The Lynmouth Power Station 1890

The discovery of electricity by Michael Faraday in 1820 led to the development of the filament bulb by Joseph Swan in 1878. Although initially of low candlepower, the bulb was soon improved and introduced an efficient use of lighting for domestic and industrial buildings. This new form of illumination was bright, clean, safe, and instantaneous compared to gas lighting that was in general use at the time. In 1879, experimental incandescent electric lamps were installed along the Embankment in London but this new form of street lighting was not generally introduced into the city until the late 1880s.

Lynmouth Power station John Pedder, This late 19th century photograph shows Lynmouth Power station on the right. The low flow of the East Lyn led to its historic place in the story of electricity generation.

As this new service expanded in the large urban areas of Britain during the late 19th century, steam or gas engines were used extensively as a power supply for the generation of electricity. However waterpower was much cheaper if it was available. In Devon, rural communities were able to take advantage of fast-flowing streams and rivers in the county that were powerful enough to drive a small hydroelectric generator. In 1888, Henry Geen installed a turbine powered by the East Okement River that was used to drive motors and light his Okehampton mill. The installation proved so successful that it was able to expand and supply nearby houses by the end of that year.

In late 1889, his brother Charles who lived in Lynmouth formed the Devon Electric Light Co and prepared a plan to build a hydroelectric power station that would light the streets of Lynton and Lynmouth. Lynmouth was developing quickly and Geen realised that adequate lighting would give an advantage over other holiday resorts. The local board warmly accepted his proposal in August that year and work started on the scheme immediately. At the time, street lighting in the resort was by oil as influential locals had opposed a proposal to build a gas works at Middleham in the Watersmeet Valley in 1875. They had objected to the ruination that an industrial site would bring to the area that was renowned for its beauty.

A row of houses on the bank of the East Lyn behind School Steep was bought and converted to a turbine hall, workshop, and office. This conversion gave the building a domestic appearance that sat comfortably with other properties in the area. By March 1890 the power station was built and in use showing the extraordinary determination and organisation skills of Geen. While large urban areas were still illuminated by gaslight, the little village of Lynmouth became one of the first communities in Britain to light its streets with electricity.

At first, Geen installed a horizontal shaft turbine made by Hett of Brigg, Lincolnshire that developed 150 hp. This powerful machine was soon nicknamed the ‘Little Giant’ by station workers. To drive the turbine, water was diverted from the middle of the East Lyn River by a weir upstream of the station near Vellacott’s Pool. A leat 6-ft (1.85m) wide x 3 ft 6 in (1.07m) deep carried water 400 yards (369 m.) into a 30-in (.78 m) underground cast iron pipe, which ran 520 yards (480 m.) to the station. With the steep gradient of the river this provided a 90-ft. (6.9 m) head of water to the turbines. The fast flowing leat soon became a popular attraction for Lynmouth children who spent many hours playing and swimming in it.

The turbine drove two Mordey alternators that had stationary armatures and rotating field coils. Each generated 37.5 kW (kilowatts) at 2000 volts / 100 cycles. The current was fed to ten substations sited throughout the villages where it was transformed down to 100 volts for consumer’s use. The station initially generated electricity for lighting the village streets but in 1895, the first private subscriber to have electric lighting installed was the Devon & Cornwall Bank at Castle Hill in Lynton. This building survives today and stands next to the Queen Street steps opposite St Mary the Virgin Parish Church.

By 1899, fifty-nine street lamps of 32 cp (candle power) each had been installed in the communities and an arc lamp fitted at the top of the 35 ft high Rhenish Tower shone at 2000 cp. This lamp was clearly visible from the Welsh coast 20 miles away.
It was at this time that history was made by solving the problem of a variable flow from the East Lyn that sometimes caused a shortage of water to drive the turbine. Lynmouth Power Station was to have the world’s first facility that stored water to be used later to generate electricity when demand was at its highest.

A reservoir was excavated on top of Summerhouse Hill that rose steeply behind the station. The brick lined tank hewn from solid rock measured 50-ft (15.4 m) in diameter x 16 ft 6 in. (5.1 m) deep and held 190,000 gallons of water. At periods of low demand, a jet wheel driven by the river operated a Bailey’s pump, which raised water 762-ft (234.5 m) through a 6-inch pipe to the tank. To supplement a low leat flow when electricity was at peak demand, the stored water was released down the pipe to the Pelton turbines that drove the generator. Storing water in a reservoir to generate hydro electricity when needed is now in common use today throughout the world.

By 1904, the plant capacity was 145 Kw and power was being supplied to 84 street lamps, 65 private consumers and 2,250 lamps were in use in the community. Hotel owners proudly advertised their use of ‘new’ electricity. Efficient turbines were installed in 1920 when the demand of local consumers had increased by 30%. A supplementary diesel generator was also installed for use at periods of peak demand. By 1950 over 700 private consumers were being supplied in the area. Cleaning the long 6” pipeline on Summerhouse Hill was not a popular job with maintenance workers. They were required to carry a heavy metal tube up the steep hillside, checking that all isolation valves were open as they ascended. After a strenuous climb, the tube nicknamed ‘the torpedo’ was inserted into the top of the pipe and released. The wrath of station manager Tom Smedley was incurred one day when a section of the pipe shattered as the torpedo plummeted down; - somebody had forgotten to open a valve.

The reputation of the East Lyn as an excellent salmon river often paid dividends for those working on the night shift. Unwary salmon were sometimes swept along the leat and trapped against the grating that protected the turbine. With an opportune lull in their duties and the supervisor off duty, one of the men would steal out in the early hours and retrieve the helpless fish. Many customers of Lynmouth restaurants were unaware of how the tasty ‘local salmon’ had arrived on their plate. This additional ‘pocket money’ for the workers came to an abrupt end one night when the manager made an unexpected visit to the station.

The power station continued its unique 100-volt supply to the villages until the night of the Lynmouth Flood Disaster on August 15th 1952. At 8 p.m., the turbines stopped and the villages were thrown into pitch-blackness when the swollen East Lyn washed a section of the leat away. Engineer Charlie Postles and the switchboard attendant Reg Freeman struggled as the station flooded but they managed to start the diesel generator, which restored an intermittent supply to the resorts. Both men stayed bravely at their post for an hour until they were forced to evacuate when water swamped the machinery. In the New Year Honours List of January 1953 they were deservedly awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.

The power station stands amidst the devastated village after the 1952 flood. The power station stands amidst the devastated village after the 1952 flood. Although not structurally damaged, the station was by now redundant. It was demolished when the river was widened. The steepness of Summerhouse Hill can be seen on the right.

The historic power station was never to work again. From 1947, Britain had been changing to a standard supply of 240 volts through the National Grid. At the time of the flood, South West Electricity Board was in the process of changing Lynton to the grid system. The flood had wrecked all electricity services in the area and the event hastened a connection to the grid. Lynton and Lynmouth were one of the last communities in Britain to be connected. Those returning to the village when it reopened a month after the flood were all issued with new consumer items to replace the 100-volts light bulbs, ovens, toasters, fires, etc, that were of no use with their new 240-volt supply.

During the rebuilding of Lynmouth, the power station was demolished and the site was lost when the East Lyn River was widened. Little has survived to remind us of the historic contribution that Lynmouth made to the generation of electricity. Only the row of cottages where workers lived above the station and a large retaining wall that stood behind the building remain. From Lynmouth, a path through Middleham up the Watersmeet Valley follows the course of the pipeline that carried water to the turbines. Inspection covers seen on the path and in Middleham Gardens indicate the route of the pipeline, which still lies buried underground. Remains of the leat walls and the stone sluice house where the leat joined the pipe can be seen further up the valley. At the top of Summerhouse Hill, a ruined stone wall surrounds a slight depression on the edge of a field that overlooks Lynmouth. Sheep roam amongst a lush thicket of gorse bushes that grows on the site; all that is left to show where the historic reservoir lies below. It was filled in after the flood for safety. Much of the 6-inch pipe that carried water to and from the reservoir remains buried beneath the hillside.

The loss of the power station appeared to mark the end of hydroelectricity generation in the village. However, the authority of the Lyn Rivers could not be ignored and 35 years later it was the turn of the West Lyn River to generate electricity. As the river nears its junction with the East Lyn in Lynmouth it tumbles steeply through the Glen Lyn Gorge at a gradient of 20%. Realising the power of this section of the West Lyn, Ken Oxenham the owner of the adjoining Glen Lyn Estate who as a boy had been fascinated by the workings of the old power station decided to build his own hydro electrical power station. With help from an enthusiastic engineer, a small band of eager men and financial and significant physical help from his family, a start was made on the ambitious project in 1983.

After much hard work and the solving of inevitable problems that arose, Ken realised his dream when the station came on line in 1987. At the time of writing, the 300 Kw station, which feeds into the National Grid, claims to be the largest private hydroelectric power plant in England. Open to the public, the station can be seen amongst other attractions at the Power of Water Exhibition, Glen Lyn Gorge, Lynmouth, (nominal entrance fee).

This is an Excerpt form A Notable History by kind permission of Tim Prosser who has many more interesting and informative publications for sale in the local shops and TIC
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© Tim Prosser

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