Not just a pretty space: using country houses to teach science and technology

One of the key project outputs I’m currently working on is an interactive resource for upper Key Stage 2 pupils (years 5 and 6, age 9-11 years) that tells the story of the electrification of each of the three houses together. This will be hosted on the MyLearning website, a repository for a variety of teaching resources developed by museums and other heritage organisations; please pay them a visit to have a look at other examples of interactive school resources hosted on their site.

Designing this resource is a challenging process because there’s so much involved that needs to be kept in mind. At the centre will be material from Graeme and Abigail’s research, but in order to apply this effectively it’s important to emphasise themes to which school pupils will be able to relate, and which also mesh well with the aims and objectives of the national curriculum guidelines both for history and for science. The interactive needs to draw out common themes from the histories of the three houses, Cragside, Lotherton Hall and Standen, but also must highlight what makes them individual and special.

An electric dinner gong at Cragside
One of two electric dinner gongs at Cragside – these could be used as a starting point for teaching a range of topics including science, technology and history. ©Paul Coleman

Something we’re really keen to promote in this project is that country houses were in the past – and often still are – important sites for technical innovation, and as such can be used as venues for teaching science and technology topics, for example electricity (obviously), but also energy self-sufficiency and sustainability (as I mentioned in a previous blog post). Whereas school groups are more likely to visit country houses to support history and art teaching, this interactive could encourage teachers to consider bringing pupils to a local country house for a trip to tie in with teaching about science and technology.

As demands on teachers’ time are many and varied, this interactive will provide an opportunity to investigate the potential of country houses for this in the classroom both before and after the visit. Even if a visit is not possible, the resource can still enable teachers and pupils to consider the scientific and technological heritage embodied in country houses. We’re hoping for example that teachers might be able to use this resource when putting together the local history study which is now a compulsory part of the new history curriculum.

I’ll write again soon about the specific elements we intend to include within this resource. I’m also going to put together a focus group of teachers to consult with in order to discuss the content and structure of this resource and make sure it will be useful in the classroom. If you’re a primary teacher, do you think you’d run a visit to a country house to teach about science and technology as well as art and history?

Electricity, lights, and really bad poetry: adventures in the Tyne and Wear Archives

Today I popped over to Newcastle to visit the Tyne and Wear Archives, based in the Discovery Centre museum, and spent the day perusing documents they keep which belonged to Lord and Lady Armstrong of Cragside. I was looking for several things:

  • information about the electrical equipment and systems in use at Cragside in the period;

  • opinions or responses regarding the electric lighting from visitors or guests, or from Lady (Margaret) Armstrong herself;

  • key dates for the timeline which will form a part of the digital interactive on which I am currently working (and on which more in a later post);

  • anecdotes or fun little stories about electricity in the house which might help to illustrate the video content we are producing in August.

1st LORD ARMSTRONG OF CRAGSIDE painted when he was eighty-eight by Mary Lemon Waller, 1898
Lord Armstrong, painted in 1898 by Mary Lemon Waller. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

As with any archival research, I ended up ticking a few of these boxes, not ticking others, and finding some items which I had not expected. For starters, I found a lovely little testimonial to Lord Armstrong’s character, from a family friend by the name of Emilia de Riano, resident in Granada, Spain, who noted in a letter to him in October 1884 that he was “the dearest creature in the world”.

Information about Cragside’s electrical equipment and some relevant dates were easy enough to find, such as details of the hydroelectric dynamo and its associated batteries. One letter also noted that there was enough water power from the dynamo to produce hydroelectricity to light the house 10 months out of the year; “the remaining two months however are uncertain”. Pendant (hanging) light fittings were installed in the drawing room around July 1884, and plans were being drawn up to electrically light the stables – which had previously been lit by gas – in 1903 in order to reduce the gas bill.

What I was slightly surprised not to find was any mention of Cragside’s hydroelectricity or electric lights in correspondence from those who had recently visited and stayed in the house. Even when this would have been incredibly novel and unusual, in 1884 (a year which, due to the unfathomable expediencies of the Law of Archival Serendipity, was quite generously represented), there was nothing in any letters which otherwise praised the beauty and wonder of the property.

However, something else I found, also from 1884, might help to explain this absence. It appears that in this year Lord Armstrong was having trouble with several of the lamps in the house, and would either have not been using them, or may have sent them to the Edison Swan Company to be examined and replaced, as suggested by a rather apologetic letter from one of the company’s representatives. This provides some nice Cragside-specific support for one of the themes which Graeme Gooday brings out in Domesticating Electricity, that electric lighting was not an unproblematic technology, and early users often found the system to be quite unreliable.

Finally, I was most gratified to find, tucked away at the end of a bundle of letters, an unsigned, undated poem in praise of Cragside. It didn’t mention electricity, as it may well have pre-dated the house’s electrical installation entirely.

O Cragside most beautiful place

On the whole of this earth’s fine face…

…its beautiful apples so red

on which you’re so bountifully fed

And its beautiful fish

That look nice in a dish”

It continued:

And then upon the moor

you find the bird pool

That is the grouse

so far from the house

Then in the fields round about

you find the partridge in and out

Then we have the blackbird sweet

come in autumn as a great treat”

Perhaps it is little wonder the author preferred to remain anonymous to posterity.

Share your stories

Guides and volunteers at country houses are often invaluable sources of stories about the history of the houses they work in, stories which they themselves bring to the property from their own memories, or from memories passed down to them from older relatives. As part of this project, we are keen to engage with people who have their own stories to tell about the history of electricity in country houses.

We encourage anyone who may have something to contribute – in particular country house volunteers and visitors – to head over to our ‘Share your Stories’ page and fill in the contact form to get in touch with us. We’d love to read memories, anecdotes and stories about how electricity was used, by whom, and what they thought of it. We may then ask if we can use your story in a blog post, or if you might want to write a guest blog post yourself. In some cases it might be interesting to arrange interviews to gather oral histories.

We’d be particularly interested to learn things related to the electrification of our three partner houses, Cragside, Lotherton Hall and Standen, but stories or memories related to other country houses would also be welcome. It doesn’t even need to be a country home; perhaps you have some old electrical equipment or systems in your period house or flat?

If you have something to share with us which might help to make our resources and our project more comprehensive, please do get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you!

Country houses as models of self-sufficiency

One of the original electrical dynamos in the Power House at Cragside. ©Tracing Green/Adam Vaughan

When the first country houses began using electricity, there was no national grid (the establishment of which commenced in 1926, after the passing of the Electricity (Supply) Bill). Although electricity companies supplied houses in towns and cities from central power plants, most country houses were too remote and isolated to be part of any kind of commercial supply system. Rather they needed to supply their own electricity on site by installing their own generating equipment. This is a key theme which we will be drawing out in the case of each of the three houses over the course of the project, especially with reference to the resources for schools – on which more in a later blog entry.

It’s a particularly relevant theme today because of the increased emphasis placed on our homes becoming more self-sufficient, with the ultimate, although largely unattainable goal, of being ‘off the grid’ entirely. It is becoming more common, for example, to see houses with solar panels on the roof in an attempt to reduce dependency on the national grid. At Cragside they are taking steps, along with the rest of the National Trust, to generate 50% of their energy from renewable sources such as hydroelectricity by 2020. Some housing initiatives even promote being ‘carbon negative’: actually giving back to the grid more than they use.

This is not yet widespread, and may take a while to become so. Nevertheless, given our growing awareness of the importance of sustainable energy sources, might increasingly self-sufficient country houses become one of the models we look to when assessing our future energy plans?

QR codes in country houses?

QR codeOne of the original aims of this project has always been to try to provide visitors to country houses with layered interpretation, ideally linking paper resources such as trails with digital resources online, such as videos, animations and supplementary text. We originally thought QR codes placed on an electrical heritage trail might be the way to do this, with each linking to a page on our website corresponding to a different room in the house and enabling visitors to access multimedia interpretative materials. The trail would of course also contain material about each room, and would include an explanation of the content the QR code would link to.

However, something that came out of the first project steering meeting on 18 June, and which has become clearer as I have researched more people’s experiences online, is that the QR code in the heritage sector seems to be a technology which has had its day. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say you don’t see so many of them around anywhere anymore. Feedback from projects at the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh has been largely negative, whereas other experiments, for example at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, the Museum of Inuit Art, Toronto and the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading have been reviewed more positively. Overall reactions have been mixed.

Nevertheless, most of the experiences I have come across relate to museums, and not to country houses. A big difference between a museum and a country house is that, when designing a museum exhibition, you are free to utilise and organise the space available however you want. Displays, cases, boards, audiovisual presentation units and the like can be arranged however is most convenient. In a country house on the other hand, the priority tends to be preserving a certain atmosphere of authenticity in the rooms, and this limits curators and educators to stick close to their source material and avoid cluttering the space with too much interpretation.

It could be a bad idea to place too much emphasis on a technology which may already be looking outdated, especially if the resources we produce are to have a long shelf life. The content, however, and the idea of connecting the physical and virtual resources, is still key; as long as the interpretative materials remain available on the website then the gateway through which we make them accessible via the printed materials can be changed. For now though, I’m not sure there exists a better alternative to QR codes – practical within the scope and budget of this project – to accomplish this. In such cases I wonder: is there still a case to be made for QR codes?

Domesticating Electricity: The Musical!

I’m very excited to announce that, in December, a group of 24 final year theatre and performance students from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries will, as part of their course, be staging a musical inspired by material from Graeme’s book. The production has been given a working title of ‘Electrified’, and after the students have performed in December, we are hoping to take some of them to Lotherton Hall in January 2016 to film some of the scenes on location, as well as some character monologues on the subject of domestic electricity.

This collaboration has come about through meetings with our colleagues in the School of PCI Tony Gardner (lecturer in performance processes and techniques) and George Rodosthenous (associate professor in theatre directing), who are supervising the project.  In 2013 Dr. Rodosthenous was also responsible for bringing to the stage ‘Diffraction’, a musical about the lives and scientific work of father and son team Sir William Henry and Sir William Lawrence Bragg in Leeds. This was timed to coincide with centenary celebrations at the University commemorating their work on x-ray crystallography, for which they received a Nobel prize in 1915.

The students have parts of Graeme and Abigail’s research to read over the summer and I will meet with them in September to discuss their ideas and help them to stay true to the source material when writing the musical. This opportunity gives us the chance to produce a project output which we will be able to invite project partners and others to come and see, which will provide us with footage to enrich our video and other digital resources, and which we could then use as trigger material for teaching about the history of electricity.

So: anyone have any song ideas?

The very model of a modern army Colonel: Frederick Trench-Gascoigne at Lotherton Hall

P1.92 Col FRT Gascoigne in rowing boat at Craignish Castle 1930s
Colonel Gascoigne, c1930s. ©Leeds Museums and Galleries

On a recent visit to Lotherton Hall, it occurred to me that the man credited with bringing electric lighting to the house in 1903, the owner Colonel Frederick R. T. Trench-Gascoigne, was also keen on other modern technologies. For example, he had central heating installed at Lotherton, and was an avid motorist (although not, if the stories told are to be believed, always a very careful one!).

As Graeme has noted in Domesticating Electricity, householders needed to actively make a decision to install electricity, and it wasn’t always seen as the best option in comparison with the widespread alternatives; after all, many country houses remained lit by gas, or even by oil lamps and candles, for many decades to come.

Indeed, sometimes keeping the older technologies of lighting could be seen as a status symbol, as the householders were demonstrating that, at a time when the influence and wealth of the traditional aristocracy was waning, they could still afford to employ the servants necessary to maintain these very labour-intensive technologies.

I wonder if the Colonel’s decision was part of a more general tendency towards modernisation and new technologies. This could certainly be said to be true in the case of Sir William Armstrong at Cragside (later Lord Armstrong), who had a reputation as an innovator, and installed Joseph Swan’s filament lights in 1880.

What attitudes did those who first adopted electric lighting have towards other new technologies in this period, and might this give us an insight into why some people made the decision to use electricity in their homes and others, who could also have afforded it, did not?

It’s… alive!

An early use for domestic electricity which, thankfully, didn’t really take off.

Welcome to the project blog for ‘Electrifying the country house’. Over the next 11 months I shall post updates here regarding the progress of the project in order to provide a real-time record of our activities. The main blog categories will be updates, events, resources, and one for each of the partner houses, Cragside, Lotherton Hall and Standen.

We envisage that, as well as being useful for us in terms of keeping track of our own ups and downs over time, this could also be of interest to those in academia or in the heritage sector who are also – or who might be considering – working on similar impact and engagement activities as we are developing.

If you are currently, or have previously, run such a project, or think that the aims and outcomes of this project might be applicable to your institution, organisation, group or society, do get in touch, we’d very much like to hear from you – and please subscribe to the blog to get your regular dose of electrical historical goodness!