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Eden Grove’s Electric Lighting Station: We look back at pioneering power plant that served Islington for 73 years

PUBLISHED: 12:39 24 October 2017 | UPDATED: 17:10 25 October 2017

The engine room at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The engine room at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

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A London council hasn’t set up an energy supplier for more than 100 years – but last week, Islington launched Angelic Energy, a not-for-profit provider designed to help those in poverty cope with soaring energy prices. The Gazette looks back to when the council first began supplying Islington’s energy, in 1896.

The boiler house at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe boiler house at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

Red brick walls, poky windows, and a main entrance that looks little more than the front of a house.

That’s how the Holloway Press described Islington’s electricity station in 1934. Hardly a fitting tribute to a station that was only the third in London to supply power from a local council.

The Eden Grove station, off Holloway Road, was opened in March 1896 by the Islington vestry – an old name for a council – in what appeared to be a fierce demonstration of the north-south divide.

While many south London councils had adopted a Libraries Act that saw them open up to four libraries each, the districts of the north rejected it, instead choosing, according to a Gazette article from 1896, “to seek its light, not in literature, but electricity”.

The electricity showroom in Holloway Road, where people could buy household electricals such as cookers and lights. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe electricity showroom in Holloway Road, where people could buy household electricals such as cookers and lights. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The three districts with a municipal lighting system – Hampstead, St Pancras, and now Islington – were all north of the river.

The station’s main responsibility was to supply electrical street lighting, a relatively revolutionary feat. Before the lights were electrified in 1906, the 333,000 people and 120 miles of streets that made up Islington relied on gas lamps to navigate the area.

“To produce electricity en masse for such a large area was quite pioneering,” said Mark Aston of Islington’s local history centre.

“Electric street lighting was a much cleaner power, better for the environment, and more efficient.”

The main switchboard at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe main switchboard at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The borough was smaller than the Islington of today, stretching from Archway to Angel, and about two miles across. The street lighting circuit was made up of arc lamps, which, while more efficient than gas, weren’t entirely reliable. “Arc lamp scouts” were employed to patrol the streets at night, checking the lights were on.

The station also supplied mains electricity to houses. At first, only the wealthier homes could afford it. At its opening, the station had six miles of mains wires and 166 consumers.

But by 1936, the station had more than 40,000 consumers and 161 miles of mains. One of its most famous users was the Collins’ Music Hall on Islington Green, now a Waterstones, which burnt down 11 years before the station’s closure.

The station’s final duty was to recharge accumulators brought from people’s homes. Charging one shilling for a battery – about £3 in today’s money – made it a profitable venture, but problems with identifying which batteries belonged to who were common.

The right-hand side of the engine room at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History CentreThe right-hand side of the engine room at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

A letter to the station from Sgt J R Clements of Holloway on November 4, 1920, read: “Dear Sir, I have been in the habit since last December of leaving my accumulator once or twice a week at the Lighting Station for charging. I left it with you on October 5th and on returning for it was told that it had been given out by mistake for someone else’s. Would you kindly give this matter your earliest possible attention as the loss of the battery is holding up the running of my motorcycle.”

The station remained open throughout both wars, but met its end in 1969. Despite modernising several times with up-to-date boilers, including one of the first oil-fired boilers used in Britain for electrical generation in 1926, it was closed on April 25 by Islington mayor Richard Trott.

By the end of the station’s 73-year tenure, it was only generating electricity at periods of national peak demand, and was supplying directly to the national grid instead of local homes.

In an article in the Gazette from April 1969, a spokesperson for the South Eastern Region of the Central Electricity Generating Board said: “We are closing down quite a few smaller, older stations because they are uneconomical to run, mainly because of their age.

An invitation to the opening ceremony at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove, from 1896. Picture: Islington Local History CentreAn invitation to the opening ceremony at Islington's electricity centre, in Eden Grove, from 1896. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“They have been operating very much longer than they [were] intended to.”

By the ’70s, the majority of electricity in homes was being supplied by national providers. But with the opening of Angelic Energy, Islington might soon once again be a pioneer of public energy supply.

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