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Power for the People: A history of electricity in Sydney

By Sandra Jobson - posted Wednesday, 25 August 2004

Thursday, July 8, marked the 100th anniversary of public electricity in Sydney, when the electric streetlights of the inner city were turned on for the first time.

Let me recreate that scene, because it illustrates what a difference electricity was to make to our lives.

All over Sydney that morning of July 8, 1904, people were waking up, lighting bedroom oil lamps, and stirring last night's coal grate to spark up some hopefully latent warmth.


In those households which didn't have the new-fangled gas water-heaters in their bathrooms, water would be put on to heat in kettles over gas cookers or fuel stoves, partly for the morning wash, partly for the breakfast tea and porridge.

Then the working adults would set off to the local stop or station to catch the steam train or the new electric tram into work in the city or nearby suburbs.

The housewives would begin their arduous day, packing children off to school, lighting gas or chip-burning "coppers" to start boiling up the washing, cleaning grates, and getting in the day's coal or wood; then thinking about what provisions were needed from the corner store for the evening's meal.

By mid-afternoon that day a full-scale gale was blowing.

Due to the inclement conditions, few turned up at a ceremony at the new building in Pyrmont, under the tall brick chimney from which smoke had been wisping for most of the dingy afternoon. The party consisted of the Lord Mayor and his group, aldermen of the City Council, the Town Clerk, some senior officials and some engineers.

At 5pm sharp, the Lord Mayor, the Right Worshipful Samuel E. Lees, pulled the lever that released the steam from the station's boilers and set the generators in motion. Then the Lady Mayoress, Mrs Lees, turned a golden key that switched on the electric current.


And so, much to everyone's surprise, the lights first came on all over what is now the CBD. People scurrying through the rain at first thought it was a particularly bright flash of lightning. But it stayed on.

Sydney would never be the same again.
Although July 8 was the 100th anniversary of electric street lighting in Sydney, in fact man-made electricity first came to our shores 134 years before, in 1770, aboard Captain Cook's Endeavour.

After Joseph Banks and Solander had bidden farewell to the maidens of Tahiti, they entertained themselves by experimenting with electricity as the Endeavour crossed the Tasman. Using Leyden jars, which were primitive batteries, they created a weak electric current. The canvas floor-covering of their cabin happened to be an ideal conductor of electricity, as it was sluiced down and cleaned daily with salt water.

Picture the two men, standing opposite each other on the canvas mat, testing their experiments by giving each other electric shocks.

"Ready, Mr Banks?"

"Yes Mr Solander...OUCH!"

In the ensuing years a few sporadic attempts were made to harness what was then a new and exciting phenomenon.

In 1863 Sydney celebrated the marriage of the Prince of Wales by erecting an arc lamp on Observatory Hill. The Observatory Hill lamp was so bright people claimed that they could read a newspaper by it one mile away…probably a slight exaggeration.

Fifteen years later Sydney and Melbourne were locked in a battle over which city would hold the first International Expo. Sydney trumped Melbourne by importing several electric generators from England so that building work on its Expo site, the Garden Palace in the Domain, could continue 24 hours a day.

Soon private companies began setting up generators, mainly to light street arcades - the Strand Lighting Company, for example. One of the Garden Palace generators was used to light Parliament House in Macquarie Street. The GPO also had its own generator.

A few wealthy people installed generators in their homes. It was quite a party trick for the electric lights to be switched on suddenly halfway through a dinner party. The ladies present were taken aback because their complexions showed so much more than in candlelight and they had to learn new make-up techniques. Fashions changed too because of the brighter light. Shot taffeta became all the rage because it reflected the new electric light.

In 1887 a big moment for Sydney occurred when the Lord Mayor asked the Postmaster General to extend his electric power at the GPO to a lamp above a horse trough outside the GPO in George Street. Small step though this may have been for horses passing down George Street, it was a giant stride for electricity. It was Sydney's first permanent electric streetlight.

In 1888 Tamworth became the first city in the southern hemisphere to install public street lighting. Sydney was starting to lag behind.

By 1890 the NSW Railways opened its own power station and began electrifying the tram service. Trains weren't electrified until 1926.

By 1891 the towns of Young, Penrith, Moss Vale and Broken Hill had all set up their own electricity supply systems. More embarrassingly, Redfern, so close to the Municipality of Sydney, had built its own powerhouse - and it still stands today. Balmain also had its own powerhouse.

In 1896 a Sydney Electrical Lighting Bill became law, giving the City Council the right to light up the CBD with electricity. Yet Sydney was to remain gas-lit for a further eight years.

Finally in 1900 a Major Cardew was brought in from England to begin planning public electric street lighting in Sydney.

Various sites were examined for the erection of the first power station. One of them was in the Rocks. You can still see its chimney today as you cross the Bridge, towering above what used to be the Mining Museum, which later housed the Julian Ashton Art School. But the city fathers scrapped the Rocks site when it was half-built, and in 1903 plumped for Pyrmont, which was much handier to unloading colliers.

And so, in early 1904, the council's Electricity Undertaking came into being.

By the end of 1904, although the street lighting was being extended to areas such as Kings Cross, the general population had no conception of the future uses of electricity. They still cooked on fuel stoves or with gas, they still lit gas lamps or candles in their homes, they still stoked their coppers with wood and coal, and manufacturers still used steam to drive their machinery.

The task of converting Sydney to electricity wasn't made any easier by the fierce competition from the Australian Gas Light Company (the AGL), which, in an effort to preserve its monopoly, began a smear campaign, hinting that electricity was dangerous and leaked through the ground, despite the fact that it was quite the opposite - gas was the one that leaked.

The First World War caused major supply problems due to non-delivery of equipment that had been purchased in Germany. But the Undertaking, by then headed by an able, dour Scot called Forbes Mackay - the true father of Sydney electricity - muddled through until new generators arrived in the early 1920s, and the power lines began to snake out into the suburbs.

In 1934 the SCC famous cookery demonstrations had begun, compered by "radio uncles" - the equivalent of John Laws and Alan Jones today. Ladies in hats and gloves were invited to these cookery demonstrations in church halls and other venues around Sydney where they watched scones being baked in electric ovens and partook of what the promoters described as a "cheery afternoon tea party."

Fleets of repair vans plied the suburbs, and door-knocking salesmen exhorted Mrs Sydney to show them her kitchen. Once in the kitchen, the salesman would pull out a plan of an ultra-modern "all-electric kitchen" and try to sign up the housewife.

In 1936 the Electricity Undertaking was abolished, and a new entity, called the Sydney County Council, elected by Sydney's councils, took over, moving into its new Headquarters in the Queen Victoria Building.

(It is of interest in passing that the fact that the SCC's headquarters was in the QVB later saved it from demolition, when the city council, abetted by Harry Seidler, wanted to replace it with an underground carpark).

The Second World War saw the SCC do its “bit”. But after the war, when demand rose but capacity did not there was a severe crisis and blackouts began to disrupt Sydney.

I can recall as a young child that the blackouts would hit our house in Roseville usually around dinnertime. "That dratted Mr Conde!" my mother would curse, as she rummaged through the cupboard under the sink for the candles. The Mr Conde my mother was cursing was Harold Conde, who had been appointed the Emergency Electricity Commissioner. He was a much-maligned man, for in reality it was he who did more than anyone to solve the problem of the blackouts that plagued post-war Sydney.

1952 saw the SCC stripped of its generating role with the establishment of the NSW Electricity Commission. (Bunnerong had not been a success as it was bedevilled with labour problems as were the coalfields, until the new Menzies government and right-wing labour began to turn back the tide of militancy in the union movement). From then on, however, the SCC was purely a distributor or retailer of electricity.

The next few decades were the heyday of the SCC. Electricity usage boomed, kitchens were converted, showrooms bulged with new electric appliances, and the AGL went on to the back foot.

By the 1960s new high-rise buildings were going up in the city. New highways and bridges were being built. NASA asked Sydney to switch on its lights for passing astronauts. Suburban shopping centres like Roselands and Bankstown Square were opened, and new suburbs, serviced by electricity, sprawled across the Cumberland Plain.

The SCC grew too, moving in 1963 to its present building on the corner of Bathurst and George Streets. (The QVB had by then been saved). The authority installed its first computer, bought from IBM for 223,500 pounds. It had 1 Megabyte of RAM, and a new building was bought next door in Pitt Street to house its systems and network.

The Opera House opened. The New Cahill and Warringah Expressways were lit by the SCC, and fluorescent lights began to replace the old globe lamps in the streets.

In the 1970s, Sydney lit up for another Royal visit, a Papal tour, and the Bicentenary celebrations of Cook's landing, which as we now know from Banks' journal in the Mitchell Library, was also the 200th anniversary of electricity coming to Sydney.

Charles and Diana got married in July 1981, causing a power surge in Sydney at 9pm equivalent to 600,000 electric jugs being turned on.

By 1979 the SCC was taking 41 per cent of the State Electricity Commission's output. But the 1980s were a decade of uncertainty for the SCC, with talk of privatisation, and a threat from the gas fields in South Australia. The AGL, in a stroke of marketing brilliance, invented the term "natural gas" and began to make a comeback in power supply and distribution.

In 1989 the State Government began steps to take over the SCC, which had become a very profitable organisation. An initial levy on the SCC of $500 million went into State Govt coffers, and from then on an annual levy was imposed.

After a cursory inquiry, the Curran Report recommended corporatisation. The aldermen who ran the SCC resisted this, at least initially. By 1991 a new statutory authority, Sydney Electricity, was created and, though aldermen still had a role, the government now had the whip hand. The days of aldermanic – i.e. public - control were numbered.

Yet in fact Sydney Electricity was a short-lived entity. The authority was now on the path to full privatisation. From that time on it reported directly to the Minister, and its business was (and is) conducted behind closed doors.

In 1996 the recently elected Carr Government merged Sydney Electricity with Orion Energy, based in the Newcastle-Hunter region to create ENERGY AUSTRALIA.  Sydney Electricity's board was sacked. A new team mainly from Orion, took charge.

And today Energy Australia is just one of many sellers of energy in NSW, which, ironically, now includes the AGL.

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This is an edited extract of a talk delivered to the Union Club, Sydney, on July 13, 2004.

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About the Author

Sandra Jobson studied history at the University of Sydney. After graduating she became a journalist and was a reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and later, the Australian. She went to England and wrote the first biography of Lady Ottoline Morrell (Chatto & Windus). She is the author of six other published books and one unpublished book, Power for the People: a History of Electricity in Sydney. She now helps run an internet company.

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