phase, but by 1927 it had grown to 27MW. It was originally known as the ‘ Vestry’ power station after the Islington ‘Vestry’ parish committee responsible for public services.
One of the items in our possession was the master ‘regulator’ clock from the station, dated 1923. This was carefully looked after by a former manager from the station who kindly donated the clock back to us. One of the technicians at Littlebrook, whose first job as an apprentice was to look after a similar clock, re-commissioned it and it is now running at the RWE Generation office in Swindon.
‘Shift Engineers Memo Book and Standing Orders’
Another item which came to light was the ‘Shift Engineers Memo Book and Standing Orders’. This is a hardback lined book into which are pasted numerous orders and instructions to the operators of the plant. The documents are dated between 1907 and 1921. The instructions, which are in the form of memos from the Borough Electrical Engineer, Mr Albert Gay, paint a fascinating picture of the challenges faced in running a power station in those days, many of which we still face today. They also make quite clear the management style of Mr Gay and his assistant, Mr MacAlister, who signed off most of the memos!
Albert Gay (1859-1927), shown in the photograph above, was a prominent electrical engineer in the early days of public electricity supply (photograph from a composite mount of 18 municipal electrical engineers held in the IET Archives). He started his career in 1881 and was at various times manager of the Eastbourne Electric Lighting Company and the Brighton and Hove Electric Lighting Company. His last job before moving to Eden Grove was as manager of the West Brompton Central Station. He had a key role in the construction of the Eden Grove station and stayed with Islington Council for 33 years until his death in 1927. He increased the station’s capacity from 160kW to 27MW during that time (obituary of Albert Gay published in Journal of the IEE, vol.65, issue 371, November 1927).
The first thing that becomes clear from the volume is that the station was responsible for three separate products:
- Street Lighting- this was a pretty new product as electric lighting replaced gas in 1906.
- ‘The mains’ as we would regard power supply today.
- Charging of Accumulators.
Street lighting was the major product in the early days of the power station and, based on the number of instructions issued, occupied quite a lot of the Shift Engineer’s duties. The street lights were arc lamps and seem to have been quite unreliable. ‘Arc Lamp Scouts’ were employed to patrol the streets and inform of any issues. Some lamps were ‘refuge lamps’ (presumably on public safety grounds) and there was trouble if they were left off – as a notice to shift engineers of 25th October 1911 demonstrates….
Many of the lighting circuits were automatically switched and one of the scout’s duties was to visit such circuits…within 15 minutes of lighting up time. One of the most heinous crimes a Shift Engineer could commit was to leave street lights switched on in daylight and when the Hornsey Rise Arc clock failed in July 1911 Mr MacAlister issued a long memo berating the Shift Engineers and accusing them of neglect by leaving the lights switched on at 7:45 a.m.
Breakdowns on the mains supply were clearly quite numerous and the Shift Engineers were once again in the firing line of Mr Gay and his assistant Mr MacAlister. It was clearly the Shift Engineer’s duty to take calls from members of the public and inform the ‘Mains Engineer’ of any faults. Special forms had to be completed and not doing so was clearly regarded as serious, as a memo from Mr Gay himself on 23rd September 1910 states:
If it is again reported to me that the instructions have not been carefully followed, or the information sent to the Mains Engineer on the forms specially provided for the purpose, the Engineer will be suspended until the Committee have had the case brought before them’
The charging of accumulators was clearly substantial business, with a standard charge of 1 shilling for a battery (circa £3 in today’s money) that ‘when handed in is not likely to take more than four units of energy’
There were clearly two main challenges for the Shift Engineers in carrying out this service. The first challenge was in identifying batteries in such a way that the person who handed the battery in actually got it back! This did not always happen as a polite letter from a Sergeant J. R. Clements of Holloway on 4th November 1920 shows:
I have been in the habit since last December of leaving my accumulator one or twice a week at the Lighting Station for charging. I left it with you on October 5th and on returning for it was told that it had been given out by mistake for someone else’s…..
Would you kindly give this matter your earliest possible attention as the loss of the battery is holding up the running of my Motor Cycle.
The second challenge was to make sure that batteries were not overcharged and so damaged. A number of memos refer to the Tudor Accumulator co (early outsourcing?) needing to repair damaged batteries and extolling the engineers to do better.
These misdemeanours soon attracted the attention of the Chief Engineer and his assistant with stern memos’ issued as early as 1909:
17 May 1909: Any future trouble arising through the negligence of staff in issuing wrong accumulators will be severely dealt with, and the Assistant responsible for such negligence will be required to bear any cost incurred’.
Safety related instructions are thin on the ground which says a lot about the culture at the time but there are some, particularly around live working!
11th December 1909:
Please note that when working on the High Tension Circuit Board you are to see that an asbestos shield is placed on the fuses on either side of the panel on which you are working. This applied to work either on the front or the back of the Board.
Also when inserting a main circuit plug a shield is to be placed in front of the panel of the circuit in which the plug is to be inserted, this being done to prevent the molten metal or arc extending towards you, in the event of the fuse again blowing.
I must again draw your attention to the fact that it is your duty to yourselves and the council to see that you take every precaution against any accident arising, either to yourself or other Members of Staff, but at the same time bearing in mind the necessity for immediately rectifying any defect that arises.
15th April 1912
Please note that under no circumstances are you to work on live conductors without having an authorised person standing by them…….
Housekeeping was clearly important and a lot of memos refer to cleaning, polishing and oiling the plant, though the perils of that are noted in ‘Notice to Engineers’ of 11 May 1911 where MacAlister notices that ‘Turbine Alternator No. 11 was broken….due to the Switchboard Attendant pulling out the field switch while cleaning. He goes on to berate the engineers with I should have thought the Engineers would have had enough sense… that no polishing was possible. He then instructs the engineers that no on-load cleaning is to be allowed and finishes off in his usual style with should this happen again the Engineer in Charge will be severely dealt with.
We tend to think that in the early days of power generation the focus was on public service with little eye on costs, but nothing could be further from the truth based on the volume of instructions in this area. Many of them are focussed on the Shift Engineers’ inability (in the eyes of Mr Gay at least) to properly monitor and log station performance. On 26 July 1910 there is a long memo covering several complaints. One of the most striking refers to the keeping of performance records…..
Some of the results logged are quite ridiculous, and I would advise you to use a little more common sense in this direction and not put down the first figures that you can think of. As an example of this the coal stock on Sunday July 10th was given as 720 tons and on Sunday July 17th as 790 tons, making a consumption of coal for the first week 360 tons and for the second week 4 tons. Whatever is the use of figures such as these?
Knowing What’s Going on
Not knowing personally what was happening at the station was an issue that exercised Messrs Gay and MacAlister a lot.
On 30th September 1910 My Gay writes:
On several occasions recently I have rung up the Works in the evening perhaps half a dozen times and have been unable to obtain any reply whatever. The next morning however I have been able to get in communication in every case, and I can only assume there has been some negligence at the Works, as the telephone would hardly get out of order and put itself right, which is the only other explanation. Last night when the accident at Kings Cross occurred I waited 10 minutes and then rang up, and from then until considerably after 11pm I rang at intervals, but received no reply whatever. Prior to my house being lighted by electricity I had a rule, which was well known to all Officers, that I was to be immediately informed of any breakdown of importance that occurred. Being now on a supply I am able, to some extent, to learn for myself when anything has happened, but I must insist that, failing my ringing up in the event of something wrong, the Officer-in-Charge must communicate with me as soon as possible, and give me full particulars. Should you fail to do so I shall take such steps as I think proper to enforce its fulfilment by punishing the offender.
Caring for the Environment
Modern power stations are highly regulated on environmental performance and maintaining emissions at the lowest level possible is very important. Whilst things were very different 100 years ago, the environment was not completely ignored. ‘Black smoke’ was a particular issue. A number of memos refer to breaches of the Public Health (London) Act of 1891 because of black smoke. The onus on the engineers was to report such incidents, and when they failed to report 10 minutes of black smoke on 17th December 1914 they receive a memo on 9th January 1915:
In future, should any report from the Public Health Officer, or the County Council, be made in respect of the emission of black smoke from the stacks, the Engineer on duty will have his weekend stopped and will render himself to have his next public holiday stopped. At the same time disciplinary measures will be taken with the stoker.
Almost every memo from the chief or his assistant, on almost any subject, contains some kind of threat, with very little in the way of encouragement. Despite these threats (or perhaps because of them) things continued to happen to the management’s dissatisfaction. Things come to a head with a memo on 6th of May 1913:
Memo: for the Shift Engineers
It appears that, as a Body, you are unable to carry out the instructions which are issued to you. As it is not my intention that this disregard for instructions shall continue, and as repeated warnings are totally ignored, you will please note that two chances will be allowed each of you-
In the first case of a complaint you will be dealt with by losing you leave for Bank Holidays
In the second case you will be suspended with loss of pay
In the third case you will be dismissed
I can only view that continued disregard of instructions is wilful, and as I cannot in future allow men to continue to be in charge when orders are ignored, this is the only solution.
Despite this there seem to be many subsequent memos berating the engineers for bad behaviour!
The book covers the period right through World War 1 and it is clear that this had an effect on the plant. One memo was issued on the 4th of August 1914 (the day war was declared) extolling the engineers to ensure that gates giving access to these works are locked… Special supervision must be made to see that no strangers have access or are found in the proximity of the station.
As early as 7th September 1914 another memo is issued:
In view of the serious position and the difficulty of the Technical Staff and Employees of the Electric Light Station being able to join a Regular Force, it has been deemed desirable that able-bodied members of staff should become trained, and, provided the response is sufficiently large from all able-bodied men under 45, arrangements will be made for drilling at these works at a convenient time between 5 and 7 pm.
The names of the Staff and Employees who would be prepared to enrol themselves for this purpose (and such enrolment will not carry with it any other obligation at the present moment than to honourably attend drills and to carry out drilling instructions with seriousness and full-heartedness, such as the present position calls for) should be given to their responsible Officers.
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