Electricity comes to Doncaster


Eric Pinder looks back at ways of lighting Doncaster’s streets, shops and homes before the use of electricity.

As we have just seen the transition between two centuries and now live in the 21st century packed with technological advances let us consider what the thoughts of Doncaster folk might have been at the end of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. What expectations did they have for their new century? How much did the reality differ?

Electric lighting is now the most common form of lighting in Doncaster and is probably universal. The development of this is the main theme of this essay, although other related and relevant subjects will be mentioned as necessary.

Darkness has always been a curse on mankind. It closes in every evening, limiting their activities, increasing the risk of accident and in winter announces the beginning of many hours of boredom. There is, however, a short hiatus every month at the time of the full moon, providing the sky is cloudless, and after the moon has risen some limited activity is possible. This period of the month is now unnoticed by most of the population, but in 17th century Doncaster it was no doubt very welcome.

Doncaster was then totally in the dark. With the exception of the night of the full moon, St Sepulchre Gate, High Street, Marsh Gate, the Market Place and all other streets were characterised by one colour, black!

On New Years Eve, 1699, how many of the population of our town anticipated street lighting in the new century? The most likely answer is none. They were accustomed to living in the dark, a darkness made more tolerable by the candle and oil lamp. Yet in 1764, twenty years after the Mansion House was built, it was decided to light the streets of Doncaster.

Oil was the chosen method. The corporation did not want to be accused of extravagance so only the ‘principal streets north and south’ were to be lit and of course not every night. Marsh Gate, High Street, Hall Gate and South Parade were the principal streets, and lamps were to be lit on the Saturday night before the races, and would continue to burn throughout the winter months, except, of course, ‘when the moon doth shine’. The illumination was extended to St Sepulchre Gate and other main streets within a few years, and the leading citizen of the town, the Mayor, was allowed one lamp at his front door free of charge. The oil cost £105, lighting £20 and casualties £6. This system of lighting with a slight alteration in placing and construction of lamps continued until 1827.

There was no requirement for lighting in the summer months! Imagine the public’s eaction today if the council, because of cutbacks, decided to switch off all street lighting between May and St Leger week. Yet as alte as the end of the 19th century, Balby-with-Hexthorpe council were hoping for a reduction in the cost of gas lighting from Doncaster corporation. The proposal was to switch off the street lights in the summer months.

One intrepid pioneer in town was George Elliot, a whitesmith, who had premises on St Sepulchre Gate. In 1814 he is reported to have ‘lighted his shop with gas made from coal manufactured on his premises’, he actually manufactured the gas not the coal. Gas lighting came to Doncaster quite early, and George Elliot also illuminated his house with it to celebrate Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815. The illuminations were repeated upon the declaration of peace. I wonder if the residents of Doncaster flocked down to St Sepulchre Gate to see the light of the future.

A company called the ‘Old Gas Company’ was formed in 1827 and the corporation was a shareholder. They built the first gas works at a cost of £11,600, which were described as very primitive. The corporation eventually bought out the other shareholders and thus became the sole owner of the works.

Almost a quarter of a century after the Doncaster Gas Works were founded, Queen Victoria passed through the town in 1851 as she journeyed to Scotland, staying overnight at the Angel Hotel. To welcome Her Majesty there were illuminations galore. The Mansion House and other building were decorated and illuminated. The reader can be forgiven if they assume that gas was used. It was not! For several days there were standing in the streets of Doncaster cisterns to supply the fuel for the oil lamps!

36 years later the Doncaster Chronicle said that gas lighting at the time of the Queens visit was in a similar position as electric lighting in 1887. It (gas) was just beginning to make its presence felt. At Victoria’s jubilee in 1887, the corporation supplied free gas for the illuminations and just one building was illuminated by the electric light. This was St James’ Villas by Mr Frank Houlden. The decoration consisted of a crown with the letters ‘V.R.’ underneath and surrounding the crown were small glass globes illuminated by electric light.

Gas lighting continued to grow throughout the 19th century, but the candle and oil lamp remained common. All were dangerous. Any lighting based on a naked flame was always going to be limited. An unsupervised naked flame was such a serious fire risk that empty rooms were usually dark ones. Oil lamps, if knocked over, often exploded and many citizens of our town recieved horrific injuries when they fell with a lamp in their hand. No caring and responsible parent could put their child to bed with an oil lamp in the bedroom, it was inviting disaster. Young children and naked flames were best kept apart unless supervised by an adult.

In 1892, a girl of 17 living with her parents and five other children at number 14, Frances Street was doing her hair by the light of an oil lamp. When reaching for a pin, the oil lamp was knocked over, she and the bedroom were set on fire. With her night dress burning, she ran from the bedroom falling down the stairs. She was taken to the infirmary where she died the following day. The Coroner, Mr T B Sugden, said that the case showed the dangers of carrying lamps about and in his opinion, these lamps should be kept in a stationary position.

Gas had other dangers, it leaked and was poisonous. The leaking gas could fill a house with an inflamable mixture of gas and oxygen, exploding when it reached any naked flame or spark!

On the evening of October 3rd 1902, Mark Dowson returned to his home at 4, Wood Street, latterly, W. H. Shaw’s Printers. When entering the downstairs front room he detected a strong smell of gas and opened a window to allow the gas to disperse. To allow sufficient time for the room to clear he went upstairs returning after 10 or 15 minutes. When he attempted to light the gas light, there was an explosion which set the curtains on fire burning his hands, neck and face. Some passersby in Wood Street entered the building and helped him put out the flames. Mark Dowson was lucky in that he recovered, although he may have been just a little embarrassed, when it was made public knowledge that the Chairman of the Doncaster Electricity Committee had gas lighting in his home!

At a meeting of the Electricity Committee held in the Mansion House on December 1st 1902, it was recommended in the minutes that the electric cable be extended down Wood Street. Had Mark Dowson requested a supply?

Another similar incident occurred in Christ Church Road within a year or two of Mark Dowsons accident. A gas leak was suspected under the bedroom floor and floorboards were taken up to inspect the pipes. After some time, with the leaking pipe still undetected, dusk fell and it was decided to fetch a candle with which to inspect the gas pipes. The results were predictable, there was an explosion and the men were badly burnt.

Free-Lance in his column ‘Notes by the way’ in the Doncaster Gazette said he had warned time and time again that a naked flame should not be used to search for gas leaks, but residents of Doncaster continued to be injured in the resulting explosions.

Although not a resident of Doncaster, Mr James Gilby of Retford was well known in this town, having taken part in amateur theatrical performances, and his death in 1888 was reported in the Doncaster Chronicle. He died when his horse and trap collided with an unlit gas lamp being thrown out of the trap and killed on the spot. The jury at the inquest condemned the non-lighting of the gas lamps because it was a very dark night, and said that Mr Gilby’s life would not have been lost if this lamp had been lit. The jury accepted that on a night of the full moon the lamp may not be lit.

It should be remembered that gas lamps had to be lit manually, the lamp lighter walking the streets lighting each lamp before darkness. If the lamp lighter was ill, drunk or tired the lamps may not be lit that night. Electric street lights can be lit with one switch, a switch which can be controlled by a light sensitive cell so that the light comes on automatically when it becomes dark.

The electric light also brought further advantages over the naked flame. It was clean: and electric lamp produced no smoke to spoil the decorations. It was cool – not in the modern sense – it produced little heat. Gas lighting on a hot summers evening could be intollerable.

At he end of the century there was little electric lighting in Doncaster, but we know the prediction for it from two very important men in the town, also the views of one or two of the public from anonymous letter written to the papers regarding the same.

Mr Shirley, Town Clerk until his resignation in late 1888, publicly predicted the adoption of electric lighting, although he wouldn’t have expected it to be universal a century later. Even though he thought it was the light of the future, he had advised the corporation to reject the advances of 4 electric lighting companies in 1883. Mr Robert Bridges who was the manager nd engineer at the Doncaster Corporation Gas Works, and shareholder in the Conisborough and Crowle gas works, had very different views. He predicted that gas lighting would always dominate, ‘electric lighting would vbe used only by faddists and only by a minority’ he said at a meeting of gas managers held in the town in 1889. Mr Bridges, as the newly elected president of this association, addressed the meeting during which he expressed his fears of gas lights main competitor – the oil lamp. He had found that the town used 1000 tons of oil each year, a good indicator of the popularity of this mode of lighting.

The general public were equally divided:

  • ‘A Young Doncastrian’, who wrote to the Doncaster Chronicle in September 1897, complained of the poor record of the coucil in adopting new technologies such as the elctric light. He also wanted electric trams introduced running from Doncaster to Balby and Bentley. He was a young man who certainly would have predicted the adoption of electricity.
  • ‘A Working Man’, writing to the Doncaster Gazette in November 1897, implied that the introduction of electric lighting was  a form of corruption. He accused the ‘shopocracy’ of inducing the council to spend rate-payers money on the introduction of electric lighting for the benefit of the few. The Doncaster Council consisted mainly of shopkeepers.

One possibility that the Doncaster Chronicle did consider for the 20th century was cycling from Doncaster to Paris, not using the ferry to cross the channel but a bridge, which the French planned to have completed by 1900. It was to be supported by piles at 500 metres and the span would be 50 metres above the water at high tide. A refuge would be built on each of the piles with electric lighting and electric bells. The bridge was to be 30km long.

On the eve of the 20th century, it is probable that the average Doncastrian thought that there would be an increase in the use of electric lighting, in the same way that many of us today vaguely see the possibilty of holidays to the moon. It’s for the future but will hardly effect our lives.

Gas lighting was the light of the time. Ironically the introduction of the incandescent electric lamp created a greater demand for gas lighting. This was assumed to be because its superior light increased the publics expectations. Gas, of course, was cheaper and to compete with the electric light the incandescent gas mantle had been developed. After the public experienced the standard of illumination afforded by electricity, they too desired it, but being unable to afford it, took second best, the gas mantle. Robert Bridges, the Doncaster gas manager at the end of the 19th century and Robert Watson, gas manager at the beginning of the 20th century both supported this view.

This revolution in the illumination of Doncaster took a long, long time, almost three centuries. Although the major developments took place in the first half of the 20th century, it was not quite completed by 1950 as the following two stories will illustrate.

In 1947, a newly married couple moved into their first home within the Doncaster area. The house had been modernised and decorated ready for the couples return from honeymoon, electricity had been installed for the first time. After a year or two, television was introduced into the area and the next door neighbours who did not have electricity asked the young couple about it with the intention of having it installed. A few weeks later the neighbours bought a television set to plug into the new electricity supply. After another week or so had passed the husband asked his neighbours if they found electricity useful. They replied that it was very satisfactory, although the installation only consisted of one socket. Continuing, the neighbour said he was very pleased as the oil lamp was ideally placed on top of the television! In the second story, the house had been wired for electric light. When asked if they thought it useful, they replied in the affirmative. Explaining that when it was dark it was now easy to light the oil lamp after switching on the electric light! Once the oil lamp was lit, the electric light was no longer required!

At he end of the 19th century selenium, a light sensitive material had been discovered and scientists and engineers were already exploring methods of using it to transmit pictures by electric wires. Who at the end of the 19th century would have thought that every street in Doncaster would have electric lights. Live television programmes from other countries must have been beyond belief.

Whether the residents expected the universal adoption of electric lighting or not, it was well known at the end of 1899 that the new electricity works on Grey Friars Road would soon be completed. It was expected that the electric light would begin to glow more frequently in Doncaster during the new century, but no-one could see how far its influence would reach.

Today, windows are not essential – the fluorescent lamp illuminates the basement of Primark, M&S and other stores almost with the intensity of daylight. Motorists drive through the town at midnight as though it was midday. The toleration of the night has given way to an expectation of light 24 hours a day. A failure of electricity supply plunges us back 300 years and serves to remind us that the lighting revolution is now complete!