Thursday 7 November 2019

Deptford Power and Pride


Dedicated to the memory of Roy Bourne, IEE

Article by Mari Taylor.

The story of a unique archive retrieval from a skip on Deptford Creek

During 1991 and 1992 the remaining abandoned structures on a square mile site at Deptford Creek were dynamited in a series of dramatic demolitions.  Deptford West station had long since gone. What remained to be cleared were Deptford East’s chimney stack, boiler house, its “ Alhambran Arches” and outlying administrative offices and buildings.  The Deptford power plants, which together had formed London’s biggest power station, had employed thousands; played an important social and economic role locally and marked the beginning of a technological revolution that has changed for ever the nature of electrical production across the globe.

The first Deptford Power station, later known as Deptford East, was the brain-child of electrical engineering genius Sebastian de Ferranti.

Exactly a hundred years after a defeated Ferranti had left the station, (defeated by investors’ nervousness and a biased government inquiry), I was making video recordings of the remaining buildings; and of the stages of their demolition.  I also interviewed ex-shop-floor workers to record for posterity what life had been like at “The Light”, as the power station was affectionately known locally. More extraordinarily, I found myself retrieving archive material about the running of the power station from industrial skips. 

I have had this archive material, which I have been told is an important collection, and, because of difficulties placing it in the “right” place, it has been in my cellar ever since  !! 

I certainly knew very little about coal powered stations when I embarked on my mission to preserve a video record of a disappearing generation of people and industry that had contributed so much to my local area. My regular hectic job schedule then included teaching video in community projects. 

Whatever spare time, cash and energy I had I put into getting the Power Station story down on tape. Time and resources were pressurized.  Attempts to get grant aid for the undertaking were not successful. I had to beg, borrow or buy tape and equipment myself. I videoed first and did the research piecemeal as I went along. I was constantly frustrated by lack of proper resources and how much more I could achieve if I had had them.  As a consequence of having to use whatever I could get hold of the recordings span three separate format – Hi-8, Super VHS and Betacam.  An obvious choice now is to digitalize all, but that would incur considerable costs.

I recorded before, after and during the dynamiting of Deptford East (including the archeological dig on the East India Company and medieval site under the power station) and made fast friends with Jim Rice who was photographing the site to a similar schedule.  Jim tipped me off about skips full of archive material which was about to be cleared off the site after demolition.  I traced the owners and got their permission to remove some of this after I assured them nothing mentioning asbestos appeared to be there.  They gave me 48 hours.  I frantically tried to contact local history groups and libraries – but it was a Friday afternoon and the people I spoke to have procedures and conventions that take much longer than the required “immediate response team” would.

Which is why my friends Helen, Alison and myself did our best alone and retrieved what, in our self conscious ignorance, might be of importance.  At one stage we were in the huge industrial skip shoveling “archives” with spades that the workmen had lent us.  The workmen were highly amused by our efforts but they did more than laugh.  They actually emptied one skip of paperwork into another to make it easier for us to shovel through !!

A small article about it in the South London Press brought retired engineer and researcher Roy Bourne to my aid.  Roy was a committee member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers with a special interest in Deptford Power Station.  He looked at the archive collection and was very excited about it.  His efforts to help me place this material in exchange for resources to continue with my videoing work were also frustrated.  Unfortunately in 1995 I fell seriously ill for several years and when I was well enough to try and pick up the quest Roy himself had become ill.  Sadly he died and I lost a valuable mentor and friend.  My own continuing ill health has to date thwarted finding a satisfactory resolution to placing of the archives to my satisfaction.

As Roy was an authority on electrical engineering I quote his description in a letter to Colin Hampstead of the Institute of Electrical Engineering regarding placing my archive. 

Extracts of letter from Roy Bourne to Colin Hampstead of the Institute of Electrical Engineers 1st July 1998
“Mari Taylor had achieved a remarkable rescue of a selection from the whole of Deptford power station documentation which was on the point of being dumped and lost for ever. Any decision made about the documents needs to be an informed one and I believe that I am the only engineer to have looked at them. We will be harshly judged by our successors if we make the wrong decision. …… There seem to be two issues to be resolved relating to the documents.  One is the importance of Deptford power station post-Ferranti and the other is the historic value of the documents themselves.  On the first issue we would all agree that anybody following Ferranti was bound to be somewhat overshadowed in the popular view, but from the informed technical view Deptford was fortunate in having outstanding engineers and their actual achievements provided some historic landmarks…..Ferranti’s immediate successor was D’Alton who had the job of making the plant run efficiently to supply the load then on offer.  He installed smaller direct-coupled triple-expansion engine/alternator sets for the day-time load and got the whole of the condensing plant in use.
D’Alton’s successor was G.W. Partridge, acknowledged to be one of the outstanding engineers of the day.  He ended his career as technical director of the London Power Company (LPC).  The pioneering work on switching surges was done at Deptford by Partridge and continued by Duddell.  Partridge was widely consulted on switchgear and switching problems. He remained at Deptford until the LPC was formed when Leonard Pearce took over as engineer-in-chief to the new company which acquired the power stations of the ten constituent companies.
Pearce’s first design for the LPC was Deptford West power station which first sent out power in 1929. It was designed to supply the whole of central London (in parallel with selected local stations) so Ferranti’s plan for Deptford was fulfilled within his lifetime by Pearce.  More plant was added until 1936, by which time flue-gas desulphurisation plant had been installed.  From then onwards Deptford (East and West together) became London’s largest power station (despite the popular view that Battersea held this position).
Some of the notable historic achievements were: continuous generation on one site for 94 years; simultaneous generation and dispatch of power at three different frequencies; use of the largest frequency changer and the largest single-phase machines in the country; the first power station to supply the LCC tramways (in 1904); the first power station to supply a main-line railway in southern England (the LB&SCR in 1909); the first (1920) and subsequently principal power source of the SE&CR railway electrification which expanded to become the largest suburban electric railway system.
On the issue of the importance of the documents themselves and how they compare with the existing IEE archive, particularly Croydon, the following points should be made.  One obvious difference is that the Croydon archive relates to post-nationalisation while the Deptford archive relates to pre-nationalisation.
The material in the two archives is completely different.  The Croydon collection contains some control-room log books but mainly comprises manufacturers’ manuals for the plant they supplied.  The dates of these documents are such that their contents are familiar to power-station engineers of my generation, hence they are unlikely to be looked at for another generation.
The Deptford archive is a mixture of technical, social and economic material.  Employee records and stores purchases would be of interest to the social and economic historian.  …………There is a random selection of log books of readings which would have been taken on the turbine-room and boiler-house floors by hand (before the days of automatic data logging).  By good fortune one of the years preserved is 1947 when the industry went through its greatest crisis in its whole history.  This crisis has not been adequately covered by any historian and I myself am keen to study these logs for London’s largest power station with the prospect of writing a paper. I have looked at all power-station documents I could find in any archives in the country and have never found any like these Deptford documents showing the actual performance of the plant………………………
On the historic value of videos of power station employees it is relevant that when Bill Aspray visited this country the S7 committee was enthusiastic about making sound recordings of eminent retired electrical engineers.  I believe this is very important work but you may not get the information you expect from a chief engineer………………….
I believe that video recordings of shop floor personnel who actually ran the plant can be as significant as anything the chief engineer might say.  Your own investigation into retired engineers’ careers showed that shop-floor experience was valuable…………………..


It is almost certain that the Deptford videos are unique…………………………                              

Further details of Mari’s story of Deptford Power Station in a future issue.

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