130 years ago Tamworth was at the forefront of technological change. This is the story of how electricity brightened the streets in the first town in the southern hemisphere to flick the switch.
All it took was a bright idea, a spark of hope, a volt of commitment and a surge of community support to forge Tamworth’s name as the City of Light.
While these days it may be better known as the Country Music Capital, the city, or municipality as it was known in 1888 was at the forefront of global technological change, all while boasting a population of just 3000.
Just 11 years after 16 Jablockoff electric candles (arc) lights illuminated the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris to mark the world’s first electric street lighting, and just eight years after Thomas Edison patented his light bulb, the then mayoress of Tamworth, Elizabeth Piper, flicked the switch in Tamworth, the first town in the southern hemisphere to bask in the warm glow of electrons.
That was the first piece of history made that day, according to long-time Tamworth Powerstation Museum volunteer Ian Hobbs.
“The whole town was lit up with 52 incandescent lights around town, as well as three carbon arc lights,” he said.
“As part of the celebrations four carbon arc lights were put on the oval, which is now Bicentennial Park, to watch the 130 yard Grand Sheffield Handicap foot race – that was the first sporting event held under lights in Australia as well.”
It took 15 years before Sydney would catch up and install its own electric street lights, although by that stage Tamworth residents were leaps ahead, already planning to light up their homes and businesses.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing in those early days however, Tamworth’s electric lights did incur a few teething problems, and were labelled ‘Smith’s Folly’ by local gas advocates, although if it wasn’t for William Joseph Smith Tamworth may have been last on the list to light up, rather than a beacon of technology that became the envy of regional NSW.
Mr Smith, who owned a local tannery and was an alderman, or modern day councillor, was so infatuated with this new technology that he even named one of his son’s Faraday, after British scientist Michael Faraday, whose discoveries include the principles underlying electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis.
After extensively reading about this new technology, that he believed had the potential to light up the globe, he first lobbied council to make the switch in 1881, just four years after Paris lit up.
At the time council chose to stick to the tried and tested gas lanterns, although that didn’t dim the dreams of the new age thinker.
“He was so interested in this stuff called electricity that went to England on his own expense to do some further research,” Mr Hobbs said.
“When he came back he once again lobbied council when the tender came up in 1886, and they decided to form a lighting committee.
“That committee found electricity came in cheaper than gas, and the rest is history.”
Part of that history involved Tamworth’s first media war, as the two competing newspapers went head to head on opposite sides of the issue.
The editor of the Tamworth Observer, George Hooke, was a vocal supporter of electric lighting and stood alongside Mr Smith when the idea to bring electricity to Tamworth was first proposed in 1881.
However the editor of the Tamworth News was married to the daughter of Nathan Cohen, the chairman of the Tamworth Gas and Coke Company.”
In 1887 Mr Smith and Mr Hooke won out. On January 18 1888 Mayor William Frederick Tribe signed a contract with George Harrison and Alfred Wiffen, representing the English firm R.E. Crompton and Company, to light the streets of Tamworth.
Within ten months the town’s first power supply plant was built on the site of the current Powerstation Museum on the corner of Peel and Darling Streets.
“Tamworth was the envy of regional NSW at that time,” Mr Hobbs said.
“The town clerk, Daniel FW Veness, had towns from all over the country writing to him to ask what we had done so they could replicate it in their towns.”
By 1907 Tamworth needed a larger supply, so a second larger station was constructed next to the original to supply businesses and homes.
By 1922 the demand for electricity had grown so great that an even larger power station was built on Marius Street, now on the site of the Powerhouse Hotel.
That plant would eventually supply electricity for Murrurundi, Quirindi, Nundle, Armidale, Inverell, Narrabri, Moree and everywhere in between.
In the 1950’s, as construction was underway on another power plant in Gunnedah, a change in government saw the plans abandoned, and the new plant built in Muswellbrook instead.
In 1958, the North West was connected to the Electricity Commission of NSW's interconnected electrical generation line from Muswellbrook, and the Tamworth Power Station became redundant.
“Those electric street lights were the first thing that really put Tamworth on the map,” Mr Hobbs said.
“It was the start of the entire electricity industry in Tamworth, and led to the power stations being built – the city wouldn’t be what it is today without it.”