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: 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!

“Is it a mystery game?” Pupils’ feedback on the online interactive

Over the past month I have visited two local schools, Addingham and Springbank, to test our online interactive with Year 4 and Year 6 classes. “Is it a mystery game?” I was asked by one pupil as I was in the process of setting it up on the computers prior to the session. I replied that it was an educational game, which possibly didn’t quite imply the excitement they were anticipating, but nevertheless the responses to the resource have been very positive and encouraging, from pupils and teachers alike.

The Library at Cragside.
The Library at Cragside – a popular room to start in.

Over the different sessions I experimented with a few different ways of using the interactive in the classroom. In each case I began by leading the interactive from the front of the class, starting with Cragside and asking the pupils which rooms they wanted to explore (interestingly, in each session they wanted to start with the Library). In each room I opened the hotspot image and asked them the question before playing the associated video. I also wanted to see how the pupils used the interactive on their own, so depending on the session I then let them go through either the second and third or just the third house on their own. Unfortunately, at Addingham we noticed that when a whole class was trying to use the resource at once this slowed things down, and there were problems loading the videos. It also led in some cases to pupils, when left to their own devices, clicking through to the video content without being able to see the pictures of the rooms or the associated questions which the videos then answered.

Before my visit to Springbank, therefore, we implemented a fix aimed at addressing this, which was successful in that it slowed down the loading of the content in order to ensure that it would be visible before the video content would be played. With Springbank pupils, after going through the first house together, I asked a group of eight of them to work on the interactive at the back of the class, independently of the rest. They worked as three pairs at three computers, and two single pupils with a computer each – all had headphones for the videos. Meanwhile, I chose two volunteers from the rest of the class to lead the pupils through the next house, getting the class consensus on which rooms to visit, asking the hotspot questions and playing the videos. This worked very well and demonstrated how the interactive can be employed in the classroom as a peer-led learning exercise.

A sunflower-inspired wall-light from the Drawing Room at Standen.
A sunflower-inspired wall-light from the Drawing Room at Standen.

The pupils working on their own or in pairs at the back were able to use the interactive without the problems of the videos not loading properly, as we had previously seen at Addingham. The main feedback I received from this ‘focus group’ of pupils was that they wanted there to be more content: more rooms to explore, and more to see in each room. Unfortunately we’ve been limited by time and money on this project, so we stuck to four rooms for each of the three houses, with one hotspot and video in each, but I see this as a very positive response indicating that they were interested in and engaging constructively with the content.

The interactive provides a good catalyst to start discussions about a range of topics, from Victorian class and gender divides – and the contrasts and similarities with the present day – to the use of renewable energy through discussions of hydroelectricity at Cragside, to our own attitudes towards new, cutting edge technologies, to the questions and thought processes involved in designing and making everyday items. For example, Year 4 at Springbank picked up in particular on how posh Mr Grey, the butler at Cragside, sounded. “He’s like a robot!” they happily told me. This provided a perfect opportunity to discuss why it was appropriate that Mr Grey, working as he did for Lord Armstrong, conducted himself in a certain manner.



The quiz at the end of the interactive also provided an opportunity for the pupils to think about their knowledge of electrical topics covered in the KS2 curriculum. There are six multiple choice questions, each one relating to a circuit component with which the KS2 curriculum requires pupils to be familiar: wire, batteries, switches, lightbulbs, buzzers and motors. The questions draw on materials covered in the video content from the three houses, touching on scientific, historical and design aspects of the use of domestic electricity. In all cases I led this as an activity from the front of the class, asking questions, getting the pupils’ answers, and moving through the quiz. In the feedback, this was the aspect of the interactive which the Year 4 pupils said they found to be the most challenging, but as we want the resource to be useful for Year 6 as well I don’t think this is a problem; they did very well regardless.

A still from one of the videos in the interactive: Bertha the maid explains the electrical call system at Lotherton Hall.
A still from one of the videos in the interactive: Bertha the maid explains the electrical call system at Lotherton Hall.

The feedback from pupils indicates that the interactive encouraged them to think about how people used electricity in the past, and what different opinions they had. To evaluate each session I asked the pupils to write down, on different coloured post-it notes: one thing they had learnt, one thing they found difficult, and what they wanted to learn next. The answers demonstrated an encouraging level of understanding and enthusiasm. A common response to the first question – what they felt they had learnt – was hydroelectricity, and also the period that people first starting using electricity in the home, including the fact that not many people had electricity at this time. The interactive thus effectively introduces pupils to the idea of hydroelectricity, and also helps them to historicise the development of electrical technologies. Other key points which pupils picked up on were that early electricity was not always reliable, and that maids were often scared of electricity.

There were a few warning signs here, though, and potential misunderstandings will be highlighted in our teachers’ resource to accompany the interactive. For example, a lot of pupils found the explanation of the cloisonné lamp at Cragside tricky, and whilst this is a useful tool for discussing several topics – for example conductors and insulators, how mercury is an unusual metal, and electrical safety – it is important to be careful in order to avoid some of the misconceptions which are evident from the feedback, for example that mercury was used to power lamps, or that the method of the electrification of Cragside’s cloisonné lamps was common at the time. Teachers may wish to use the animation of the cloisonné lamp we have produced for Cragside alongside the interactive to help explain this.

Regarding what they wanted to know next, pupils had a wide range of suggestions, from how electricity was used on the Titanic to the uses of electricity in sport. Common questions were how electricity is generated, who the first person to use or discover it was, and aspects of social history, for example asking about the lives of children and servants, and what adults did in their spare time. Some asked some very insightful questions, such as why people needed electricity when they had candles, and what electricity is going to be like in the future. These responses indicate that the interactive serves to fuel interest in Victorian history, and also in how electricity works and the ways in which it is used in our everyday lives. Teachers can therefore use our interactive as a starting point for such discussions, and then go on to explore some of these other science or history topics in more depth.

The interactive is now live, and can be viewed here.

Notes from an Intern: Stories from the Archives

Harewood House
Harewood House

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from an Intern: Surveying the Sources

Hatfield House

<a href=" .uk/images/hh2.jpg”>Hatfield House

As a final year PhD student in the University of Leeds, I was excited at being given the opportunity to intern with the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ project – finally, I would be able to analyse something beyond my own research area! And what a research area this turned out to be. My first task was to compile a literature survey, to browse through old books, new books, journal articles, newspaper clippings, and obscure websites. And what was I tasked in finding? The use of electricity, or other new technologies, by British aristocrats in their country houses. The time period? Starting from the late nineteenth (1880s) to the early twentieth century (pre-World War II).

I discovered quickly enough that it was easier to obtain resources about certain aristocrats as compared to others. A name that came up frequently was Lord Robert Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who had been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for a total of over thirteen years. In regards to the project, we were particularly interested in his scientific experimentation within his country seat, Hatfield House. Most of the relevant literature found on Lord Salisbury pertained to his installation of electrical devices around Hatfield, and his laboratory being the site of new scientific (including electrical) discoveries. These sources were written by family members (e.g. David Cecil, the youngest son of the 4th of Marquess of Salisbury), fellow academics (e.g. Professor Graeme Gooday, Principal Investigator of this project), as well as Lord Salisbury’s peers (e.g. an unknown author praised the Marquess’ scientific endeavors in a journal article from 1903). Lord Cecil had plenty of people writing about him and thus will prove to be a solid starting point for this project.

Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Sir Winston Churchill, on the other hand, will prove to be more difficult. In Professor Gooday’s ‘Domesticating Electricity’, he had discussed her dealings with the Crompton company, which provided Lady Churchill free services as a manner to advertise their company to Churchill’s social network. Our main understanding of this aristocratic figure herself, however, comes from her memoirs. These were penned under her second husband’s name: Mrs. G. Cornwallis-West. With personal accounts on life in Blenheim Palace, Lady Churchill’s descriptions of the installation of electricity will give an insider’s view into life during this period.

Another fascinating find from this literature survey is the life of American heiress Lilian Warren Price, also known as Lily Spencer-Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Project Researcher Dr Michael Kay had written about her husband, the 8th Duke of Marlborough and his involvement in telephony. When researching about the renovations of Blenheim Palace by the Duke, however, books and articles referred to the heiress’ integral role in financially supporting his endeavours. This creates an interesting aspect to the Duke’s renovations where there may be room for further research into the extent of the Duchess’ influence on electrifying Blenheim Palace.

Alongside the aristocrats that owned and renovated their country houses with electricity, there were also the employees ‘below the stairs’ that worked with the technology. Books on the life of those working ‘in service’ in these country houses provide a different perspective on the era. Alongside concepts of a ‘servantless house’, these books explore how people interacted with the technology of electricity, and how it helped (or hindered) their daily duties in these country houses.

I have outlined findings that are particularly interesting to me, but of course there are many other resources found while compiling this literature survey. A point that needs to be made, however, is in regards to resources not found during this research. There are gaps in knowledge that have yet to be filled, and may be filled by this project. One of the aristocratic figures that proved incredibly difficult to find resources on is the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. There are accounts of his lavish spending on his country seat, Plas Newydd, but I was unable to pin down any mention of his dealings with electricity. Thus an interesting gap that may warrant further research. Another is the aristocrats’ own personal relationship with technology – it would be fascinating to uncover their own notes and thoughts into the process of fitting their houses with electricity.

Which brings us to the next stage of this project – looking at historical documents from the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). With an understanding of the literature available in print as well as in digital archives, it will be exciting to see what new information can be found from the WYAS. I will write again when that time comes, and until then – I hope that you’ve found new interesting things to look into yourself!

Where do we go from here? Extending, and moving beyond, the project

The cast of Lotherton Electrified.

I am pleased to say that we have been given permission by the AHRC to extend the ‘Electrifying the country house‘ project by another two months; instead of ending at the beginning of May, we will now be continuing until July.  This is largely because we have already worked hard to produce more outputs than we originally expected, original and innovative outputs which we did not anticipate such as Electrified the musical, and our short film Lotherton Electrified.  In addition, I will be giving an extra public talk in June at Nostell Priory – a National Trust property near Wakefield, a town just outside Leeds – and presenting a paper on our work at an additional international conference in Canada at the end of June.

The question that remains is of course: what next for the ‘Electrifying the country house‘ project?  We are currently working on putting together proposals for a couple of different follow-on projects, one of which would build on the significance of the British aristocracy in promoting and disseminating new technologies in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries – as revealed in Domesticating Electricity.  Whilst the current project has focused solely on impact – working to apply the results of existing research for the benefit of collaborative partner organisations – this new project would generate new knowledge as well as impact and engagement activities and outputs.

As part of the process of writing this proposal, we have employed a postgraduate intern to support us, and she will be writing a couple of guest blog posts about her work over the next few weeks.  On the subject of guest writers, watch out also for some blog posts from other colleagues over the next couple of months addressing some of the themes of the project – such as the marketing, reception and use of electricity, technology and gender and electricity as power – in different national contexts and periods.  Indeed, if you‘ve seen something that interests you on this blog that relates to your own research and would like to write something to be published here, please do get in touch with me; it would be great to hear from a variety of voices as we enter the final stages of the project.

Presenting the project: a workshop and a short film – Lotherton Electrified!

Our project workshop on 1 February brought together country house staff from around the UK, representing the National Trust, English Heritage and various local councils and privately owned properties.  We demonstrated some of our outputs, including our Light Night performance, this time starring a couple of the students from the Electrified musical.  This came as something of a surprise to the participants as we hadn’t told them in advance that they were going to be watching a piece of live theatre!

Shooting our short film at Lotherton Hall.

However, it set the right tone for the afternoon, which also included short presentations from representatives from each of our partner houses about their experiences of the project so far, and how they have benefitted from it.  At Standen for example, our talk for for room guides “has enabled our volunteers to find out more about a subject that has for too long been underplayed at the property and speak with more confidence to our visitors about it.”

We also heard from Dr. Ian West from the Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester about his research into lighting and other technologies at properties around the country.  We then finished off the session with a discussion about the outputs, posing two main questions to the participants:

1. Thinking about what you‘ve seen today what are the potential applications of our outputs and/or research in your institution?

2. What would have to happen for you to benefit from these outputs?

The resulting discussion, in small groups, highlighted that looking at the role of women in the story of electrification – emphasised throughout Gooday and Harrison-Moore‘s work – provided a very good way to tell these stories to interested audiences.  Also useful was the way in which we demonstrated how country houses could work more closely with universities local to them to generate new knowledge, resources or events: for example by history students undertaking primary research as part of an undergraduate or masters course in order to gain research skills and experience; or by drama students producing performances based on materials related to the house, as we have done for Light Night, ‘Electrified‘, our online interactive, and our short film.

However, it was also generally noted that staff and volunteers in many houses may be reluctant or not confident enough to present science or echnology content to visitors.  In such cases training sessions would be invaluable, and could emphasise how these topics fit into the stories that are already told in these properties.  It was also suggested that we might beneficially create a network to facilitate knowledge exchange between technology and history experts on the one hand and interpreters and country house staff on the other.  This could provide help interpreting science and technology content for educational, curatorial or exhibition interpreters to use, as it was noted that it‘s often difficult to communicate the significance of electrical technologies, including objects  and systems, to visitors.


Preparing for filming.

Finally, our short film, Lotherton Electrified, is now available to view online (see below).  In it, a reporter visits Lotherton Hall in 1904 to interview the family and servants about the new electrical lighting in the house, but is also concerned about an accident which recently occurred on the property.  This is, it must be noted, entirely fictional, but the fears and concerns of the period regarding electricity which it illustrates were very real, and electrical accidents, although not normally fatal, were not uncommon.

The cast of Lotherton Electrified.

The cast of Lotherton Electrified.

The preparation of the individual rooms for filming required a lot of thought, and a lot of support and help from Lotherton staff Dionne Matthews and Adam Toole; we tried to avoid including too much anachronistic technology or interpretation boards in the background!  The music, too, is appropriate: it is from the 1879 song ‘The New Electric Light‘, which was also used in the Electrified musical, and was recorded by another member of the cast, Mathilde Davies.  The students handled the pressure and intensity of the afternoon very well, and the result is a short, 10 minute film pitched at a general, non-specialist audience, which Lotherton can show on tablets around the house or in its cinema room as appropriate.

Making a scene: the Electrified musical and filming at Lotherton Hall

Last month was a big one for our work with the 3rd year Theatre and Performance students; on 10, 11 and 12 December they performed their new musical, Electrified at the University, and on the 16th we visited Lotherton Hall to shoot material for our digital interactive and our short film.

The dancers of Iolanthe lament the harsh new electric lights in the theatre. ©Alan Firth

The musical, based in December 1882, addresses the aftermath of the death of William Dimmock, a labourer at Hatfield House, the grand ancestral home of the Gascoyne-Cecil family near London.  Dimmock died of an electric shock when he accidentally came into contact with electrical wires in the Hatfield garden a year before the events of the play, and the characters, both the family and servants, have differing views about the desirability of having electrical lighting in the house.

Robert Arthur Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and three times Prime Minister, was a pioneer of domestic electrical technologies, installing a system of electrical call bells as early as 1869, shortly after the death of the 2nd Marquess.  He later experimented with arc lighting, powerful lights usually employed outdoors, but which he for a time had installed in the dining room at Hatfield – much to the distress of his female relations and guests.

In the musical, Lord Salisbury still feels guilty for Dimmock‘s death, and Dimmock‘s two sisters Ruth and Mary have begun working at Hatfield House and at the Savoy Theatre respectively.  Mary is a dancer in the new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Iolanthe.  The theatre had been electrified shortly before – the first to be so lit – and Iolanthe was the first production to be staged with the new electric lights.  However, as the musical illustrates, not everyone was comfortable or convinced about the safety of this arrangement – least of all William Dimmock‘s mother.

The songs and music are a mixture of period songs, contemporary lyrics set to new music, and brand new pieces; highlights include a tea party sing-along about the excited possibilities of electric lighting, and the dancers of Iolanthe lamenting their pale and pallid appearances under the glare of the new lights in the theatre.  The three performances were very well attended, and the students were excellent.  The musical was filmed, and can be viewed online in its entirety here:



Ben as the butler at Cragside.
Ben as the butler at Cragside.

We followed up this success with an intensive day of filming at Lotherton Hall, working with Leeds Media Services to capture content for our online interactive, such as shots of some of the rooms and green screen footage of the guide characters.  This was a new challenge for the students, but one which they handled very well, and was a great experience for them – and for me!  Getting everything right took a lot of patience, a fair few retakes, and of course the calm, efficient expertise of Steve and Mark at Leeds Media Services.

Finally we shot the short film, Lotherton Electrified, which we managed to wrap up in just two and half hours.  The experience has taught me a lot about interpreting academic research imaginatively for portrayal on film.  The most important lessons for me have been allowing plenty of time for reshoots, resting and costuming considerations, and the need for flexibility on location with matters of framing shots and scripting – if something isn‘t working out, it‘s better to change it quickly and move on.

Lotherton Electrified will be used in the house as required, either on a tablet or in the cinema room, as well as providing a great advert for the project as a whole, and demonstrating the general themes of Professor Gooday’s book Domesticating Electricity in an engaging and accessible way.  It will also be available online in February.

Invitation to our project workshop: 1 Feb 2016, University of Leeds

On Monday 1 February we will be holding our project workshop at the University, in the Brotherton Room of the Brotherton Library.  This is the same venue where we held our Light Night performance in October.

Please see below for the full text of the invitation.

The ‘Electrifying the country house’ project, run by Professor Graeme Gooday and Dr. Abigail Harrison-Moore at the University of Leeds, is holding a workshop on Monday 1 February 2016 at the University to present our work so far and to discuss how we can further develop and build on this existing work.

Over the course of this one year AHRC-funded project, we have been developing educational visitor resources for country houses based around their electrical heritage technologies, such as lighting and telephony. Our three partner houses are Cragside, Rothbury and Standen, East Grinstead (National Trust), and Lotherton Hall, Leeds (Leeds City Council). At this workshop our discussions will include considering potential future funding avenues for the project and the involvement of new partner houses.

We will present and demonstrate the outputs we have produced for our partner houses, including: electrical heritage house trails; explanatory animations about electrical artefacts and systems; an online digital interactive resource for KS2 pupils; and a short drama performance about the different responses people had towards the use of electricity in the home.

We would like to invite representatives from country houses around the UK who might be interested in our work to join us at the University. The workshop will take place in the Brotherton Library, from 12-5pm, and will be followed by a drinks reception from 5-6pm.

We have funding available to cover transport costs, and lunch will be provided. However, places are limited, so please register your interest soon in order to avoid disappointment. To book a place, please email the project researcher, Michael Kay, at, by 1 January.

To learn more about our project please read our blog,, or follow us on Twitter, @EtCHProject (Electrical Heritage).

Thank you for reading,

Kind regards,

Michael Kay.