The Troubled Twenties 1921 - 1929
In the aftermath of the war, the need to rebuild the damage in Europe, and to take advantage of the innovations that the war had produced, increased the pace of economic development throughout the industrialised world.
In 1921, the resident engineer expressed the view that the prospect of the higher prices, introduced in 1920, was not frightening people away from electricity. He was heartened with the growth in shop lighting, having recently reconnected two shops that had been off the supply for periods of nine and eleven years respectively. The general increase in shop lighting however may well have been affected by the visit of King George V to the island in June of that year. The lighting installation to commemorate this occasion had kept the wiring section busy for ten days.
Unfortunately this situation did not last long and the period of strikes and the depression soon set in. The changes brought to the lives of people were not always easy to accept. Guernsey felt the effects as much as elsewhere. The population of some 38,000 had recently experienced the introduction of income tax at the rate of 7d for each pound of taxable income. The Reform of the States of Deliberation in 1920 had increased to eighteen the number of elected representatives, entitled " People's Deputies" but generally abbreviated to "Deputies". It had also widened the franchise to give the vote to men over the age of twenty years and to women over thirty. Also, after lengthy consideration, the States agreed in 1922 to change the legal currency by adopting the sterling pound as the monetary unit in place of the Guernsey pound.
In 1920 it had been forecast that the increased wages awarded to semi-skilled and skilled workers would not be reversed. Although they did not completely revert to pre-war levels the pressure from the depressed economy did make wages fall. For the electricity supply industry in the United Kingdom, the National Joint Industrial Council (NJIC) set the manual workers pay. Although Edmundsons Group was party to these arrangements in the United Kingdom, this was not so in Guernsey. In 1921, the NJIC agreed to three reductions in pay totalling 8s 9d per week. In 1922, two more reductions of 4s each were agreed and, from mid-1923, there was a further reduction of ½d per hour. Wiremen were not covered by the agreements but followed arrangements made by the National Federated Electrical Association. In this sector wages had not risen quite so fast, consequently the reductions were not so drastic. The engineering staff were not immune from these pressures, and in 1922 the Engineering Employers Association agreed to a three stage reduction in salaries totalling 11s 0d per week.
These changes, on there own, could probably have been absorbed without too much difficulty, but the industrial unrest and economic upheaval in Britain pre-empted this. There, the coal miner's strike in the early summer of 1921 was followed three years later by the dockworkers' strike. The miner's strike affected the price of coal in Guernsey but the dock strike had the greater effect on the economy of the island. The mail boats continued to operate but cargo boat schedules were interrupted. Stone had to be stockpiled as it could not be shipped, but the flower trade was partially rescued by Super Marine Air Services, which ran two or three flights a day carrying flowers and passengers to England. These journeys took 1 hour 10 minutes, which appealed to travellers accustomed to an overnight sea trip.
The General Strike of 1926 had a greater impact than the earlier strikes. In Guernsey it started in May when flower exports were at a high level, and it continued until the autumn. Volunteers unloaded the few vessels that did arrive, but stone could not be exported and was again stockpiled. Once more the Diesel plant at the power station had to be run to the greatest possible extent in preference to the gas sets, to counteract the impact of the high price of coal. Imported problems from abroad culminated in 1929 with the crash of the Wall Street Stock Exchange, which many claim, triggered the start of the Great Depression that continued into the thirties.
The effect of external economic upheavals on the affairs of the Guernsey Electric Light and Power Company were softened, to a limited extent, by the increase in the number of domestic consumers which followed the authority to erect overhead lines along and across roads. During the nine years under review the income from the sale of lighting units doubled to £860,000. The sale of units charged at the heating and power tariff rates rose over the same period by less than 50%, to 1.63 millions. However, these gains were offset, in part, by the annual loss of 180,000 units sold to the Guernsey Railway Company, which progressively replaced its electrically operated trams with petrol driven buses.
The twenties saw a number of notable new connections to the supply. The Town Hospital was connected in the early part of 1922 and, a few weeks later, the States accepted the Guernsey Electric Light and Power Company's quotation for equipping Beaucamp Militia Camp with electric lighting. A quotation for this work was first submitted in 1910. The Camp had been lit with paraffin lamps that were automatically fed with oil from a tank on the water tower. This system had been in operation for some twenty years and was now unserviceable. It had been a constant source of concern and never very satisfactory, despite being relatively expensive to run. To supply the new scheme, which included 244 outlets, a service cable was laid from the Castel church.
The company was also commissioned to replace the gas lamps in the market with electric lamps, and a little later a new cold storage and ice making plant was installed. The Town Arsenal was converted from oil and an extension to Bucktrout's tobacco factory (later to become the Albany offices for the States Electricity Board) was wired to accommodate an increased load. Woolworth's shop was equipped with 10 kilowatts of lighting and appliances, and the restaurant and dance hall at the Royal Hotel were fitted with extra lights. Of less significance for sales, but of interest to the local population, the Air Ministry installed a wireless station at Fort George. This enabled those members of the public with wireless sets, to listen to conversations between the Fort and Croydon Aerodrome. A connection to the St Martin's foghorn and lighthouse was of some technical interest since it was controlled from the Harbour Office, some four miles away, by a pair of wires on the telephone system. An experimental windmill, designed to generate 3 kilowatts from wind power was constructed at Albecq in early 1925, but this was not successful. The weather was not favourable, with light breezes prevalent, and only 13 units were produced in twenty-four hours. In the midsummer, the project was abandoned.
The pressure due to the shortage of generating plant in 1920 was relieved for a few years when the maximum demand remained unchanged at around 1.3 MW until 1925. This allowed time for the company to purchase, in 1922 from a disused munitions factory, two used Mirrlees Diesel generating sets that had originally been commissioned in 1915. One of these, a 250 kilowatt set was installed in St. Sampson's Power Station and the other, a 220 kilowatt set was commissioned at Les Amballes.
In 1925 there was optimism that the stone industry had survived the worst and could look forward to a more prosperous future. Mowlem's mills converted more steam plant to electricity and Griffith's plant was also being expanded. Overtime was being worked until 9pm in the late spring and the mills' managers forecast full production for the rest of the year. The number of units generated during the year climbed above 3 million for the first time.
The directors of the Guernsey Electric Light and Power Company considered alternative schemes for the expansion of the generating plant. If the stone trade continued to grow at its existing rate, the installation of a steam turbine set could be economically justified. If, on the other hand, the company could not rely on a load of around 1MW during the daytime, the addition of a large steam set would be risky. Given the confidence that was apparent in the stone trade itself, the directors decided to take the long-term view and to purchase a steam turbine set for installation at St Sampson's power station. Orders were placed for the major items and work was started on the site. At this time Les Amballes power station also was in need of more generating plant to meet the load around St. Peter Port. It was, however, decided not to extend that power station further, but to concentrate generating plant at St Sampson's, and to increase the capacity of the feeder from there to Les Amballes by changing it to alternating current.
In the midst of the economic turmoil in the twenties, the major step taken by the company, to change the generation and distribution system from dc to ac, seems to have gone largely without comment. In the latter part of the 1880's the work of Nikola Tesla, on the distribution of alternating current, significantly increased the distances over which electricity could be transmitted, opening the way for networks covering a much larger area. The world's first long distance transmission system was established between Laden and Frankfurt in 1891, but three years later the better known scheme that ran from Niagara Falls to Buffalo City, a distance of 22 miles, was started.
To introduce alternating current into Guernsey a semi-automatic substation was first constructed below the offices at 25 High Street. It was equipped with a 250kilowatt rotary converter with an automatic voltage regulator that was started and closed down by hand. A 300kilowatt reversible motor-generator set was installed at St. Sampson's power station and a similar set at Les Amballes. The ac ends consisted of synchronous alternators that were rated at 6.6 kV, 3-phase, 50 Hertz. A 6.6kV, 3-phase feeder was laid from St. Sampson's to Les Amballes, and from there the cable was extended to the rotary converter substation at 25 High Street. This work was completed in 1926, and inaugurated in November of that year by Lord Sackville, when he switched on the rotary converter at 25 High Street.
In mid-1926 an event occurred which forced the company to review its decision to install a steam generator. At that time Mr. Rye, who was not only a senior official at the Edmundsons London headquarters, but also a director of the Guernsey Electric Light and Power Company, was invited to meet the directors of Mowlem's stone works. They advised that, unless their production costs in Guernsey could be reduced, they would be forced to cease operations here and intimated that a 50% reduction in the price of electricity was required. As this request could not be met, the decision to install a steam set was reviewed, and work on preparing the site for the new plant was halted. Fortunately, the Edmundsons group was planning a similar installation in the Isle of Wight, and, as the generating set for this had not yet been ordered, the steam turbine intended for Guernsey was diverted there, the cost to Guernsey was consequently minimal. The figures produced by Mr. Rye in support of his recommendation not to proceed with the installation of a steam set demonstrated the significant impact of the stone trade on the fortunes of the company.
The directors of the Guernsey Electric Light and Power Company turned their attention to smaller types of generating plant and decided on two six-cylinder Mirrlees Diesel sets fitted with GEC alternators, each with an output of 410 kilowatts at 6.6kV. These were the first ac sets to be installed in Guernsey and marked the end of the period in which all generation had been from dc sets. Additional land was acquired at St Sampson's, along the western side of the Hougue Jehannet, and on it was built a new engine hall, 86 ft by 40ft, capable of accommodating four of the new style sets. The new building was joined to the old by a control room, that continued in operation for some 50 years. The two 410 kW generating sets were commissioned in 1927 and 1929 in this new engine room.
Meanwhile, a certain amount of clearing was undertaken in the two power stations. The 100ft chimney at Les Amballes was demolished and written off, it had remained in the accounting records at its original cost of £950. Also written off were the two steam sets, the Daniell Gas Producer set and the battery installation. At Les Amballes the old boiler room was converted into the main stores and a lorry shed, and the old battery room into a general store. The original high voltage and low voltage switchboards, commissioned in 1907, and the cooling towers and associated pipe work were also dismantled. As a result of these plant additions and redundancies the generating capacity at the end of 1929 exceeded 2½ MW.
The introduction of the first 410 kW Diesel set resulted in all of the electricity in the month of May 1928 being generated from oil at a higher level of efficiency, the new plant using only 0.6 lb of oil per unit of output. The set was run for 17 hours a day and after a period of three weeks, an inspection was carried out and the valve gear found to be in perfect working order.
Even before this, a comparison with other similar power stations in England showed the generating efficiency in Guernsey in a very favourable light. In 1922, the Electricity Commission in England was collating statistics from generating stations. Although they did not publish full league tables, they issued to the owners of each group, the tables of their own stations, and also the names of the top stations in the country. In the first year, the Guernsey company came third in the country in overall efficiency in the table classified by output, and second in the class of stations using similar fuels. In the following year, ending March 31st 1923, Guernsey came first with a thermal efficiency of 16.5% and in the year ending March 31st 1924, the efficiency had increased to 19.1%. Unfortunately, publication of the tables appears to have ceased after this.
With the expansion of the generating plant, there was a need to enhance the distribution network. Now consumers in the more distant areas were being supplied with electricity through overhead lines, it was necessary to augment the associated distribution network to transmit the additional load. The commitment to the ac system having been made, it was decided that at the same time that the distribution system was enhanced, preparations should be made for the changeover of consumers services. A 6.6 kV, 3-phase feeder was laid in 1926/27 from the High Street substation to the substation at Richmond Avenue, where a 60-watt mercury arc rectifier was installed for the conversion of delivered ac power to the dc supply required by consumers. A second 300kilowatt motor-generator set was installed at St. Sampson's power station and in 1928, a further 500kilowatt rotary converter was commissioned at Les Amballes power station.
The last working Mercury Arc Rectifier at Les Amballes
At this point, all of the St. Peter Port load, about 850 kilowatts, could be transmitted from St. Sampson's. The 200 kilowatts gas producer generating set at Les Amballes, was transferred to St. Sampson's, leaving only 410 kilowatts of old Diesel generating plant.
To improve the supply in the Trinity Square area, a new substation was established and equipped with a 900 kilowatts Brown Boveri mercury arc rectifier. Before being allowed to construct this building, an assurance had to be given that it would not obstruct the view from Victoria Homes. The supply to St. Martin's parish was improved by the construction of another substation, equipped with a 150 amp Hewittic mercury arc rectifier that Edmundsons transferred from Sandown in the Isle of Wight.
The report of the installation inspector at the end of 1929 described the undertaking in detail. At St. Sampson's power station there were three Diesel and three gas producer dc generating sets, having a total capacity of 1,445 kW. There were also the two new ac Diesel generating sets with a combined output of 820 kilowatts. At Les Amballes power station there were the three old Diesel dc generating sets. The distribution network then comprised a total of 83 miles of cable of which 13 miles was high voltage and 70 miles low voltage. There were 2,059 consumers connected, with a load of more than 8.5 MW. During the year nearly 3.25 million units had been generated, the maximum demand being 1.66 MW.
In the early part of the twenties, Edmundsons head office reminded managers of their obligation to connect to the supply any applicant whose property was situated not more than 50 yards from a distribution main. They were also obliged to pay the costs involved in laying up to 60 feet of this service on a public thoroughfare, the remaining costs to be recovered from the applicant. These requirements were later enshrined in the law in Guernsey. The group headquarters also drew attention to the requirement that all meters should be tested every three years, and the limits of error were to be as specified by the Electric Lighting Act in Great Britain.
To finance the major works undertaken during this period, the Guernsey Electric Light and Power Co. issued a further 100,000 ordinary shares at their nominal value of £1 each; all of them being taken up by Edmundsons. The finances of the local company were by this time becoming healthier. The increases in the tariff, allowed by the 1919 amendment to the Law, coupled with the growing number of consumers, produced sufficient revenue for a realistic amount to be put aside for the replacement of equipment.
The level of profit of the company was helped by the returns from the wiring section. This had operated for many years on a very tight margin, necessary to encourage people to install electricity in their premises by keeping costs down. For several years it had operated at a loss, and at only a small profit in the better years. A growing volume of work, following the rise in interest in the use of electricity to light homes and offices, was accompanied by the availability of an increased range of more efficient appliances. This led to the situation in which it was less important to restrict the profit margin for wiring work. As a result, the twenties saw an average level of profit of £700 per annum from the section. Not all of this came from consumers on the company's network. The work of the wiring section included installation of some private plants that were still being installed in the outlying districts of Guernsey. They were also being installed in the other islands of the Bailiwick. Mr Compton MacKenzie on Herm, and Stocks Hotel on Sark were just two of several residents of those two islands who called upon the wiring services of the company.