Faces of Tamworth: Powerstation Museum volunteer Kenneth Russell

EYE OPENING: Ken Russell takes Elizabeth Farrelly and Margaret Brady on a guided tour. Photo: Geoff O’Neill
EYE OPENING: Ken Russell takes Elizabeth Farrelly and Margaret Brady on a guided tour. Photo: Geoff O’Neill

FULL of bright sparks, Tamworth was the first city with electric lights in the country.

And, long-serving Powerstation Museum volunteer Kenneth Russell is the first person to tell visitors to town about quirky history of the ‘City of Light’.

In Mr Russell’s time, the museum has been honoured with a litany of awards – including an IMAGINE award for its education resource, ‘Sparking Curiosity and Wonder’.

Having worked in the industry after he retired, Mr Russell became infatuated with history, and spent his time researching to tell the stories to people who didn’t know the role Tamworth played in the electric lighting development.

TAMWORTH is the birthplace of electric light in Australia.

While the city is now famous for being the Country Music Capital, for nearly 100 years it was known as the ‘City of Light’.

On a mild night, November 9, 1888, Tamworth became the first city in Australia – and the southern hemisphere – to have its streets lit by electric street lights.

One man led the charge to cement Tamworth’s place in the history books – William Joseph Smith.

BRIGHT WORK: Ron Greer has received an OAM for his dedication to the Powerstation Museum. Photo: Barry Smith 040615BSE03

BRIGHT WORK: Ron Greer has received an OAM for his dedication to the Powerstation Museum. Photo: Barry Smith 040615BSE03

Mr Smith, a tanner and alderman [councillor] faced an uphill battle. At the time, large scale electric lighting was like something out of a science-fiction novel.

A progressive man, Mr Smith first proposed the idea of an electric street lighting system in 1881, but council was unenthusiastic about the new and untried technology and in 1882 choose to stick with gas lanterns.

HELPING HAND: Sid Cross changing a lamp on a street light fitting in 1933, with Jack Perfrement steadying the ladder. Photo: Powerstation Museum Collection

HELPING HAND: Sid Cross changing a lamp on a street light fitting in 1933, with Jack Perfrement steadying the ladder. Photo: Powerstation Museum Collection

Powerstation Museum volunteer and life-long electrician Ken Russell said for Mr Smith to “contemplate this mysterious electricity idea” in 1882 was simply amazing.

“The scientist and engineers of the world were still trying to work out what electricity was at that stage,” Mr Russell said.

Mr Smith refused to give up on his vision and, out of his own pocket, travelled overseas – to the Motherland and other European countries – to gather more information.

“There were no taxpayer funded fact-finding tours in the early 1880s,” Mr Russell said.

Mr Smith was well prepared when the street lighting contract came up for consideration again in 1887, and convinced council the best way to approach the issue was to form a lighting sub-committee.

“Council loves forming committees, that's what they do,” Mr Russell said, laughing.

Powerstation Museum volunteer Ron Greer has penned a number of books about Tamworth’s big moment on the world stage and said the street lighting issue was the talk of the town, as the city’s two newspapers took sides.

PROVIDING SPARK: Tamworth powerstation on Marius St in 1928. Photo: Tamworth Historical Society

PROVIDING SPARK: Tamworth powerstation on Marius St in 1928. Photo: Tamworth Historical Society

The editor of the Tamworth Observer, George Hooke, was a vocal supporter of electric lighting and actually suggested the idea alongside Mr Smith in 1881.

However, there was an equally loud critic in the city’s other paper, the Tamworth News.

“The editor of the Tamworth News had connections to the gas lighting industry,” Mr Greer said.

“His wife was the daughter of Nathan Cohen, chairman of the Tamworth Gas and Coke Company.

“They did have other allies in the community who had plenty to say about it, just as George Hooke had his allies, so it was a battle that went on through the newspaper.”

Armed with Mr Smith’s new knowledge, council gave the city’s lighting contract to English firm R.E. Crompton and Company in 1887.

Within 10 months, the company constructed the power plant – located on Peel St, at the site of the Powerstation Museum – and converted the city’s gas lanterns to electric lights.

REPLICA: The Powerstation Museum is built on the site of the original powerstation. Photo: Barry Smith 130616BSC02

REPLICA: The Powerstation Museum is built on the site of the original powerstation. Photo: Barry Smith 130616BSC02

On November 9, 1888, which was a holiday to celebrate the Prince of Wales’ birthday, Tamworth’s residents flocked to the power plant house, to see the wife of mayor James Piper, Elizabeth, turn the power on with a golden key.

“Everyone came to see the lights switched on, because no one could tell them what it would look like,” Mr Greer said.

The congregation then marched down the street, lined with the new electric lights, to Oval Two, which is where Bicentennial Park is now, for the heats and finals of a 130-yard foot race – all under the glow of four giant arc lights.

“The whole affair was really a public relations stunt to show how effective the lights were,” Mr Greer said.

As with most new technologies, the new lighting system had a few teething problems. The gas lobbyists, bitter they no longer had the lighting contract, dubbed the lights ‘Smith’s Folly’, a name that stuck for a couple of years until they became more reliable.

It took Sydney 15 years to catch up to Tamworth, and by that point, the city’s residents wanted the miracle of electric lighting in their homes and business.

In 1907, council built a larger powerstation next to the original one to supply shops and homes. 

This was the start of Tamworth being the primary electricity supplier for all of the North West – in 1922 the station moved to Marius St, and by the 1950s it was supplying electricity to Murrurundi, Quirindi, Nundle, Armidale, Inverell, Narrabri, Moree and everywhere in between.

In early 1988, as the 100th anniversary of the Tamworth’s electric lighting approached, the original powerstation site became available and plans were made to turn it into a museum.

“Working very much against time, the engine shed was built, replica machinery was built, steam engines and boilers were built, and we had a replica powerstation,” Mr Russell said.

“When you go into the Powerhouse Museum, you are actually standing on the birthplace of electricity in Australia. The old foundations from 1888 are still there.”

WELL OILED: Powerstation Museum volunteer Arther Ruttley adds water to a steam-powered generator, similar to what was used in 1888. Photo: Peter Hardin 091116PHA018

WELL OILED: Powerstation Museum volunteer Arther Ruttley adds water to a steam-powered generator, similar to what was used in 1888. Photo: Peter Hardin 091116PHA018

This year, the museum celebrated the 128th anniversary with a gift from the state government – $32,400 to create two public art pieces based on the City of Light theme.

Tamworth Regional Council Art Gallery and Museum director Bridget Guthrie said the funding would come over two years.

“The projects will come to fruition on the 129th anniversary and then again in 2018, on the 130th anniversary,” Ms Guthrie said.

The first project will be a contemporary, ephemeral public artwork –with projections onto the museum’s outer walls accompanied by a soundscape, with a “bit of a Vivid feel”.

“Hopefully it will be interactive, we’d love to have somewhere you can jump on it and it lights up, or you push a button and something happens,” Ms Guthrie said.

The following year is when most of the funding will be spent and it will go towards a permanent public artwork.

“What that looks like is yet to be determined,” Ms Guthrie said.

“We’ll use an expression of interest process, putting it out all over the country. There will be about $20,000 or so to put in to it and we’ll have all these ideas come at us.

“A panel will make a decision on which is the best one for the city and go from there.”

With the public art, Ms Guthrie hopes a new generation will be exposed to Tamworth’s wonderful history as the City of Light.

“We’re not reinventing the story, but reinvigorating it,” she said.

The Powerstation Museum has more than 9500 items and is open Wednesday to Saturday, 9am to 1pm.

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