I was doing a visit to Ely Place in the City of London and will write about that later as it is an interesting tale, but this posting is about a “manhole cover” I saw in the pavement on that road. It was marked with “Electricity Supply” and a company name CLES Co Ltd. I noticed it as it looked older in design than more modern pavement covers, so took the following photo and did a bit of hunting.

 manhole cover

Dear old Google was not that helpful – initially, but I eventually worked out that CLES stands for the County of London Electricity Supply, one of London’s earliest decent sized electricity companies, and here is a (very) brief tale of electricity in London.

Following the first experimental electricity supply – to a gallery on Bond Street, the Electric Lighting Act on 1882 was passed by Parliament which allowed local councils to grant concessions to electricity companies to provide supplies within their council boundaries. The leases were for very short time frames, which hindered investment and the law was quickly changed to allow for longer, more financially viable leases to be granted. The advantage of the local authority lease was that it included the rights to dig up pavements and roads to lay the necessary cables.

At the time the leases were extended, the law was also changed to allow an operator to spread beyond the single local authority they were formed in. It was this change which lead to the merging of small electricity suppliers, and the County of London Electricity Supply came into beginning. The company dominated the Eastern London supplies – while the London Power Company supplied Western London.

Supplies in London remained very localised with small generating plants in each local authority, but in 1900 a large power station in Deptford was opened which supplied electricity to a large swathe of London. Alas, it was a technical failure and London retained local generators for several decades longer until technology had developed to support long distance supplies.

It’s difficult to be sure without digging around at the National Archives (etc), but considering that power generation was very close to the users, and that Ely Place is right next to the Holborn Viaduct – it is possible that the supply to the expensive row of Georgian houses could have come from the generating station at 57 Holborn Viaduct. This is significant as that is claimed to have been the world’s first public power station, owned by the infamous Edison Electric Company. It was opened in 1882 – and the modern Ely Place would have existed then.

Incidentally, early light bulbs used Japanese bamboo inside the bulb as filaments!

You can see an image below of the power station – note the tunnel which ran under the pavement, with the shop front on the “top floor” of the building, facing onto Holborn, while the “ground floor” was accessed from Snow Hill and the steam powered generator was on the ground floor.

57 Holborn Viaduct

An interesting tangent is that apparently, as the power plant was not part of a licensed electricity supplier, Edison did not have permission to dig up the roads to lay his cables. His decision to put the power station on the Holborn Viaduct was motivated by the presence under the road of those large service tunnels, so he didn’t have to dig up any roads. I was originally researching these very same tunnels a couple of years ago and am still interested in their history.

The image below shows a side cutting of Holborn, which may explain why it interests me so much.

Holborn Viaduct

Finally, in 1926 the Central Electricity Authority was created to set up a national grid and standardise the power supply. Lots of the small local generating stations were closed down in favour of larger more efficient power stations. The CLES was finally merged into the London Electricity Board in the 1947 nationalisation and ceased to exist as an identifiable entity.

Museum of London

British History

South-Western Electricity Historical Society

EV World

The William J. Hammer Historical Collection of Incandescent Lamps


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  1. Matt says:

    Excellent piece, Ian. I’ve not seen that bottom image before. I’m trying to get my bearings. Is the view from the Eastern end of Holborn Viaduct (rather than Holborn itself), looking east to St Sepulchre and Newgate? (With the Viaduct tavern at the centre of picture.)

  2. IanVisits says:

    The view is on High Holborn itself, facing towards Holborn tube station.

    The large building on the left is the former Pearl Assurance building – now a hotel.

    Bits of the early pneumatic railway which runs in the very center under the road still exist – although derelict.

  3. Matt says:

    Aha, gotcha. I was thrown by that tall spire. Is that supposed to be St Giles, seemingly out of scale, or is it a long-lost church?

  4. IanVisits says:

    It is St Giles Church.

    It is a trait of Victorian prints to exagerate the scale of notable buildings and structures.

    When trawling around the archives, I have to remember that as looking at a picture can be very exciting, until I get to the venue only to find out that it is a fraction of the size I was expecting.

    I have seen a drawing of the service tunnels which would imply that they are over two stories high – which they are (alas) not. However, the image fitted with the propoganda of the time to promote the glory of Victorian engineering.

  5. Ian Wills says:

    I don’t understand the reference to “the infamous Edison Electric Company”. Maybe you meant “famous”.

    Given that Edison created the concept of electrical power as a utility, invented most of the original components like generators, cables and circuit breakers (but not the electric lamp, then again neither did Swan) the term “infamous” is hardly justifiable.

    Friedel, Robert, and Paul Israel. 1987. Edison’s electric light: Biography of an invention. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

    Hughes, Thomas P. 1983. Networks of power : Electrification in Western society 1880 – 1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

    (Hughes has an excellent account of the electrification of London.)

  6. George Allan says:


    I realise this thread dates back nearly 10 years, but I’ve found it very interesting.

    The location you have ascribed to the power station seems to me to be wrong. It was at 57 Holborn Viaduct – not High Holborn, 1/2 mile to the west. The second image is a cross-section through the Viaduct looking east, towards Newgate Street. Clearly visible are St Sepulchre’s church and, more distantly, the tower of Christchurch Newgate Street. The building housing the power station no longer exists, as do St Sepulchre and Christchurch tower. The buildings on the corner of Newgate St also still exist although the view to Christchurch has been lost through development.

    History repeated itself in the 1990s when the City Corporation backed the creation of a combined heat & power station in a redundant cold store in nearby Charterhouse Street, to supply many nearby buildings (including the Barbican Arts Centre) with heat and electricity, along ducts very similar to those under Holborn Viaduct. There is a press release here about its recent (2014) re-equipment: http://www.energyforlondon.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/citigenpressreleaseii_2.pdf

    kind regards

  7. Hugh Moules says:

    I suggest “CLES Co Ltd” refers to the “County of London Electric Supply Company Limited”, which, having been incorporated on 30 June 1891, assumed that name in 1904. It supplied parts of the City of London, and whole or parts of Finsbury, Holborn, Shoreditch, St Pancras, Southwark, Bermondsey, Wandsworth, Lambeth, Camberwell, Deptford, Lewisham as well as large areas in Essex and Surrey; it also provided bulk supplies of electricity to a number of other undertakings. The Company was vertically integrated and owned and operated power stations at Barking and Wandsworth. It had extensive subsidiary and associated companies which supplied and distributed electricity in South-East England and had a network of local showrooms. The Company was nationalised by the Electricity Act 1947 and its undertaking passed into public ownership on 1 April 1948 by being vested in the boards which had been established for that purpose. I beg to disagree with your use of the term “merged”, which I regard as inaccurate to describe what actually occurred.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Early Electricity Supplies in London"
  1. […] the address of the shop quite strongly – as it would have been just a few doors down from the first electricity generator for public use in London, which powered street lighting in the Holborn area. Hanging onto the […]

  2. […] Early Electricity Supplies in London […]

  3. […] and prospered.For more on the early history of London’s electricity generation, see this blog post by Ian Visits.Photo credits:Battersea Power Station by curry15 via the Londonist FlickrpoolTate Modern by Eva […]

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