Godalming Museum, ref: 0632.1
This picture is featured in a newspaper cutting from 'The Graphic', Saturday November 12th, 1881. The picture is titled, "The Town of Godalming Illuminated by the Electric Light", and an extract from the related article describes what this picture illustrates.
"The pretty little town of Godalming has gained for itself a distinguished place
in the history of modern scientific developements by being the first town in
England which has decided upon the bold step of substituting the electric light
in the place of gas for lighting its public streets..."
It is doubtful whether Godalming was the first place in England to have public streets lit by electric lamps. It was, however, the first town in the world to boast an elctricity supply generating enough surplus to allow sale of electricity to the public. Its other unique feature was that the power was generated by a water-driven turbine. The means to do this was provided by John Pullman, owner of a local leather tanning factory. Pullman offered the electricity company the use of a water wheel on his tanning factory at Westbrook Mill - in exchange for electric lighting being provided to the building.
The first scheme set up two circuits, one for the town lighting using seven arc street lights. The other used 40 'Swan' incandescent lamps ( an 1879 invention of chemist, Joseph Swan) to light homes and shops.
Describing the town's street lighting, The Graphic's reporter wrote,
"The effect of the quaint old High Street, with its gabled houses and miniature Town
Hall, lit by the electric light is so strangely 'theatrical' that one expects to see a bevy
of fair damsels appear from the 'sides' and dance across the street, while the
'heavy villain' of the piece is attempting to conceal himself in the deep shadow at
the back of the Town Hall."
As the report suggests, the quality of the lighting was variable. The electricity supply was also vulnerable to changes in the water flow of the river Wey, which affected the running of the turbine. Although electricity was, at the time, a cheaper source of energy, gas prices fell and Godalming returned to gas lighting in 1884. It was another nine years before the town re-installed electricity.
Haveron, Francis, 'The Brilliant Ray' (Godalming: The Godalming Electricity Centenery Celebration Commission, 1981)
'Power to the People - A Century of Electricity in Britain' (London: The Electricity Council)
Both books available for reference in Godalming Museums Local Studies Library
Return to Town and Society or the Collections index