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: 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!

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

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

Shooting our short film at Lotherton Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Preparing for filming.

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

The cast of Lotherton Electrified.

The cast of Lotherton Electrified.

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

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.