For the past few months, I have been working on the second stage of our project with Lotherton Hall, part of Leeds Museums and Galleries. This project is funded by the Creative and Cultural Industries Exchange and inspired by Professor Graeme Gooday’s Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880-1914.
Lighting homes electrically became possible in the late 19th century, following the invention of incandescent carbon-filament bulbs suitable for use in domestic settings and technological improvements in dynamo generators. However, the success of domestic electricity relied on homeowners being convinced that this was a safe, reliable and desirable technology.
Promoters of electric lighting faced issues such as safety fears and objections to the garish and unflattering nature of electric light; problems which were exacerbated by the then still uncertain scientific nature of electricity. Clever advertising which anthropomorphized electricity as an obedient helper, publications advising on how to make electric light aesthetically pleasing, and the introduction of new safety regulations all featured as strategies in the challenging and slow process by which electric light was integrated into domestic settings.
Lotherton Hall, near Aberford, is an Edwardian country home that was owned by the Gascoigne family before it was donated to Leeds City Council in 1968. Frederick Trench Gascoigne and his wife Laura Gwendolen inherited Lotherton in 1893. Making it their family home, the couple began a series of extensions and home improvements.
These included the installation of a private electric generating plant in 1903, which consisted of a dynamo generator powered by a 15 h.p. Blackstone & Co oil engine, and 53 glass storage cells. This addition made Lotherton one of the first houses in the Leeds area to be lit electrically. Never having had a gas supply, prior to this the house was lit by candles and oil lamps. A number of the original electric light fittings – many of which were designed by the London based Perry & Co – are still lighting the house today.
The main aim of this project was to engage a wider audience with academic research in the history of science by contributing to the interpretation and events programme offered by Lotherton Hall. The first part of the project, Lights on at Lotherton was for school groups, while this second stage is aimed at adults and families.
The outcomes include:
- An interpretation panel (soon to be installed outside the Servants Gallery) and ‘Find out more’ information sheet on the introduction of electricity to Lotherton Hall and domestic settings in general.
- A digital story based on an oral history interview with relatives of an engineer and electrician who was employed by the Gascoignes at Garforth Colliery and at Lotherton.
- An Early Electricity at Lotherton Hall house trail using objects from around the house to explore the issues raised by Graeme’s research.
- A talk by Graeme as part of Lotherton’s Adult Learning programme.
Biz Horne has also produced a short comic about the Gascoigne family and their staff might have reacted to the introduction of electricity at Lotherton Hall.
The talk took place on the 24th May, and a video can be seen below.
The event seemed to be a success. Half of the attendees asked had visited Lotherton Hall before, but none had previously been to one of their Adult Learning Programme events. They all said they would attend a similar event in the future. Everyone agreed that the talk was understandable and accessible, and for most the afternoon changed the way they think about the history of electricity, suggesting that the aim of engaging a wider audience with Graeme’s research was achieved. The comments we received on the feedback forms were very positive, and showed that people particularly appreciated the fact that the talk was held in historically relevant surroundings;
- “Having the talk in this venue helped to make the subject matter interesting and add to the atmosphere.”
- “Excellent, interesting & thought-provoking talk. Great venue and very well organised – perhaps one of the best public talks I’ve been to given the content and location (and thank you for the hospitality…tea & cakes). Nice to attend an event in a heritage location.”
- “An excellent, accessible talk in a beautiful setting; being in the house made a real difference.”