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.

Evaluating Old Science Week

In the wake of the very enjoyable ‘Old Science Week’ at Lotherton Hall last week, I’ve been thinking about how it went. I was there for the Monday and the Wednesday, which you can read about here and here respectively.

The ice cream maker, hair dryer, plugs, toaster, telephone and vacuum cleaner.
The ice cream maker, hair dryer, toaster, plugs, electricity meter, telephone and vacuum cleaner.

Working with Lotherton Hall on this event meant that we were able to use the usual setting for family activities at the house.  This is the Servants’ Hall, a great adaptable space which can accommodate large groups of adults and children, and allow for all sorts of interaction, engagement and creativity. The week fitted into Lotherton Hall’s “Six Weeks of Summer” programme, a series of themed weeks aimed at school aged children during the summer holidays.  As such, a handling table and arts and crafts related to the theme and collections were on offer.  Some of the objects on display for handling, old electrical domestic appliances, as pictured here, were borrowed from Artemis, Leeds City Council’s artefacts loan service.

Although Lotherton’s themed weeks are largely for younger children, we knew our engagement would be with visitors of all ages, some as part of a family and some alone or with friends. Thus the best format for the activities – in line with other crafts activities held in this space – was a series of drop in sessions which people could join and leave as they wished. This wouldn’t tie them into being there at any particular time or require them to participate in anything too structured or formalised. As Dee Matthews, Lotherton’s Learning Officer, later observed, the end of the summer holidays begins to quieten down; it was thus easier to engage with visitors for longer periods, and to encourage them to think about what each object was and how it was used. Relating this to electrical appliances and gadgets in their own homes was also very effective.

One of the decisions we needed to make when thinking about how best to run these activities was whether or not to include any written interpretation. We considered for example a fact sheet about the history of electricity, or domestic lighting at Lotherton, but Dee recommended that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the setting. It also might look as though we were trying to create too formal a learning environment, but with various craft activities and object handling there was plenty on offer to keep the visitors interested.

The sign next to the objects.
The sign next to the objects.

Instead we decided that it would be best simply for me to talk to those adults who were interested to find out more about the topic and about the work of the project. This I did on a couple of occasions. We also included a sign next to the handling objects which explained why they were there, invited people to pick them up, and asked a couple of simple questions aimed at the children.

However, in hindsight, I think there may have been an advantage to having a simple interpretation sheet near the objects for the benefit of adults without children coming into the area. This would have supplemented the information given on the sign and provided them with more context and information about Old Science Week. It would also have meant that these visitors would still have gained something from the display when Dee and I were unable to speak with them, for example because we were busy talking to or working with the families.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent at Lotherton, talking to the families and adult visitors, and I think our ‘Old Science Week’ activities provide a good model for running such events in future. However, I would bear in mind a few points where we could improve on the event.

  1. If possible it would help to have two people from the university; it might not always be possible for the house staff to be present, so in order to make the most of all of the visitors, and talk to as many people of different age groups as possible, it would help to have two people able to give personal interpretation present consistently over the course of the day. This would also help with taking photographs of the event, something which I found it challenging to fit in as I was busy speaking with people, and to have stopped and taken photographs would more often than not have interrupted the flow, spoiled the atmosphere, and lost the interest and attention of the children.
  2. It may seem an obvious point, but university attendees should have some sort of identifying badge to wear; I had nothing at the beginning and I felt the difference it made.
  3. As mentioned above, I think a page of written interpretation aimed at the adult visitors who passed through the Servants’ Hall over the course of the week would have been helpful. It would not have been long, but would have added some depth and context to the objects on display, and to the theme of the week more generally.
A picture of the house drawn for us by one of the kids. Thanks!
A picture of the house drawn for us by one of the kids. Thanks!

Please leave any comments below; if you came along one day last week, we’d like to hear what you thought of it, and if you’re thinking of doing something similar to this in another country house then please get in touch!

Hello! Hello! Are you there?


Hello! Gran? Are you there?

Day 3 of Old Science Week at Lotherton Hall saw us making telephones out of plastic cups and string. This was a very good activity for both the older and the younger children to engage with, as they could first be as creative as they wished with their cups, and then, with a little help on the knots, they could make and experiment with a rudimentary scientific instrument. The children really got into this, and there was plenty of shouting, some loud whispering, and even a bit of singing as they worked out how best to use them by making sure the string was pulled tight. However, we soon found it was a good idea to put some sellotape over the hole to make sure the string didn’t keep popping out of the cups! The adults had fun too; here is one of the children talking to his grandmother on his newly decorated string telephone!

A heater? A bug zapper? It's a toaster!

A heater? A bug zapper? It’s a toaster!

The old electrical objects were still on display, and I got some intriguing responses when asking the children to work out what the toaster was; a heater was a fairly obvious guess, but a bug zapper and a laminator were definitely evidence of some pretty good out-of-the-box thinking from the visitors. As one of the items was an ice cream maker, which was not electrical, I asked the children to think about which of the items was the odd one out and did not use electricity. Some were surprised to be told that not everyone had liked electric lights at first, because they were considered to be too bright, and also to learn that old telephones were not as easy to use as their modern equivalents.

A colourful set of telephones.

When talking to the children about the electrical objects, we also took the opportunity to engage with the adults, and talked about how Lotherton Hall was electrified relatively early, having previously only been lit by oil lamps and candles. The decision to electrify the house, taken by Colonel Gascoigne around the turn of the 20th century, was not an obvious one, and was complicated and expensive as Lotherton Hall needed to be able to generate its own independent electricity supply. Whilst it may have been more common at that time to have gas lighting installed, Colonel Gascoigne was keen on modern technologies, and also had central heating installed as well as owning a fleet of motor vehicles, so he chose electric lighting.

Read about what we did on the first day here!