The histroy of Burnley's electricity works

TODAY's article is about one of Burnley's most interesting buildings, the Corporation's old electricity offices and depot which were situated in Grimshaw Street, close to the canal.

Unfortunately, the buildings are no longer with us, but the three photos we publish today tell us much of what we need to know.

The first shows the rear view of the premises, which by the time the picture was taken, had become quite over-crowded. The second picture shows the offices of the electricity undertaking which dated from 1914.

The last picture, from the Ken Bolton Collection, shows the offices, middle left, at the time when Centenary Way was being built in the early 1960s.

The story of Burnley's Electricity Department surprised me when I first put it together.

I was born in 1947 after the generation and distribution of electricity had been nationalised.

I was not aware the industry had originally been the province of local authorities, of which Burnley had been one, and it ought to be added Padiham UDC also had its own electricity works.

It is not my intention to introduce politics into the articles in this series, but I cannot resist opining that the post-war Government which introduced the legislation to nationalise the electricity industry made a considerable mistake.

In retrospect, what they did was prepare, and at public expense, the industry for privatisation in later years.

When the generation and distribution of electricity was in local hands, the efficient local authorities could make "profits" which might be set against the rates, as local taxes were then known, reducing the burden on ratepayers.

Even better, local solutions to local demands for electricity were possible, rather the "one solution for all" philosophy which pervades the industry, now largely foreign owned, at the moment.

I have often thought if it might have been better if the generation and supply of electricity had remained with local authorities.

It is likely there would have been more creativity in the generation of electric power, which would have been off-grid and, no doubt, greener making earlier use of wind, water, bio-gas and geo-thermal energy etc.

In fact, recently, I have been looking at a system which might be ideal for Burnley. It makes use of the gases naturally produced in the workings of old coal mines. The gases are captured to heat water, which can be used directly to heat property and make steam to turn turbines to generate electricity. This system is in extensive use in Australia and in the USA, but the big inefficient companies which operate in Britain are not interested.

Burnley's original electricity undertaking dated from 1893, but the story begins 120 years ago when the Burnley Electric Lighting Order was granted.

This gave Burnley Corporation a monopoly of generating and selling electricity in the town.

It should be pointed out that, in 1889, a private company had proposed a similar project but the council, which already controlled the water supply and the making and sale of gas, thought differently.

An excellent canalside site was chosen for the plant and building began in 1891.

The first supply was inaugurated on August 22nd, 1893. Of course, the plant was coal powered, the coal coming from local mines on barges which plied the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, all very efficient.

The first electricity was used to generate electricity for street lights, but I have often wondered where those lights might have been.

In my part of town I think there were still gas lights in the 1950s, although it could be the original gas lights had been converted to electricity.

In 1903, Burnley Corporation, which in 1901 had bought the badly-run private Burnley steam tram undertaking, introduced electric trams.

Extensions at the electricity works were necessary and these were followed by the building of the offices (picture 2) in 1914 and erection of new plant in 1920.

It was this latter piece of work which should be remembered and I hope, in a future article, to be able to tell you about it. All I will say now is the machinery and plant installed in the project made the new Generating Hall at the plant something of a Cathedral to Electric Power.

To conclude this article, I should point out it was not the nationalisation legislation alone which ended Burnley's role as a generator and supplier of electric power.

In December, 1933, Burnley Corporation's Electricity Undertaking was made subject to the Central Electricity Board, which controlled the grid. The writing was on the wall!

I would like to thank Mr David Farrar and Burnley Council for permission to reproduce two of the photos.