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.

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: Eating Electricity and Delivering India – Animesh Chatterjee

Several Bengali writers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used satire as their literary response to the social and political complexities of colonial modernity and anti-colonial Indian traditionalism. Satirical texts, and especially drama, ridiculed subjects as disparate as religious reformers and reforms, state and civil institutions, technological modernity, and scientific theories, usually from the ideological viewpoint of the emerging Bengali upper-caste middle-class. The introduction of urban and domestic electrification, and the emergence of electricity as a scientific phenomenon in colonial India from the 1890s onwards resulted in Bengali writers integrating and exploring electricity in their fictional and satirical works. Bengali satirists added their own interpretations of electrification, as well as their hopes and fears for its influence on the Indian individual, family and society. For several satirists, the outcomes of electrification were not restricted to the physical effects of lighting and shocks; the Western origins of electrical technologies were considered dangerous to Indian cultural values, lifestyles and outlook. This is particularly evident in Amrita Lal Bose’s drama, The Babu: A Bengali Society Farce, originally written and performed in the 1890s at the Star Theatre in Calcutta, and translated into English in 1911. The Babu was not the first drama to satirically engage at length with the Bengali middle-class replicating British language, manners, attitudes and practices; however, it offers a number of ideas and associations that indicate the complexities of Western technological modernity from within the subjectivities of the contemporary Bengali intelligentsia.

The Babu

The third scene of the first act opens in the common room of the Brahmo Samaj, an upper-caste Hindu socio-religious reform institution. The Hindu religious reformer Sajanikanta, and the Western-educated scientist Asaniprakas are seen debating the nature of God. While Sajanikanta terms God as the ‘creator’ of beings, Asaniprakas rubbishes all of God’s creations as merely results of evolution by ‘physical change’.[1] When interrupted by news of the Brahmo Samaj’s plans of remarrying a widow, Asaniprakas suggests how the Brahmo Samaj should use science to remove women’s pangs of widowhood. He asserts: “If I can produce children by means of electricity, I’ll produce them; otherwise farewell to progeny. But by science I can remove the pangs of widowhood.”[2] He adds: “I think I can make such a galvanic battery that if the patient holds its poles in her hands, the pangs of widowhood will at once be numbed.”[3]

Electricity is presented here as a preternatural force that could supplement natural processes with artificially enhanced ones. On a deeper level, electricity and electrical technologies are perceived as harbingers of radical changes that could disrupt traditional and long-established cultural values and schemes. A further aspect of Asaniprakas’s representation of electricity as an important aspect of the body’s and society’s operations is offered in references that amalgamate electricity as a socio-political tool with the wider contemporary Indian nationalist interests of autonomy and self-rule. Arguing against the Brahmo Samaj’s stance of delivering India through socio-religious reforms, Asaniprakas says: “If India is to be delivered, it won’t be by delivering lectures and remarrying widows. If we are to attain autonomy, rest assured it will be by the help of science alone.”[4] He says further: “Mark my words, if I live – and I’m bound to as I eat a quantity of electricity twice a day – I will by the force of electricity abolish the caste system, effect the remarriage of widows, teach women to ride horses, establish a Parliament in India, and many other deeds besides.”[5]

The Babu Dialogues

While there is virtually no technical detail in The Babu, the range of topics that it related to electricity demonstrated that electricity was not only viewed by writers in terms of scientific and technological development, but it also served several explanatory and metaphorical purposes. Asaniprakas’s overemphasis on science and technology to bring about social and political reforms parodies the contemporary Westernised Bengali ‘babu’ and his pretensions to rival the British in intellect and culture. Asaniprakas’s plans of using electricity to deliver India also hint at the contemporary ideological battle between anti-colonial nationalism and Western imperialism. Partha Chatterjee suggests that anti-colonial nationalism in India called for a separation between spiritual and material domains. According to anti-colonial traditionalists, nationalist sovereignty could be achieved by studying and replicating Western material culture and modernity in the outside world, while protecting Indian cultural values, spirituality and identity within the domestic sphere.[6] In The Babu, electricity is depicted as a dominant force of the material world capable of overpowering the spiritual and cultural domain sufficiently to change it.

The scene’s concerns about electricity relate to the wider issues of domestication of electricity in colonial India that my current research seeks to examine. My research will study how the acceptance or rejection of electricity in Indian domestic and urban spaces was closely linked to the paradoxes that characterised Indian middle-class identity. The research aims to trace the several interpretive positions or meanings that were adopted in relation to electrification, and how domestic spaces became contact zones for Western conceptions of technological modernity, Indian cultural values and nationalism, contestations of gender roles, and the shaping of social inequality and stratification.

About the author

Animesh Chatterjee is a first year PhD researcher at Leeds Trinity University, studying ‘The Social Life of Electricity in Urban Colonial India, c. 1880-1920.’ In 2013, he graduated with an MSc (distinction) in History of Science, Medicine and Technology from the London Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (run jointly by UCL and Imperial College London until August 2013). Animesh has also previously worked as a Research Volunteer at the Science Museum, London, and as an Education Development Consultant at Pimpri Chinchwad Science Park in Pune, India.


[1] Nibaran Chandra Chatterjee, English Translation of “The Babu” (A Bengali Society Farce) by Babu Amrita Lal Bose [Calcutta: Sanyal & Co., 1911], p.22

[2] ibid, p. 24

[3] ibid, p. 24

[4] ibid, p. 26

[5] ibid, pp. 26-27

[6] Partha Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999]

Also see:

Partha Mitter, ‘Cartoons of the Raj’, History Today (September 1997), pp. 16-21

Stella Pratt-Smith, Transformations of Electricity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science [Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016]

Prabhat Kumar, ‘Colonialism, Modernity and Hindi Satire in the Late 19th Century’, Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien (ZIS), 28 (2011), pp. 1-25

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 M.A.Kay@leeds.ac.uk, by 1 January.

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

Thank you for reading,

Kind regards,

Michael Kay.


Rehearsing Electrified. ©Mark McDougall

Work on our history of electricity musical has now begun in earnest, and the final year theatre and performance students in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI) are putting a lot of time into writing the script and song lyrics, composing the music and choreographing the dance scenes, as well as designing a period-appropriate set.  There are 24 students in all and they supervised by Dr. George Rodosthenous (Associate Professor in Theatre Directing) and Dr. Tony Gardner (Lecturer in Performance Processes & Techniques).

Having given them material to read over the summer I went to see them at the beginning of their project a couple of weeks ago to talk to them about our work and how they might think about adapting it for the stage, especially given my recent experience working with other drama students to produce our Light Night performance.  They have a blog, which you can visit for news, photos and podcasts about the development of the production.  They’re also on Twitter: @ElectrifiedPCI.

Light Night: the lady of the house‘s costume.

Although working with drama students wasn’t something we originally envisioned being a large part of this project, our collaborations in this area have nevertheless produced some of our most innovative and creative outputs.  We have developed a very good working relationship with our colleagues in the School of PCI, George Rodosthenous and Tony Gardner, and have found the students very enthusiastic to take part in other opportunities to dramatise our project materials.  As a result, our dramatic outputs have now expanded to include – as well as the musical – our Light Night performance, guide characters for our KS2 history of electricity digital interactive, and a short film we will shoot at Lotherton Hall in December.  The students have also taken it upon themselves to organise an educational workshop at the University for local school children at which they will perform sections of the musical.

Our digital interactive is currently being built by our technical officer, Corey Benson.  It will benefit from the involvement of the students through the use of green screen filming techniques to insert them into video footage of the houses in order to explain elements of the history of electricity.  The interactive itself will comprise floor plans of each of the three partner houses, which pupils will navigate around in the order in which they were electrified (Cragside, Standen, Lotherton Hall).  For each house there will be four clickable rooms on the floor plan which pupils can select to learn more about the history of electricity in that particular room.  Each house will have a guide character, played by one of the students.  These characters will introduce themselves and their respective houses to pupils at the beginning of the interactive, and will then talk to them about specific areas of the history of electricity (science and technology, aesthetics, social history) in videos in each room.

The Electrified cast rehearse as the fairies of Iolanthe. ©Mark McDougall

The last dramatic output (for now) is our Lotherton Hall short film.  This will be about ten minutes long and will explore what happens when a reporter from a London ladies‘ journal visits the house in the early 1900s to talk to the family and the servants about their new electrical installation.  She is concerned in particular with the potential for accidents, especially given the number of people who have been injured or killed by domestic electricity around the country over the preceding few years.  I am currently working with a small group of the Electrified students to develop this, and we will film it in Lotherton Hall in December alongside the footage for the digital interactive and the green screen guide characters.  The film will be on display at Lotherton Hall for visitors to watch in spring 2016.

The maid from our Light Night production: scared of electricity.

I think these enthusiastic collaborations with staff and students from the School of PCI are due in part to the appeal of the stories and anecdotes Graeme brings out in his book Domesticating Electricity, the source material for the project.  These humanising stories of the fears and hopes of the people of the time, and the sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic, accidents or problems they ran into, serve to bring the period to life, and lend themselves well to dramatisation.  As we consider the ways in which we might further develop this project in the future, the success and excitement of these dramatic outputs is something which we are very much keeping in mind.

Performances of Electrified will be on Thursday, Friday and Saturday the 10th, 11th and 12th of December at 7:30pm, Stage One, Stage@Leeds.  Tickets are now on sale here.

Light Night 2015: It’s Electrifying!

The Housekeeper - in two minds about electric light.
The Housekeeper – in two minds about electric light.

On Friday evening, 9 October, we put on a special performance in the Brotherton Library’s Brotherton Room with the help of four student actors from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI). Called ‘It’s Electrifying!’, the show was organised as part of Leeds Light Night, an annual evening of free arts events (exhibitions, performances, installations) all based around the theme of light that takes place across the city, including the University. As this ties in so well with the themes of our project, this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Working closely with a colleague from the School of PCI, George Rodosthenous, who is also one of the lecturers supervising the production of our Electrified musical, we recruited four drama students as volunteers to take part in our show. Fitting in planning, script writing, rehearsals and organising costumes around everyone’s busy schedules was a challenge, but the students worked hard, and other members of PCI staff were also very helpful; special thanks go to Allana Marsh and Steve Ansell for helping to sort us out with costumes and props at quite short notice!

The show started with the maid cleaning outside the room and humming, before noticing the audience and inviting them in.
We started with the maid cleaning outside the room and humming, before noticing the audience and inviting them in.

We used the performance to address the hopes and fears surrounding the introduction of electric lighting into people’s homes around the end of the nineteenth century. There were four characters, representing a range of classes and opinions, for example the young lady of the house, excited at the aesthetic possibilities of the electric light, and her mother-in-law, who was sceptical, didn’t understand what electricity was or how it worked, and didn’t think it should be brought into their home.

The older lady - didn't understand electricity.
The older lady – didn’t understand electricity.

We also had the housekeeper, who was happy that the new lights didn’t give off any soot or smoke to blacken the paintwork, but who was sad to need to make redundant the boy who had been in charge of the candles and oil lamps. Finally, the maid was wary, knowing that people had died through accidents involving electricity.

The 15 minute show ran four times over the course of the evening, and over 110 people came to see it. We even had a song about the electric light from the 1880s, which the characters sang and hummed over the course of the performance. The Brotherton Room itself was also the perfect venue for the show; dating back to the 1930s with the rest of the main body of the Brotherton Library, it is an incredibly atmospheric space, and made a very passable country house library for the performance. It looked great lit up with electric candles.

One half of our display of objects....
One half of our display of objects….
...and the other side.
…and the other side.

Also forming part of the event was a display of historic electrical objects from the University’s Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which we used to tell the story of domestic electricity from its generation to its use in the home, from the 1880s until the 1940s. These included an old battery, a copy of a Mrs. Beeton book from the 1920s which dealt with electric cookery, and an Overbeck Rejuvenator, a 1920s electrical therapy kit for use by individuals in their own homes. The audience was encouraged to take a look at this display after the performance.

We got great feedback on the creativity, the costumes, and of course the singing! We’d like to thank our colleagues in PCI, in the Brotherton Library and in the Museum, and in particular the PCI students, for all their help making this event possible.

The cast.
The cast.