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First Town in the World Illuminated by the Electric Light, 26 September 1881


Over a hundred and forty years ago, in early September 1881, the local paper reported that the borough's Lighting Committee were considering "the desirability of lighting the borough by electricity, and with this view have made arrangements with a London firm of electricians to fix two or three lamps as an experiment". The experimental lights were to be installed over the following fortnight[1]. Mr. Mellersch, a local auctioneer, sold shares in the Godalming Gas and Coke Company (Limited) on the 9th and reassured potential purchasers at the outset that "the property was not affected in the slightest by the announcement that Godalming would be illuminated very shortly with the electric light"[2].

Mr. Thomas Wood, Chairman of Dorking's Local Board, visited Godalming on the 13th and afterwards reported his findings to his own Board, saying that "the electric light was about to be tried as an experiment, with the view of its adoption for the street lighting of that town, and that arrangements had been made by some company with the proprietors of a mill for the supply of the requisite water power"[3]. The mill he referred to was R. and J. Pullman's Westbrook Mill.

At the end of the month, one of the London papers was full of praise: "... little Godalming to turn its river, the slender and rippling Wey, into a piece of machinery, and set it, just like any other mechanical servant, to the task of lighting its streets. There will come a time when history surveys the achievements ... pages will be dedicated to how the ordinary forces of nature were first utilised for the production of electricity.
Godalming wins the prize of being first in the field, and to it and its enterprising citizens the honour must for ever be due of showing the country how to generate its own electricity without the adventitious aid of steam engines and huge, expensive furnaces of coal"[4].

Surrey Advertiser, 1 October 1881


"On Monday evening [26th Sept] the upper portion of the Borough of Godalming was lighted by electricity for a few hours as an experiment, and continued each night since, the motive power to generate the current being an auxiliary face water-wheel at the Westbrook Mills, of Messrs. Pulman Brothers, the skin dressers, who have made arrangements for lighting their mills with the Swan lights, and for the larger opens spaces with Siemans' differential lamps of 300 candle power each. Three of the latter have been erected in the town, on iron poles 22 feet high, opposite the Vicarage, another on the south side of the Town Hall, to light Ockford-road, and the third opposite the Town Clerk's office. The lighting has so far been most satisfactory, eliciting the high praise of the hundreds of persons who have nightly congregated in the street, including a good contingent from Guildford. On Wednesday the Mayor (Alderman Eager, Mr. Alderman Enticknap, Mr. Alderman Rea, and nearly all the members of the Council - Messrs. H. Bridger, S. Challen, and W. Hoar alone being absent - visited Pulman's Mills, to see the machinery at work, when a lucid explanation of the same was given by Mr. Barrett, of the firm of Calder and Barrett, who are the electricians carrying out this work. The Council have hitherto been divided upon the question of adopting the electric light in place of gas for the lighting of the town, but they were expected to arrive at some definitive conclusion last evening (Friday) when they met in committee. It is a somewhat singular fact that the contract with the Gas Company expired last evening, so that it was essential some new contract should be made, as the arrangements at Westbrook are not nearly forward enough to light the whole town from the present time. A section of the Council would have liked the contract with the Gas Company from month till month until the question was settled, but the Gas Company - who are for the time being still masters of the situation - decline to enter into any contract for a period less than three months, but have named a considerably lower price for the year's lighting of the public lamps than they received last year. No definitive price had, we understand, been named up to yesterday for the electric light although 2l. per. lamp per. hour was suggested as being near the mark. Godalming has the honour of being the first place where water has been adopted as the motive power for electrical purposes, a fact that has been made the most of in a glowing leader in the Daily Telegraph of yesterday, and the town is fully deserving of the honourable position therein accorded to it".

It was not until 12 November 1881 that the "Graphic" published its now famous black and white image of the event, shown above.

In 1981 Godalming marked the centenary one of its more celebrated achievements. A Godalming Electricity Centenary Celebrations Committee was formed and they published a sepia postcard, using another copy of the above image, to mark the event. Their version was printed by Craddock's of Godalming. On the back of the 1981 cards is the following statement:
"On 26th September 1881 Godalming became the first place in the world to have a public and private electricity supply. This illustration appeared in "The Graphic" on 12th November 1881".

"The Town of Godalming Illuminated by the Electric Light" published in "The Graphic", 12th Nov 1881, p.488.
Engraving in the collection of and provided by Ann Andrews.
Researched, written by and © Ann Andrews.
Intended for personal use only.

References (coloured links are to transcripts or more information elsewhere on this web site):

[1] "Surrey Advertiser", 5 Sept 1881. Godalming. Proposed Lighting of the Town by Electricity.

[2] "ibid", 10 Sept 1881. Commercial. Sale of Gas Shares and Cottages.

[3] "ibid", 17 Sept 1881. Dorking Local Board. The Lighting.

[4] "Daily Telegraph & Courier" (London), 30 September 1881.

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Westbrook Mills
(Pullman's Mill)

played a key role