Guest blog, Bill Barksfield, Heritage of Industry
“During the late 18th and 19th centuries a variety of technological innovations were becoming available to enhance the comfort and convenience of domestic life. Far from urban centres, the great Country Houses had to be self-sufficient in the provision of gas, electricity, sanitation and water supply if they wished to make use of them. This led to a series of independent works being established in order to provide lighting, heating, gas-fired equipment and electrics.
Research has identified around 250 country houses with their own gas works and this is thought to be only a fraction of the total. Some used coal, some oil and others generated and piped acetylene gas around. It seems hard to believe today but some generated heat and light from a petrol and air mixture. The earliest known example of a works is at Abbotsford, the estate of Sir Walter Scott, where an oil-gas plant was installed in 1823. J G Lockhart (Scott’s biographer) described the first display of the newly installed gas lighting: “Dinner passed off and the sun went down and suddenly, at the turning of a screw, the room was filled with a splendour worthy of the palace of Aladdin”.
Earlier technologies were adapted to take advantage of innovations in the fields of power generation. By 1881 the Marquess of Salisbury had installed Swan’s incandescent lamps at Hatfield House, Herfordshire with power provided by a turbine installed in the wheel pit of an existing watermill. Electricity was generated at 110 volt DC and stored in sets of batteries. Holkham Hall, Norfolk had a particularly large battery installation capable of running eight hundred 100 watt lights for twelve hours. In order to see the first demonstration of these in 1909 the future fourth Earl of Leicester delayed visiting his newborn daughter in London.
Mains electricity reached Holkham in 1933 but the old wiring was not up to running the new 240 volt AC supply so a mercury arc rectifier was installed to convert from AC to DC. In this glass bowl, 6ft high and 2ft 6in across, the mercury continuously boiled and vapourised then condensed and dropped back into a pool at the bottom, emitting ultra violet light and a loud humming sound. Ensuring an uninterupted electric supply. The electrician always took the opportunity to open the cabinet door and enjoy the gasps of surprise of visitors whom he proudly took to see this awe inspiring sight. To find such an item in a domestic setting shows the innovation employed in such houses, here was a technology developed to power industrial motors and electric railways/locomotives adapted for a domestic setting.”
Heritage of Industry organises study tours focussing on Country House Technology and has three new tours planned for 2014.