Notes from an Intern: Stories from the Archives

Hello again, and welcome to another installment of ‘Notes from an Intern’. For the second phase of my internship, I was tasked with extracting information from materials gathered by Michael in the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). While a few of the letters were addressed directly to Lord Harewood, most of the documents were between electrical companies and Claude M.S. Pilkington Esquire, estate agent to the 5th Earl of Harewood. All of these documents (dated between 1900 and 1902) were in regards to the fitting of electricity in Harewood House.

When I met with Michael to discuss this next stage of my internship, he mentioned that the wide early usage of hydropower to generate electricity was not common knowledge. It is a fascinating little titbit, considering that one of the country houses that had cropped up in the literature survey was Cragside, the first home in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity. William Armstrong, the first Baron Armstrong, had been responsible for its electric installation. In several publications, where some were a part of the National Trust’s efforts in establishing an Energy Centre based on the work of William George Armstrong, different authors had investigated the historical installation of the hydraulic engines and pumps in Cragside. But it is fascinating to discover that within 30 years, this same technology would become so popular that it would be one of the ‘go-to’ methods of technology for electrifying other country houses.

For the past week, I had pored over many letters and documents sent by electrical engineers in the early 1900s. It is clear that Lord Harewood had written to several companies, requesting an estimate of costs to electrify Harewood House. Most of these estimates were based on the electrical companies’ suggestion to use hydro-electric power. One such company was Drake and Gorham; they cited Chatsworth House as a ‘specimen of a water power installation’, where they had ‘two turbines of 50 H.P. each and one of 25 H.P. and something like 1,000 lights’. In their letter, Drake and Gorham invited Claude Pilkington to view the estate and not too long afterwards, the agent of the 9th Duke of Devonshire himself, Mr. Gilson Martin, wrote to Pilkington in regards to arranging a viewing of the installation.

Based on the letters that I had viewed, invitations to view installations in other country houses seemed to be quite the norm. Another company, Edmundsons Electricity Corporation, Limited, provided Pilkington with several options in viewing their water-power installations. They listed one at ‘The Holme, Burnley’, which was ‘the residence of The Rev. Masters Whittaker’, and another was in Netherby, a property owned by Sir Richard Grahams in Carlisle.

There were plenty of other companies that had written to Claude Pilkington, but one appeared to have begun carrying out an installation scheme that involved both water and steam plants. This installation scheme had been one of three proposed to Harewood by L.H. Balfour. He provided a report on electric light installations in Harewood House, detailing the different schemes, their advantages and disadvantages, as well as how much each would cost. Even with such explicit renderings of cost, it seems that the endeavour to electrify the country house was more expensive than had been initially imagined.

There is, of course, more information to be extracted from the documents found in the Archives; my notes here represent only a fifth of the material that Michael had photographed. I had found the whole process of discovering the history of electrifying Harewood House thrilling. I was particularly struck by how much personality I was able to derive from the letters. Even though the documents I looked at mainly dealt with costs and machinery, the manner in which the letters were written provided a window into the past lives of the people involved in the project of electrifying Harewood House. It just goes to show the rich stories that can potentially be unearthed and told in the present tours at Harewood House.

The next stage of my internship project involves putting together the actual grant to make this a reality! I will write again once that has been completed. Until then, I hope you readers have found the information in this section interesting, and that you’ll keep on reading to see the progress of the ‘Electrifying the country house’ project.