LOCAL HISTORY: Lights go on in Richmondshire

Reeth Mill Race.

Local historian Ian Spensley takes a look at early electricity supplies in Richmondshire before the roll out of the National Grid in the 1930s.

Until about 1910 the larger towns and villages were lit by gas; Richmond, Leyburn and Middleham had their own gas works, while the streets of Hawes were lit by acetylene lamps.

Askrigg was the first village to get an electric supply in 1908. William Handley Burton, of Askrigg Mill, was a pioneer of electric supplies in the Dales. At first the voltage was 115V DC, but four years later it was changed to 150V AC. The lights went on in Reeth in 1910, Bainbridge in 1912 and West Burton in 1913. After the war, Hawes, Thoralby, Aysgarth and Carperby followed.

Not all Dales folk were that keen on the newfangled electric in their homes though, noting that gas lights also produced heat, while electric lights didn’t.

In June 1911 at Middleham, William Sykes used an oil engine to generate electricity for sawing wood at his coach building business. He offered to supply the town with 50 candle power for £37 a year which was £3 cheaper than the Middleham Gas Company’s offer. The following month Mr Sykes started erecting his electric poles and completed the circuit in 1912 with the erection of ten more.

The Leyburn Gas Company also converted the street lighting to electric in 1913 and then in 1914, now called the Wensleydale Gas & Electric Co, they connected Spennithorne to the supply. The Askrigg Electric Lighting Company must have then taken over, because in 1916 they applied to Leyburn RDC to connect Thorney Hall to the 100V supply. They took over the Aysgarth Company in 1930 when operating as the Askrigg & Reeth Electric Supply Company Limited.

Catterick Camp had its own power station before 1923, despite the camp having been virtually unoccupied since the end of the war. In 1924 it was proposed to supply both Catterick and Richmond from the same power station but it appears not to have been completed until at least May 1927. On one day in August 1930, the power house was flooded by a cloud burst and it was 9pm before Richmond and Catterick could be lit.

Unusually, the price per unit was reduced in September 1931 from 3d to 2d, but there was still a demand for cooking with gas when a site near Easby was considered for a new gas works. An electric supply at Easby was produced by a turbine at Easby Mill from the 1930s.

Woodhall was supplied by Alderson’s Garage from a turbine under the water fall at Hawbank installed in 1936. In Swaledale, there was still a ruinous wooden shed and pelton wheel in place behind Gunnerside Lodge in the late 1970s. Such hydroelectric generators were at the mercy of droughts or frosts when the current would drop. During the very dry summer of 1933, consumers in Wensley had to resort to lamps and candles in early September and it was the end of the month before the beck had returned to a normal level. Where hydro power was unavailable, or of variable effect as at Wensley, oil engines supplemented or replaced turbines to ensure a continuous supply. West Burton put their 88.5 horsepower National Diesel Engine up for sale in 1948. Batteries were also charged to extend output.

Back in Middleham in November 1934, Sykes’s power station burnt down causing between £3,000 and £4,000 worth of damage, despite the fire brigade’s efforts at the front. Unbeknown to them. two stable boys (Reast and Walker) were at the back with buckets of water and managed to save a wooden shed. The street light in the Market Place was the subject of controversy in 1939, costing £3 a year to keep lit all night, it was considered an extravagance “and, worst of all, whether it did not keep people out of bed too late”.

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