Thornbury and District Museum: The early years of electricity

May 29 2019
Thornbury and District Museum: The early years of electricity

THORNBURY Rural District Council first announced that it would apply for the necessary powers to generate and supply electricity to Thornbury in 1903. But the ambitious decision does not seem to have brought about any immediate action and it appears to have been left to private enterprise to bring electricity to the town.

The trigger seems to have been the marriage of Helen Garfield Cullimore, daughter Saw Mill owner Edmund Cullimore, to electrical engineer Francis Grace in 1907, which combined the electrical “know-how” with the necessary financial backing and entrepreneurial spirit.

Grace met with many problems as he expanded the electricity supply, not least from Thornbury Parish Council, which in 1915 declined to make a decision either way on his application for permission to carry “electric wires” over part of the highway, on advice that they had no authority over the application.

However, Grace persevered. He used electricity when he built the Thornbury Picture House, which opened in 1919, and eight years later applied to the Electricity Supply Commissioners for authorisation “to supply and distribute electrical energy for all public and private purposes”. The family formed the Thornbury Electric Company and built substations in St Mary Street and Alveston.

By 1933 the Company claimed to have 303 consumers and builders WW Pitcher and Sons had built the Gas and Electricity Showrooms, pictured, in St John Street for the Thornbury Gas Light and Coke Company and Thornbury and District Electric Company.

In October 1934 the company was contracted to supply electricity to Thornbury District Council “to light such streets and roads in the district of the council as the parish meetings may from time to time vote.” The lamps were only to be lit one hour after sunset until 10.30pm in wintertime, as light was considered unnecessary in the summer.

In September 1939 blackout regulations meant that all street lights were turned off. No lights were to be visible at all: even the glow of a cigarette light was frowned upon. In Thornbury many people were summonsed for a breach of these regulations, including Irene Staite, who was fined five shillings in 1942 for riding a bicycle with an unauthorised light.

Car accidents increased and we know of at least two such wartime deaths in Thornbury: Frederick Robert Wilcox was knocked down by a motorcycle whilst walking in St John Street and a boy named Sidney Coles was also a victim of an accident in the blackout.

In 1944 the regulations were relaxed and Thornbury’s street lights gradually increased, from 86 to 110 by 1950, with bulbs increased from 60 to 100 watts.

By then nationalisation had seen Thornbury’s own supplier replaced by the Midlands Electricity Board, in 1947, and a new showroom was built at the top of the High Street.