Harewood’s Electricity Story: research and rehearsals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harewood’s Electricity Story: 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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrJNY4TsMbE]


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.

Explaining experimental electricity: animations at Cragside

As the project draws to a close we are polishing up our outputs ready for final delivery.  One of the outputs which we are producing for Cragside is a set of three bespoke educational animations to help volunteers to explain Cragside’s electrical heritage to visitors.  The animations have been produced by our undergraduate animation intern, Alex, and will be used to demonstrate how Lord Armstrong employed and experimented with electricity at Cragside, and how he used the surrounding landscape to generate hydroelectricity to light his house – the first private house to do so.

Of the three animations, one illustrates how the house’s iconic cloisonné lamps were originally electrified in December 1880.  This was a little unusual and can be hard to explain.  The only source we have is a letter Armstrong wrote to the Engineer in January 1881, in which he explained that the lamps could be switched off or on by picking them up and putting them down again.  As this was a very experimental period in the history of electrification, before switches were readily available, this was accomplished using a dish of mercury.

A wire ran down from the bulb at the top of the vase, and dipped into the mercury.  The dish was set in the centre of a metal disc connected to two wires: one carrying current to the bulb, and the other being the return wire for the circuit.  The metal body of the vase itself – copper – served to return the current back to the return wire.  Thus, when the vase was placed on the metal disc and the wire from the bulb dipped into the dish of mercury the circuit was completed and the bulb was lit.  Lifting the vase from the metal disc would have switched the light off.  As the cloisonne vases were coated entirely in enamel it is likely that this would have provided sufficient insulation for the vases to have been moved by hand.  The animation provides volunteers with a very visual way of explaining this process.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tq2G4JIWbEw]


The second animation is of the arc light which used to hang in the Picture Gallery at Cragside between c1878 and 1880 – when Armstrong and Joseph Swan installed Swan’s bulbs.  This can no longer be seen at the property, but the animation gives an idea of how it worked – including the noise of operating it.  The animation demonstrates how early arc lights comprised two vertical rods of carbon in an electrical circuit, separated by a gap.  The current jumped across the gap, creating a bright arc.  The distance between the two rods needed to be carefully regulated: if it was too small, the arc would correspondingly be too small to generate sufficient light.  If the gap was too wide, the current would not be able to arc across it.  However, as the rods burned away with use it was important to have a mechanism which automatically moved the rods to keep the gap the same size as the rods became shorter.  Arc lights were more commonly used for outdoor lighting, and not many people experimented with bringing them inside to illuminate their rooms.  This, alongside the cloisonne animation, therefore helps to highlight Armstrong’s willingness to experiment and innovate.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O83e71MJ2H8]


The final animation shows how the hydroelectric system at Cragside worked, with water running down the hill from a man-made lake at the top, and operating a dynamo in the Power House – a separate building containing the dynamos and the batteries, which stored excess electrical charge for periods of high demand.  When more current was required to light more rooms, the butler used a telephone to ring down to the Power House to request more power.  The animation shows this simply as the movement of a lever: this operation might have been performed by switching resistance coils out of the circuit (thus decreasing the resistance and effectively making more current available for the lights in the house), or by switching the batteries into the circuit.  After this happens in the animation we see more lights coming on in the house, represented by the cloisonné lamp in the Library, until it is entirely illuminated.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyZHEZtoQ_Y]


Volunteers will have these animations on tablets, and will be able to use them as explanatory tools when discussing the history of electricity at the property with visitors.  The role of volunteers in providing explanatory interpretative content is very important at Cragside, as at many other country houses.  When discussing how the project could deliver outputs which would best benefit Cragside, representatives of the house were keen to produce something which emphasised the role of volunteers, rather than written interpretative content such as panels or trails.

When drawing up the storyboards for each of the three animations, therefore, Alex and I consulted with Cragside staff in order ensure that the content was accurate and suitable for this purpose: the animations needed to be short – concise and focused without distracting elements – and visual, without relying on text.  The animations will be in use at Cragside in the next month, and will also be available to view online.

[Edit, 4/7/16 – This post now contains final versions of all three of the animations.  Please also see our Downloads page for further supporting information on these animations.]

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O Cragside most beautiful place

On the whole of this earth’s fine face…

…its beautiful apples so red

on which you’re so bountifully fed

And its beautiful fish

That look nice in a dish”

It continued:

And then upon the moor

you find the bird pool

That is the grouse

so far from the house

Then in the fields round about

you find the partridge in and out

Then we have the blackbird sweet

come in autumn as a great treat”

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