Guest Post: Electric Lighting in Political Spectacle (the Case of the Russian Empire) – Natalia Nikiforova

Last autumn I spent three months undertaking a research visit funded by the British Council Researcher Link Programme at the University of Leeds, which was an incredibly fruitful and inspiring experience. I especially appreciated the opportunity to tap into the insights of the sociocultural aspects of the domestication of electricity and its symbolic appropriation in the home environment, developed in Graeme Gooday’s works. Michael Kay’s initiatives dealing with museum exhibits, school education programs and theatre practice are a vibrant and motivating example of how theoretical findings can be transformed into tangible forms – something any scholar dreams of. These outstanding projects invigorated my own research perspectives.

In my research I am dealing with an underestimated but fascinating theme of the early electrification of 19th century Russia, since in Russian historiography electrification is considered mainly a Soviet project. My major focus is on the usage of electricity and electric lighting in the representation of Imperial power, as well as the circumstances of adoption of electricity at royal residences.

Artificial lighting was an important component of the modern urban landscape in Europe, as well as in Russia. Tsarist Russia was a kind of a “late comer” in terms of development of electrical industry. Electric lighting was successfully employed for temporary decoration of the city for public events, as well as for creating a special glamorous and festive atmosphere in parks, gardens, restaurants and shop windows. Along with the first attempts of using electric lighting in military and naval spheres, at some factories electric lighting was employed in big public events associated with monarchy and with the Imperial family. The symbolic capacity of electricity was used to enhance political spectacles of the Russian Empire. Starting from the coronation of Alexander I in 1856 sophisticated visual effects of electricity were used at ceremonies to support the monarch’s scenario of power (R. Wortman) and current ideology. In contrast to the Soviet vision where electricity promised to transform social order, in Tsarist Russia its capacities were employed to support and strengthen the existing system.

Pageants were the setting where electricity was made publicly visible. Through the wonder excited by displays, electric light was associated with national authority and the power of the emperor himself. Visual performances, which included a variety of media – fireworks, theatre plays, concerts, gas, oil and electric illumination – were applied to convey ideological messages about the monarchy and empire. One of the most striking examples of dramatic visual effects to enhance political display would be the presentation of an electrical bouquet to the Empress as a signal to start the illumination for the coronation ceremony of Nicholas II in 1896. Once she took the bouquet with hidden bulbs secretly connected to electric wires, it started glowing. And at the same very moment, lights spread further along the Kremlin walls.

Not only was the ceremonial illumination a fascinating spectacle, but so was the preparation itself. On the eve of the coronation, Russian cities turned into carpenter and engineering workshops as special pavilions and decorations were built.

The variety of electric effects was the most diverse during the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896, and included:

Despite lavish electric illumination at Imperial ceremonies and decoration with electric lighting of certain exhibitions and public events, there was a gap between the material existence of electric infrastructure and cultural imagination and enthusiasm. The slow development of electrification in Tsarist Russia has been explained by restrictive political rules and lack of interest of certain governmental structures (J. Coopersmith). A rigid centralised system of promoting and developing new technologies prevented widespread adoption of electricity. The Imperial government did not deem electrical technology strategically important before the World War I.  Although we may observe successful employment of the symbolic possibilities of electric lighting at public events and Imperial ceremonies, there was a gap between imagination and implementation.

Electricity for a long while remained a glamorous novelty, and first of all was used by the elite. Aristocracy, and especially the royal family were opinion leaders and an important stage of diffusion of the innovation. In Russian royal residences the first lighting and power systems were installed, and the novelty was tested and presented to the high society. Residences may even be seen as “showcases” and “testing labs” of new technological solutions.

This perspective opens a broader theme of Imperial technological patronage, that stayed throughout the 19th century in Russia. Royal patrons were also closely involved in issues of technological development, education and research (financing enterprises, research and educational institutions, members of the royal family headed the Academy of Sciences – for instance, the son of Alexander III, Mikhail, supported the Electrotechnical Institute in Saint-Petersburg). The highly centralised manner of governance was reflected in the personal involvement of the emperors in technological decisions. The Imperial family, due to their patronage of scientific and technological initiatives, could be associated with technological development, although a painful tension remained between Russian research endeavours and certain industrial backwardness, and between promising national potential and foreign presence.

The appearance and implementation of electric light in Russia is not just a reflection of the history of technology or technological progress. It is also intertwined with the history of royal palaces and court culture. Perception and presentation of electricity was influenced by political context of absolutist monarchy. To understand the complexity of the introduction of the novelty, it is essential to grasp aesthetic, emotional and social contexts. The end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century was a transition period, during which the utilisation of electrical technology was becoming a common and widespread practice. During this period, electricity was more of a symbolic object associated with wealth, power and progress but, at the same time it was not free from prejudice and romantic affections. A gap may be observed between public exposure and media enthusiasm about electricity, and its virtual lack in the majority of the country. Electricity thus remained in the realm of utopia and imaginative thinking, and also was connected to the throne through a range of representational practices.

About the author

Natalia Nikiforova is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic University, Russia. Currently she is working on a project “Technological Innovations in Representation of Imperial Power: Social History of Electricity” supported by Russian Foundation for Humanities.

Notes from an Intern: Drafting the AHRC Grant

Taplow Court . Former residence of William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough, and his wife, Lady Densborough. The site hosted gatherings of 'The Souls'.
Taplow Court. Former residence of William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough, and his wife, Lady Desborough. The site hosted gatherings of the aristocratic social group ‘The Souls’.

This will be my final blog post as part of my internship with the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ (ECH) project. It has been quite a journey! I enjoyed many parts of the process: learning about the development of electricity in late nineteenth century England, discovering the aristocrats that helped move the development along, and uncovering the fascinating personalities of the engineers who helped electrify the country houses. The final part of my internship was more hands-on – it gave me the opportunity to be directly involved with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant application. I was responsible for drafting several sections in the application, one of them being the ‘Academic Beneficiaries’: listing which groups of scholars would benefit from this project.

A portrait of Ethel Grenfell, Baroness Desborough from 1909.
Portrait of Ethel Grenfell, Baroness Desborough, from 1909.

Michael, the postdoctoral researcher of the ECH project, delegated this task to me in part because I was a literary studies student. I was able to identify areas that might not initially be obvious to someone working within the history of science. This was the case in previous assignments; for example, I had come across the aristocratic and elite social group, ‘The Souls’, which gathered in the home of Lady Desborough. Among her guests at these gatherings were Sir Winston Churchill and science fiction novelist H. G. Wells. Because of her involvement with notable aristocratic figures who were involved with the domestication of electricity, I suggested that the project pursue Lady Desborough’s letters in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. I was pleased to discover that ‘The Souls’ had yet to be considered by the ECH project, and that these archives could be an interesting line of inquiry.

Portrait of author Lyman Frank Baum (1911)
Portrait of author Lyman Frank Baum (1911)

Turning my attention to the ‘Academic Beneficiaries’ of the ECH project, I immediately saw that this project would have far-reaching impacts on the study of English literature. Two of the primary texts are literary ones: The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotee (1901) was written by L. Frank Baum, best known as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Hodge and His Masters (1880) penned by Richard Jefferies, a nature and children’s writer. Both authors are known as early writers of science fiction. Literary scholars of the late Victorian era and early 20th century writings, specifically, work with texts produced during the age of electrical technology developments; such an exciting technological progress would have greatly inspired authors of the time. Findings from the ECH project will thus be helpful in providing a historical context for the analysis of these literary texts, as well as other works of early science fiction.

Other academic beneficiaries would be those working in tourism studies, a subject which usually incorporates a practical element into its student programmes. This project’s partnership with country houses such as Harewood House and Hatfield House can therefore serve as a helpful model of academic institutions collaborating with sites of tourism. The ECH project will also be assisting with the development of new media for these country houses, incorporating information gathered on the history of electricity to provide visitors with a more nuanced perspective of the houses as historical sites. Tourism students and academic staff will be able to observe the impact and usefulness of these media on touristic sites, and apply it to their own projects.

At the moment, the drafts of the AHRC application are being reviewed and edited, and I find myself coming to the end of my internship. Looking back on the past few months, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the ECH project as I was able to develop many transferable skills. One of the most important skills developed was analytical research of archival materials. Being able to pinpoint the location of historical sources will prove important in any future work I do – academic or otherwise. I have also gained more confidence in my ability to conduct research on any given topic, independently or collaboratively. As I was also working on my thesis and running my own research group alongside this internship, this project helped me develop the added skill of organisation. It allowed me to hone my ability to prioritize, and also to be more communicative in order to ensure that all activities run smoothly.

As co-founder and co-organizer of activities for my own research group, Reading the Fantastic, my internship was helpful in understanding the funding application process for a large-scale project. In particular, I was able to obtain a more concrete grasp of the term ‘impact’ in terms of research activity. This will help in the planning of future research activities, and it will especially help in applying for future research funding.

Finally, I was given a glimpse into the long process of putting together a large-scale project and I am now able to appreciate the subtleties of how a project comes into being – from being inspired by previous projects, to strengthening existing partnerships, and then searching for new ways to constantly improve the project.

In short, this internship provided me with the invaluable opportunity to not only grow in terms of knowledge, but also in terms of managing and expanding a project. I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Michael, who took a chance on a literary student such as myself, and for being such a wonderful mentor throughout this journey. I hope that the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ project continues to grow, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of it in the future.

Harewood’s Electricity Story: drama and displays – part 2

*Update: please see the Harewood House category for other posts about this project.*

After the success of our first workshop, which you can read about here, on Sunday 21 August we had a day of history of electricity themed fun at Harewood House, as part of which we unveiled our new history of lighting displays.  With one Below Stairs and one on the State Floor, these new displays and their accompanying interpretation were based on the results of our research in the Harewood archives and in the West Yorkshire Archives.

The Below Stairs lighting cabinet now tells the story of how electricity came to Harewood House – including how the original electrical installation was powered by a hydroelectric turbine.  In addition it exhibits the only physical evidence we have found of the gas lighting which would have been used below stairs between the 1860s and the installation of electricity: two gas burners.  Also featured is a copy of the original electric lighting specification for the house, from 1901, which shows how comprehensive the system was: even the servants’ bedrooms and toilets were to have electric lights.  However, candlesticks and oil lamps dating from the 1930s and 40s also demonstrate that older technologies were still used to supplement electricity, either as back-ups in case of power-cuts, or perhaps because the softer, gentler light of the flickering flames was sometimes preferred.

The Below Stairs Lighting Cabinet at Harewood House, featuring candlesticks, oil lamps and electrical fittings.
The Below Stairs Lighting Cabinet at Harewood House, featuring candlesticks, oil lamps and electrical fittings.

The temporary display upstairs in Princess Mary’s Dressing Room contains the original plans for the room as it was designed in 1930, including the lighting.  Also displayed is a portion of a letter from Princess Mary to her architect Sir Herbert Baker in which she requested electric lighting for the glass-fronted cupboards in which she wished to keep her collection of amber and jade; she noted that the amber “is translucent and is very pretty when lit with electric light.”

The plans for Princess Mary's Dressing Room, including lighting, displayed on the State Floor at Harewood.
The plans for Princess Mary’s Dressing Room, including lighting, displayed on the State Floor at Harewood.

We began our day of activities with a short talk given by Collections Assistant Rebecca Burton about the research we had done, inviting people to see the new displays and also to attend our workshop scheduled for the afternoon.  Using documents from the archives Rebecca went through the story of Harewood’s electrification, from the first electric lights in 1901 to the installation of appliances like television – and an ice cream cabinet! – in the 1950s.

Talking about the history of electricity in the house.
Talking about the history of electricity in the house.

Visitors also had the chance to engage in electricity-themed arts and crafts: making and decorating cup and string telephones – an activity popular with adults as well as with children!  We believe that telephones were probably installed in the house before electric lights, and telephones featured in our workshop as during the 1930s, when the workshop performance was set, the family installed an automatic internal telephone system in the house.  It was also at this time, in 1933, that the local telephone exchange switched from manual to automatic, prompting the Post Office to send a representative to the house to explain how to use the new system.

The electricity-themed arts and crafts activity - making and decorating cup and string telephones - was popular with children and adults alike!
The electricity-themed arts and crafts activity – making and decorating cup and string telephones – was popular with children and adults alike!

Before the workshop, our three actors walked around the house in costume interacting with visitors in character: Mrs Merton, the housekeeper, was showing Mr Symes, the electrician, around to look at the electrical systems, and Betty the maid was trying to stay out of their way!  This provided a fun way to draw attention to the workshop and introduce the characters.

Mrs Merton the housekeeper shows the electrician Mr Symes around the house.
Mrs Merton the housekeeper shows the electrician Mr Symes around the house.

The workshop itself followed the same structure as the one we ran for IntoUniversity students a few weeks earlier, which you can read more about here, beginning with a performance – in the authentic environment of the Steward’s Room – about the modernisation of the house in the 1930s by the 6th Earl and Princess Mary, and followed by an opportunity for the audience to ask questions of the characters.

Mr Symes talks to Betty about her job - and her nervousness about electricity - in the authentic surroundings of the Steward's Room.
Mr Symes talks to Betty about her job – and her nervousness about electricity – in the authentic surroundings of the Steward’s Room.
Mrs Merton answers a question from the audience.
Mrs Merton answers a question from the audience.

As before, we then introduced the children to old electrical objects from Artemis, the Leeds Museums and Galleries object loan service, which were again very popular, with kids noting how heavy things like the 1930s vacuum cleaner and the kettle were compared with their modern equivalents, and also how different old plugs looked compared with the ones we’re familiar with today.

Kids investigating the objects from Artemis: the vacuum cleaner was heavy!
Kids investigating the objects from Artemis: the vacuum cleaner was heavy!

As well as these activities the children also had the opportunity to do an electricity trail, which encouraged them to seek out various electrical and other lighting-related artefacts placed around the Below Stairs area of the house.  We were very pleased with how our various activities were received; we had a full house for the workshop, and the crafts activity was consistently well attended.  In focusing on electricity for a day we’ve certainly provided something new for visitors, and successfully launched our newly researched interpretative materials.

Our final workshop for this project will be held at the University on Sunday 11 September as part of Heritage Open Days.

Harewood’s Electricity Story: drama and displays – part 1

*Update: please see the Harewood House category for other posts about this project.*

We’ve had a very busy couple of weeks delivering two of our workshops and finishing off our new displays at Harewood as part of our collaborative project.  The first workshop, on Thursday 11 August, was for students from IntoUniversity, a national charity which provides local learning centres where young people are inspired to achieve.  In particular they work with children from disadvantaged postcode districts who are statistically less likely to go to university or enter the professions than those in more advantaged areas, providing academic support, mentoring, and informal educational opportunities.

In our case the workshop we ran fitted in nicely to a programme of activities the local Leeds centres were running over the summer holidays.  Earlier that week the students had taken part in two other drama-based workshops, so they were familiar with performing with one another, and had also been learning about artificial intelligence and the way AI technologies might change our lives in the future.  We thus framed our activities looking at the history of electricity as a way to see how people responded in the past to what was then a brand new technology which was beginning to become widespread in people’s homes, and looking at how people responded differently to this.

Introducing the workshop.
Introducing the workshop.

The workshop was split into three sections, beginning with a short piece of drama from our three performers based on new research in the archives at Harewood House and in the West Yorkshire Archives.  Set in the 1930s, a time when many electrical systems in the house were being modernised and extended, the performance introduced the audience to members of staff at Harewood and to a visiting electrical engineer who was looking at the electrical systems, in particular the electrical call bells which needed to be improved.

Betty the maid is sent to fetch some tea for Mrs Merton and Mr Symes.

As well as interacting with one another, over the course of the performance each character talked to the audience about how they felt about electricity.  Mrs Merton the housekeeper remembered when the electricity was originally installed in the house back in 1901 (powered by a hydroelectric turbine), and had seen a lot of things change and improve over time –  whilst acknowledging that new electrical conveniences don’t often work very reliably at first!  Betty the maid was nervous of electricity.  Her mother was a maid many years ago, when electricity was newer and more experimental, and she passed her anxiety about electrical accidents on to her daughter, even though things were safer by the 1930s.  Finally Mr Symes the electrician – a character taken straight from the archival sources – was disappointed at how electrical engineers such as himself were still struggling as a profession to build a reputation, and needed to prove they knew best.

Mr Symes talks to the audience. The background picture is the Steward's Room at Harewood House, where the performance was set.
Mr Symes talks to the audience. The background picture is the Steward’s Room at Harewood House, where the performance was set.

After the performance, the students had the opportunity to ask the characters questions – which they took advantage of in ways we didn’t necessarily expect!  We had some great engagement, with questions ranging from ‘how do you make electricity from water?’ and ‘who discovered electricity?’ to ‘is that a wig’ (to poor old Mrs Merton!) and ‘why do you do history?’ – a question which I was very happy to answer myself.

Next we moved on to some museum object handling.  Using artefacts from the collections of the University’s Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, I talked about the history of electricity supply and use in the home.  These artefacts included two examples of early batteries – one wet cell one dry cell – with which I pointed out for example that country houses such as Harewood needed to supply their own electricity for a long time before they were connected to centralised power stations, and their electrical installations always included lots of large wet cell batteries.  We also touched on the importance of measuring how much electricity you were using, and, in contrast to Betty the maid’s fear of being hurt by electricity, how some people used mild electrical currents as a form of therapy.  This last point I illustrated using a particularly interesting object from our collection: an electrical therapy machine designed for use at home, with two electrodes which the user would apply to parts of their body in order to administer a gentle electrical current.  This, it was argued, was efficacious against many ills, such as headaches, nervous disorders, and even deafness and baldness.  We believe ours dates from the late nineteenth-century, but devices such as these were certainly in use up until the 1920s and 30s.

Showing the students the electrical therapy machine.
Showing the students the electrical therapy machine.

Whilst presenting these artefacts, I talked to students about best practice in museum object handling: the importance of gloves, of using both hands to pick things up and holding them over tables.  Next we gave the students the chance to handle some historic objects themselves.  Although our own collections were too fragile to allow this, we hired out handling objects from Artemis, the object loans service run by Leeds Museums and Galleries.  These domestic electrical appliances from the 19230s, 40s and 50s included hairdryers, a kettle, a wireless set, an iron, a toaster, a vacuum cleaner and a radiator, and students were very keen to put their gloves on and investigate.  As a hands-on activity this was very popular; the children were happy to have the opportunity to explore these objects themselves.  Knowing they were free to pick them up on their own was invaluable and a great experience.

Gloves on! The students get to handle some electrical objects from Artemis.
Gloves on! The students get to handle some electrical objects from Artemis.

The third and final section of the workshop linked our historical materials to the work the students had done with drama and artificial intelligence.  We encouraged them, with the help of our actors, to devise their own short performances about how they thought artificial intelligence might change the way we live in the future.  The initial performance was thus a template for them to apply to a new technology: back in the 1930s electricity was beginning to change the way people lived at home through the increasing availability and growing affordability of new electrical appliances.  In the future, we asked them, how will people respond if we start using intelligent machines in the domestic sphere?  The results were excellent – in small groups the students came up with stories such as: teaching robots how to dance, and thus understanding that they could be fun companions; patients’ concerns about being treated by a robot doctor instead of a human after an accident; a robot teacher who wanted to take over from its human counterpart because it believed itself better suited to the task; and a robot dog which learned by itself how to speak to its unsuspecting owner, but subsequently began to exhibit increasingly subversive behaviour as its intelligence learned and grew, prompting the cliff-hanger question: was it good or evil?

The energy levels in the room were fantastic throughout; the students certainly seemed to have a lot of fun, and we really enjoyed having them!

Harewood’s Electricity Story: research and rehearsals

*Update: please see the Harewood House category for other posts about this project.*

Over the past few weeks of our collaborative project with Harewood House I have been working both in Harewood’s archives with Collections Assistant Rebecca Burton, and with our three actors to devise and rehearse a script for our performance.

In terms of research, we have been able to answer several questions about the history of Harewood’s electrification, such as being able to confirm that the initial installation used hydroelectric power generated by a turbine, with an oil engine back-up, and that the House definitely did have gas lighting below stairs before the installation of electricity, but this was then removed – this had been a subject of some speculation. This will feed into our new displays and interpretation, and also into the performance. We have also been selecting new objects and writing the new interpretation for the lighting cabinet, with aim of launching this on the day of the Harewood workshop, Sunday 11 August.

This kerosene lamp was purchased around 1930, indicating that even after electrification alternative sources of lighting were still useful.
This kerosene lamp was purchased around 1930, indicating that even after electrification alternative sources of lighting were still useful.

This workshop will act as the focal point of a day in which we showcase our research in a number of ways. Firstly, Rebecca will give a short collections ‘discovery‘ talk about project to visitors, and point out that we have put together two new displays on the history of electricity at Harewood: one below stairs as an exhibit about the different lighting technologies used in the House over the centuries, and the other on the State Floor in Princess Mary’s Dressing Room, which was electrified as it was built according to her specifications. Prior to the workshop itself at 2pm, the actors will also move around the house and grounds in costume, interacting with visitors and drawing attention to the workshop. Finally, a craft activity making cup-and-string telephones will go on in the House all day.

Putting together the new display in the lighting cabinet below stairs at Harewood: candlesticks, oil lamps, gas burners, electric light switches and electrified candlesticks.
Putting together the new display in the lighting cabinet below stairs at Harewood: candlesticks, oil lamps, gas burners, electric light switches and electrified candlesticks.

As far as the workshop itself is concerned, we have decided to set the performance, which is about 10 minutes long, in the 1930s, when the 6th Earl and Princess Mary modernised the house further, rather than the original period of its electrification, 1901. Instead, one of the characters, the housekeeper at Harewood, will be old enough to remember the original installation and discuss it in a soliloquy to the audience. The other two characters, Betty, a young maid nervous about electricity because her mother, who was also a maid 30 years ago, warned her about it, and Mr Symes, an electrical engineer visiting Harewood to survey the alterations being undertaken and offer advice, will also talk to the audience about their lives and points of view as well as conversing with the other characters.

The housekeeper Mrs Merton and Betty the maid in rehearsals.
The housekeeper Mrs Merton and Betty the maid in rehearsals.

Whilst the housekeeper’s and the maid’s costumes came from the costume store run by the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University – including an excellent white wig – we hired the electrical engineer’s costume from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which entailed a visit to their costume department to sort through their large collection of period clothing. The results, as depicted, were brilliant.

Mr Symes, the 1930s electrical engineer.
Mr Symes, the 1930s electrical engineer.

After the performance, I will run an object handling session for participants, demonstrating some basic guidelines for examining museum artefacts. We will use objects from the University‘s Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, but these are not appropriate for handling sessions due to their rarity and fragility, so I will present and discuss these objects to talk about the early history of electricity supply – in particular how early installations at country houses needed to be self-contained, and how important it was to be able to measure how much electricity was being used.

After this, we will give workshop participants the opportunity to handle for themselves some old 1920s-40s domestic electrical appliances borrowed from Artemis, an object loan service run by Leeds City Council. Artemis has an extensive handling collection which it provides for schools and museums, and these objects can be used to enhance lessons or workshop sessions such as ours.

To find out how our workshops go you can of course follow us on Twitter (@EtCHproject), and now we’re on Instagram as well: follow us, ‘electricalheritage‘!

The cast: Joel Briscoe as Mr Symes, Mattie Davies as Mrs Merton and Megan Rutter as Betty.
The cast: Joel Briscoe as Mr Symes, Mattie Davies as Mrs Merton and Megan Rutter as Betty.

Harewood’s Electricity Story: building an effective collaboration

*Update: please see the Harewood House category for other posts about this project.*

Music Rm both lights on095
The chandelier in the Music Room at Harewood House. Photocredit: Harewood House Trust.

In funding new collaborative projects, a key focus of the Exchange is not just on the project outcomes, but on the ways the partners think about collaborating in order to deliver these outcomes. The idea that effective collaborations can be designed from the beginning of a project is something which partners are encouraged to explore together, and so early on in our project I sat down with Ann Sumner, Historic Collections Advisor at Harewood, Zoe White, Education Manager and Rebecca Burton, Collections Assistant, to think about how best we could collaborate, and what the benefits for all of us would be.

For this the Exchange provided a framework to help us think about how to formulate three ‘principles of collaboration‘ which would help us to plan how we would work together, and against which we would measure our success as we moved through the project. Each principle was to entail one or two expected benefits for one or both partners. The framework encouraged us to consider the values which we held in common and the ways in which we hoped to benefit from the collaboration – not just from the project itself – and to turn these into commitments to guide our work on the project.

Electrical artefacts from the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Leeds.
Electrical artefacts from the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Leeds.

For our first principle of collaboration, we thought that it was important to be able to understand each other’s respective work environments, and in particular to understand each other’s heritage collections and what we do with them. As well as Harewood’s extensive collections of art, artefacts, and archival resources, the University also has collections, such as the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which include old electrical artefacts many of which were used in local Yorkshire schools to teach physics around the turn of the twentieth century.

For our first principle, therefore, we decided that we would make time to visit each other’s working environments and learn about respective heritage and cultural collections and exhibitions. I had already spent some time visiting Harewood, but at some point during the project Harewood staff would also come to visit the campus, and I would show them around. We anticipated two main benefits arising from this principle: firstly it would help each partner to appreciate the institutional structures, physicality and the working practices, patterns and methodologies, of the other, and secondly it would increase our awareness of each other’s heritage and cultural visitor offers, and how we utilise and display our respective collections.

Another of the points on which we decided was that we would try to plan for meetings to last a little longer than we might otherwise have done in order to ensure a more relaxed atmosphere which would allow space for creative and innovative ideas to develop. We hope that this will enable us to establish good personal relationships with the partnership which will encourage us to want to collaborate again – this is tricky as we‘re all very busy, but so far it seems to be working!

Harewood’s Electricity Story: a follow-on project

*Update: please see the Harewood House category for other posts about this project.*

Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, and Henry Lascelles, then Viscount, later the 6th Earl of Harewood, on their wedding day (Wikipedia).
Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, and Henry Lascelles, then Viscount, later the 6th Earl of Harewood, on their wedding day (Wikipedia).

As a follow-on project from ‘Electrifying the Country House‘, I‘m pleased to confirm that we have been awarded a small grant to work with nearby Harewood House researching the history of electricity at the property and working on new impact and engagement outputs. Over the course of this new three month project (‘Harewood’s Electricity Story’), which runs from now until September, I will work with Harewood staff to explore their archives and collections in order to better understand how electric lighting and other electrical technologies and systems were introduced into the house. Harewood House was first electrified in 1901 by the 5th Earl of Harewood, and this installation was subsequently expanded and modernised by the 6th Earl and his wife Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, in the 1930s after they moved into the House.

Whilst the early period of electrification is interesting – for instance it is suspected but not known for certain that the original installation on the property employed hydroelectricity – the project will focus primarily on the 1930s. This was a time when many domestic electrical appliances we now take for granted were becoming more common in households around the country as more people had an electricity supply: items such as vacuum cleaners, fridges, hair dryers, irons and kettles. Household management books from the period, such as the popular ‘Mrs Beeton‘s‘ range, were explaining how to cook using electric ovens, and how best to use other electrical cooking utensils. In an attempt, which began in the mid-1920s, to improve, expand, and standardise the supply of electricity across the country, the national grid was established and came online towards the end of the 30s.

An old telephone and vacuum cleaner, 1930s, from our ‘Old Science Week‘ at Lotherton Hall, August 2015.
An old telephone and vacuum cleaner, 1930s, from our ‘Old Science Week‘ at Lotherton Hall, August 2015.

This research will then inform several outputs: we will use it to reinterpret Harewood‘s below stairs lighting cabinet, which comprises a large collection of objects representative of different eras of lighting technology. A new interpretative panel and object labels will tell the story of electric lighting more comprehensively than is possible at present. We will also run a series of three educational workshops for Key Stage 2 children with Theatre and Performance graduates from the University. These will comprise a short performance about the history of electricity at Harewood, an opportunity for the audience to talk to the characters and ask them questions, museum object handling, and a crafts activity: making cup and string telephones.

The funding for the project comes from The Culture Capital Exchange, a new joint initiative of Arts Council England and the Higher Education Funding Council for England which provides seed funding grants up to £5000 for collaborative research projects between academics, specifically Early Career Researchers, and creative small-medium enterprises or individuals, including artists, performers and heritage organisations. This is the first time this initiative has run, and ours is one of the first tranche of awards. If you‘re interested in applying for this scheme, read through the FAQs on their website, and feel free to get in touch with us if you have any questions about our experiences!

Guest Post: “Lights Up!” Theatre as Scholarship – Alona Bach

cover of
“Watts” in a Home. Image by IET Archives.

When I told the archivists at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London that I would be writing my undergraduate thesis as a play about Britain’s Electrical Association for Women (EAW), they pointed me to a play written and performed by the EAW in 1930. The play, “Watts” in a Home, was just one manifestation of the EAW’s central mission to free housewives from “domestic drudgery” by introducing electricity into British homes. The four-act play aimed to instruct its audience in the possibilities of the new “electrical age” by dramatising the history of domestic lighting from 1880 to 1929.[1] One of the particularly exciting aspects of “Watts” in a Home was that its characters addressed concerns about electricity held by the EAW’s audience while using real electric lighting onstage.

The EAW’s decision to mirror the content of their play in its form became the foundation of my undergraduate thesis: I, too, would write about the history of electrification while paying conscious attention to the way electric lights would be used onstage.[2] My play would also address the different techniques used to reach audiences of early twentieth-century popularisation of electricity, while meta-theatrically employing the same popularisation techniques on my play’s audience.

It was a big project for a year of work. But with the indefatigable guidance of my advisor Dr. Jenna Tonn (and the rocky road of revision familiar to academics and playwrights alike), I ended up with a final project which fused the history of science and performing arts. The final version of my thesis began as an analytical paper on dramatising science, drawing from scholarship in both the history of science and performance studies. It also included two chapters on the intended audiences of the EAW’s work, as seen in their private correspondence and magazine. The final chapter was a full-length play with footnotes (titled Wire in the Garden in homage to “Watts” in a Home), which dramatized 108 letters sent between Caroline Haslett and her friend and fellow engineer, Margaret Partridge, between 1925 and 1927.[3] Wire in the Garden focused on Partridge’s difficulties in electrically lighting the rural town of Thorverton, Devon in the face of rural anxieties about electricity’s safety, appearance, and religious significance. Here are a few things I learned from the project — and why I think performance should be used more often as a tool for history of science scholarship.

[photo] Partridge, Haslett, and apprentices standing in line.
Margaret Partridge, Caroline Haslett, and apprentices. From left to right: M. D. Rowbottom, Beatrice Shilling, Margaret Partridge, Kathleen Bunker, Mona Willis, Caroline Haslett. Originally printed in The Woman Engineer 4, no. 3 (June 1935): 35, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives. Photo courtesy of IET Archives.
Dramatisation mandates deeper research.

Scripting Wire in the Garden required me to re-imagine the lives of my historical actors in intimate detail: their conversations, their physical actions, the mundane things they needed to do to get through a normal day. This meant that my research for the play needed to be both broader, and in some cases deeper, than dictated by my analytical chapters. Though I was writing about the EAW’s popularization strategies, I ended up researching things like the history of rural British Baptists,[4] and asking myself unexpected questions about the physicality of electrifying a town: how might Partridge’s power and expertise be established or challenged in the context of a team of workers, and would rural villagers see certain physical demands of electrification as more problematic than others in the context of Partridge’s femininity? These questions led me to a more nuanced understanding of who Partridge was communicating with, and how she chose to do so.

But though I’d worked hard to reconstruct the cultural landscape in which the events of the play took place, nothing showed me the oversights in my research quite like handing the script to my director and actors. After only a few hours of workshopping, my creative team sent me back to the drawing board (and archives) with questions about the play which were not only dramaturgical but also historiographical. One character was portrayed too reductively; my limited lens was clear in the script but had not been so noticeable in my analytical chapters. Actors asked me to clarify the legal and commercial aspects of Partridge’s work so that they could better understand the stakes of a scene. The director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, told me to learn more about the layout and construction of rural power stations, and to consider how that might have affected the contents of Partridge’s letters. Their training in theatre had shown them that the holes in my research were not only key to understanding how technology, gender, and popularisation were interacting, but also needed to be filled in to make the play structurally sound.

Theatre embraces and, more importantly, acknowledges the imagination required to tell a complete story.

Theatre is mimesis, imitation, “lying in order to tell the truth.” The real bodies which interact onstage are in tension with the constructed, rehearsed nature of a play’s performance — and audiences know that they are witnessing a fictionalized version of reality. But while I was fictionalizing history in my play, I tried not to falsify it. Only three of the characters in Wire in the Garden are historical figures; the remaining four are “composite characters,” because, though they themselves are fictional, I’d created them by combining trends, stories, and language from archival and secondary sources. It was particularly interesting to see these semi-imagined characters (e.g. a young housewife) fill out perspectives on rural electrification which were missing from Partridge’s letters.

Theatre is a multi-sensory art form, and the words of the script are only the bones.

My play became much richer when I embraced the fact that not everything needed to be spoken. Instead, I could capitalize on movement, scenography, and sound in order to communicate more nuanced ideas from my research. When I recreated ambiguous images from the historical record instead of explaining them away, audiences had the opportunity to interpret the images in the context of the other information included in the play. For example, to evoke the references to Eden peppered throughout my sources, I wrote in a huge tree to dominate the stage with its trunk of wires and pendulous bulbs hanging down like fruits. The tree could be read as a symbol of technological advancement and redemption; it might also reflect the intrusion of technology into idyllic, righteous, pastoral life (a la Leo Marx); maybe it brought light and knowledge to dark places, or destroyed what was already there. Or maybe all of those things. Or maybe none. That question was left open to the audience, inviting them to reconcile differing historical (and historiographical) perspectives.

Like the fantastical visualizations of electricity in its early days (fairies, and wizards, and imps, oh my!), writing fantasy into my script became a useful tool even as I was tied to accurately representing historical sources. By incorporating fantastical elements into different styles of scenes (e.g. dreams, advertisements, presentations, letters), I was able to quote lots of material directly from my sources. I hoped that by quoting these sources directly, my audience would note both how popularisation was deployed in early-twentieth century Britain, as well as how they were receiving it as its audience. This would lead them to experientially understand popularisation as Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey’s conception of “grafting, appropriation, and transformation” of ideas, instead of the more traditional (and problematic) metaphors of “dilution, […] contamination, contagion, seduction, or colonization.”[5]

Moving forward…

Dramaturgy, like history, is a rigorous craft — and just as watching and sketching are tools for biologists, I believe dramatisation can serve historians of science. In my own project, writing the play was as much a part of my methodology as secondary sourcework or peer review. It forced me to empathize with all of my historical actors, work harder to reconstruct their cultural landscape, and notice (even challenge) the assumptions I was making throughout. It was my first foray into an interdisciplinary crossroads where I hope more scholars will return.

The good news is that dramatisation is not as far from standard historical methodology as one might originally think. Historians have acknowledged the pedagogical benefits of reenacting experiments,[6] historian of science Robert Marc Friedman has written compellingly about his experiences dramatising his past research,[7] and a recent plenary at the 2015 annual meeting of the History of Science Society featured historians performing as early modern readers in mob caps. Though writing a play like Wire in the Garden is certainly not going to be the best methodological strategy for every project in the history of science, intentionality and innovation in choosing the form through which to communicate scholarship can be a productive way to shed light on parts of the history of science – like interpersonal relationships, cultural landscapes, and practitioners’ bodies – which fight against a two-dimensional rendering.

Thoughts? Would love to hear your responses in the comments below!

About the author

Alona Bach recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in History of Science and Theatre, Dance, and Media. This post is based on her thesis, “Lights Up: Performing Science and the Electrical Association for Women, 1925-1927,” which was advised by Dr. Jenna Tonn and received playwriting support from Dr. Joyce van Dyke. In the fall, Alona will begin the MPhil programme in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. She plans to continue to work as an actor and playwright, and pursue a career in museums.


[1] “EAW play, ‘Watts in a Home’,” Electrical Association for Women, item 31, series UK0108 NAEST 093/09, IET Archives. The play’s title was characteristically punny. Correspondence between EAW founder Caroline Haslett and her friend Margaret Partridge, for example, praised an EAW colleague who proposed a talk entitled “Ohm Sweet Ohm,” and Partridge often peppered her letters with puns such as: “must cease this babbling of watts & watt not.” See Haslett to Partridge, 18 May 1925, and Partridge to Haslett, 28 May 1925, Box 9, Correspondence with Margaret Partridge, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives.

[2] A similar technique is also used provocatively in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room: Or, The Vibrator Play, which examines female sexuality in tandem with the domestication of electricity.

[3] Box 9, Correspondence with Margaret Partridge, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives.

[4] Partridge poked fun in her letters at a Baptist preacher who preached about “the Mysteries of Electricity,” as well as her secretary in Thorverton, “a godly man much respected in the chapel” who would “pray with the engine if it won’t run – & sing psalms to the batteries if they do gas exceedingly.” See Partridge to Haslett, 3 May 1925, Box 9, Correspondence with Margaret Partridge, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives.

[5] Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey, “Separate Spheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture,” History of Science 32, no. 97 Part 3 (September 1994): 249.

[6] For more on reenacting experiments, see, for example, the working group at the University of Oldenburg and Professor Pamela Smith at Columbia.

[7] Robert Marc Friedman, a historian of science who later became a playwright, argues that theatre should be used to transform episodes and figures from the history of science into “public property” belonging to a collective “cultural heritage.” Why? “Science,” he writes, “is too important a societal activity to insulate its practices, results, and consequences from public scrutiny and reflection.” Putting narratives of science into the public domain via plays invites the public to question and challenge the role of science in society. It also reveals the process and failures of science versus just its results, and thereby acts as a window into spaces previously reserved for authorities. See Robert Marc Friedman, “Balancing Act: Drama about Science Based on History,” in The SciArtist: Carl Djerassi’s Science-in-Literature in Transatlantic and Interdisciplinary Contexts, ed. Walter Grünzweig, vol. 11, Transnational and Transatlantic American Studies (Wien: Lit, 2012): 63-73.

Guest Post: Electrifying the Irish Country House – Cillian Lalor

The study of the Irish country house has attracted a great deal of attention from scholars in recent years who have begun to unravel many aspects of its history, in particular its relationship with the wider Irish society. The architecture and material culture of the country house have also attracted a plethora of recent publications. However, there are many aspects yet to be researched. One of these is the electrification of the country house, part of the modernisation processes of the early twentieth century. This study was carried out with the guidance of Professor Terence Dooley of the Centre for the study of Historical Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at Maynooth University, for an undergraduate module on the Irish country house. The electrification of the Irish country house project was based on research using estate records in the National Library of Ireland. These included the electrical specifications and reports on two country houses, namely Doneraile Court in County Cork and Westport House in County Mayo. Below is the original copy for the electrical specifications for Doneraile Court (note the date 1906). The project appealed particularly to me as I am a qualified electrician.

By 1910, the electrification of Irish country houses was spreading. But why did country house owners, who had previously spent enormous amounts of money installing gas lighting, then decide to install this new technology? There were four main reasons. Firstly, electricity was adopted within Irish country houses because of its practical advantage over gas. Although gas lighting did provide the house with adequate illumination, it also produced unpleasant and damaging fumes which were deemed potentially harmful to the residents and interior fabric . Secondly, despite declining finances, the late nineteenth century was an era of conspicuous consumption and many country house owners “had a demand for the latest thing.” [1]  Many new clients of electricity in the domestic sphere were considered ‘progressives’, politically, socially and aesthetically, and the demand for electricity was driven by fashion and a desire for modernity. Thirdly, certain houses received capital injections of income from the sale of land under Government land acts, during the early twentieth century in Ireland, in particular the 1903 Wyndham Land Act. Finally, during an era when night-time normally brought darkness to the whole countryside, an illuminated house was possibly seen as another potent status symbol.

Lalor fig 1

Figure 1: Specification and Estimate for Doneraile Court.

Source: Electrical installation specification, in Doneraile papers MS 34, 107/11, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 22 October 1906.

Permanent private electrical lighting installations required a self-sufficient, electrical generating system including a dynamo, driven by a power source such as a waterwheel or a water-powered turbine, steam engine or internal combustion engine. In 1906, Lord Castletown (Bernard Edward Barnaby FitzPatrick, 2nd Baron Castletown 1849-1937) of Doneraile Court in County Cork was eager to modernise his house. [2] The man in charge of this installation was T. W. Storey, chief engineer and manager of the Alliance Electrical Company Limited, Dublin. Lighting a mansion such as Doneraile Court in 1908 required 383 diverse light fittings and the whole installation cost £1098 11s 11d (£83,000 today). The “Specification & Estimate” for Doneraile Court provides a valuable insight into the electrification of large houses in the early twentieth century. Since Doneraile Court contained its own sawmill, it was proposed to drive the dynamo designated for the house via belting. This was done from a counter shaft in the engine house, thus saving the expense of a separate engine. The dynamo machine used was a “Standard I.G type dynamo” and cost £74 2s. 6d. [3]

In Doneraile Court, the supply of electricity to the house meant a 500 yard overhead run of cables (via wooden poles) from the main switchboard beside the dynamo in the engine house to the main house. In order to maintain the authenticity of the landscape, these wooden poles were hidden by meandering them strategically through the woodland. The type of cable used for this long run was: “stranded copper 7/16 insulated with triplex aerial insulation on high tension insulation”. [4] This type of cable was necessary as it provided suitable protection from the trees within the grounds. If the trees came into contact with electrical conductors (cables) that had poor insulation, it would cause a short circuit, thus creating a major electrical fault.

Similarly, Westport House in County Mayo underwent huge remodelling and modernisation in the early twentieth century. This can be largely attributed to the 6th Marquess of Sligo (George Ulick Browne 1856–1935), who was the newly established owner, after his father passed away. [5] The 6th Marquess obtained a wide knowledge of the workings of the estate and in doing so, made essential improvements to the house with regard to plumbing, heating and electricity around 1914. The Marques hired R. E. Mellon, an architect, A. E. Porte, a consulting engineer and T. E. Brunker, an electrical engineer, to oversee the entire operation. Overall, 250 light fixtures were installed and the whole installation cost £800 (£67,000 today). [6]

The control centre for the installations in Doneraile Court and Westport House were the main switchboards. In the days before the use of plastic materials and miniaturisation of components, this was a very impressive piece of equipment. Below is an example of an early twentieth century switchboard and it illustrates the various parts of a typical lighting switchboard used during this period. There are two circuits. The components on the left hand side are for charging and those on the right hand side for discharging. Furthermore, each circuit is protected with fuses and an ammeter to monitor the respective currents. The switchboard cost £49 and had to be fitted as near to the dynamo as possible.

Lalor fig 2

Figure 2: Lighting Switchboard.

Source: Charles Carson, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

Once electricity had reached the house, the next phase of the operation was wiring the house with lights, switches and fixtures. In Doneraile Court, the type of cable that was used throughout the house was referred to as “B” type. [7] This type of cable was insulated with PVC and had a guaranteed resistance of 1250 mega ohms. In both houses the methods used to contain wires within the houses was similar. As they were eighteenth century houses T. E. Brunker asserted that ‘cutting out and making good’ would be necessary, that is cutting through walls, partitions, ceilings, floors and so on. However, there were methods used to limit the damage to the house whilst wiring for electricity. In Westport House, a lot of the cables were wired under the floorboards, out of sight, as much as possible. This involved the lifting of floor boards throughout the house and pulling the cables through the main structural joists to their designated location.

A supplementary method called wooden casing/capping (illustrated below) was employed in both houses, to hide wires. In the Doneraile Court specifications, the electrical contractor expected “all cables and wires would be enclosed, hidden out of sight in American wooden casing.” [8] The carpenter and the electrician had to work together, and it was the electrician who decided what pieces of wood needed modification. I examined a rewiring project by the National Trust in England. The house in question was Cragside in Northumberland, which in 1880 was one of the first houses to be wired electrically. Much of the capping and casing used in this example was under the floorboards, inside the walls, around door frames, within skirting boards, all designed to avoid altering the house’s appearance.

Lalor fig 3

Figure 3:  Example of Timber casing and capping

Source:  Electrical topics, ‘Wooden casing and capping wiring’ available at: (

When the house was wired, switches were required, either to break an electrical circuit (turning off a light) or to divert current from one conductor to another. In Doneraile Court and Westport House, the type of switches that were used were of a Tumbler pattern, having porcelain base and polished brass cover. The diagram below demonstrates the inner working of the switch.

Lalor fig 4

Figure 4: Tumbler Switch, with cover off.

Source: David Salomons, Electrical Light Installations: A Practical Handbook (London, 1901)

The light fixture that typified the advancement of technology, whilst remaining aesthetically pleasing, was the chandelier. To best exemplify how spectacular chandeliers appeared in county houses, the three Murano Venetian coloured glass chandeliers that hung in Castletown House, County Kildare are pictured below. One can only imagine the sense of awe guests would have felt, casting their eyes upon such stunning light fixtures.

Lalor fig 5

Figure 5: Murano Venetian coloured glass chandeliers, Castletown House.

Source: Noel Byrne, ‘The Murano Glass of Castletown House’ available at: (

The difference which electrification made to the Irish country house is exemplified in a captivating letter written by Seymour Leslie of Glaslough House in County Monaghan to his brother on 14 July 1916:

“Dear Massa. The electric light was switched on at Glaslough [Castle Leslie] last week for the first time. Interesting discoveries of old masters and priceless books soon followed in consequence!!S.” [9]

Leslie’s use of the word “discoveries” highlights the changes the electric light brought to Irish country houses in the early twentieth century; it literally and metaphorically shed new light on the houses’ interiors.

About the author

Cillian Lalor recently received his BA in history and geography from Maynooth University, with first class honors in history. He has been accepted into the PME (Professional Masters of Education) programme in Maynooth University, where he will qualify as a secondary school teacher in these fields. Prior to undertaking his BA, he trained and qualified as an electrician.


[1] Moore Harrison, Abigail & Gooday, Graeme, ‘Decorative Electricity: Standen and the aesthetics of new lighting in the nineteenth century home’ in Nineteenth Century Contexts, XXXV (2013), pp 363-430.

[2] Carson, Charles, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

[3] Electrical installation specification, in Doneraile papers, MS 34,107/11, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 22 October 1906.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Report on electrical lighting at Westport House Co. Mayo for The Marquess of Sligo, in Westport Estate papers MS 41, 055/27, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 8 December 1913.

[6] Carson, Charles, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

[7] Electrical installation specification, in Doneraile papers, MS 34,107/11, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 22 October 1906.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carson, Charles, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

Wrapping up the project: delivering the house trails

An electrified candlestick in the Hall at Lotherton.

An electrified candlestick in the Hall at Lotherton.

As the project comes to an end, we are now ready to unveil the new history of electricity house trails we have produced for Standen and for Lotherton Hall.  These are available to view and to save on our Downloads page, along with a couple of other documents detailing our resources .  These trails have been designed to fit with existing trails used in each house, using templates supplied by the houses.  We are in the process of producing a one-off print run for the houses, which we will send to them, and after that each house will be able to print more as needed.

Each trail gives visitors an idea of the kinds of electrical artefacts and systems present in the house – such as the electrified candlestick at Lotherton Hall, pictured left, and the pressels at Standen, below.  When developing these, it was important for us to get input from house volunteers and guides, as they know best the kinds of things visitors want to know, and the questions they ask, and will be the first point of contact if visitors want to know more about content of the trails.  To get this feedback I visited each house to present early drafts of the trails, and discussed the content with guides and volunteers.  Although with limited space it was not possible to incorporate all suggestions into the finished drafts, it was very useful to run these early versions past the people who interact with visitors on a day-to-day basis.

One useful discussion we had was how much technical detail ought to be included.  There are visitors who appreciate this information – I have met several current or former electrical engineers at various houses over the course of this project myself.  However, we agreed that on the whole visitors do not come for, or expect, electrical history, and so the interpretative content should focus on the social history, with a few details about the technical aspects of the system for those who want this information.  The trails therefore contain a lot of social history content from Professor Gooday’s and Dr. Harrison-Moore’s work as it applies to each of the houses, for example emphasising the significance of class and gender in people’s responses to electrical technologies.  Each makes reference to nineteenth-century fears about electrical accidents, the design of electrical fittings, and the use of electricity for communication within the house.

Pressels: electric buttons on cords, hanging behind the bed in the North Bedroom at Standen.

Pressels: electric buttons on cords, hanging behind the bed in the North Bedroom at Standen.

In addition to these full trails we have also produced a template schools’ resource for Lotherton Hall – a shorter trail with activities – and are also producing a children’s trail for Standen.  The challenge for these resources was to distil some key points out of the research and to convey them in a way which would appeal to a young person moving around the house.  As with most of the work we have produced as part of this project, the key was to focus on the human stories and relatable imagery, such as ladies worried that the bright electric light would be bad for their skin, or unreliable lights going out in the middle of a meal, and where possible to include children or young people – such as the Beale children playing billiards by electric light in the evenings.  Ultimately I believe it is stories like these that are the reason why this research lends itself so well to the various interpretative resources we have produced over the past year.

The new trails will be in use at Lotherton Hall and Standen from July, and are also available to download here.