I keep being surprised by the richness of the Island’s industrial history, but an article in an old edition of The Times (dated 30th May 1932) which described the Electrical Power Storage Co. of 84 Westferry Road as “the first battery company in the country, and possibly the world” was a more surprising discovery than most.
84 Westferry Road – opposite the old Tooke Arms – is shown on this 1890s map, but clearly the works were far greater than suggested by the postal address, occupying land between Westferry Road and the river, a site which is now occupied by Sir John McDougall Gardens.
Batteries were nothing new in Victorian times; Benjamin Franklin and others had experimented with them in the middle of the 18th century, and they were in fact the main source of electricity for most applications, before the arrival of central generating stations and mains electricity. However, these batteries were not rechargeable, and were far too large and bulky to be produced on an industrial scale.
In 1859, French physicist Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid cell, the first rechargeable battery. His early model consisted of a spiral roll of two sheets of pure lead, separated by a linen cloth and immersed in a glass jar of sulpuric acid solution.
By 1881, significant improvements to the design by Camille Alphonse Faure and others meant that the batteries were smaller and lighter, and more portable. Many entrepreneurs quickly realized there was money to be made in the manufacture of these new rechargeable batteries – for use in powering lights or electric vehicles – and different companies scrambled and fought each other over patents and manufacturing rights.
One of those companies was the Electrical Power Storage Company, founded in 1882 with offices at 4 Great Winchester Street in the City, and a factory with about 300 employees in the former Sun Engine Works on the Isle of Dogs. Its 1883 acquisition of Faure’s battery patent, in conjunction with other patents already in its possession, meant that it was the first company to be able to commercially exploit the new technology. Survey of London:
One of the first installations was at the Grand Hotel, Charing Cross, and soon E.P.S. batteries were powering lights in large buildings throughout London, including the Law Courts, the Bank of England, Lloyd’s and many theatres. London houses with E.P.S. plants included those of the dramatist W. S. Gilbert in Harrington Gardens, while Colonel Crompton of No. 23 Porchester Gardens, who claimed to have been the first householder with electric light, was soon using E.P.S. batteries.
An early customer of the company was Rudyard Kipling, who had E.P.S. installations at his homes in Rottingdean and Burwash. Electrical power in the form of a battery — a fizzing and fuming ‘big box of tanks’ with a dynamo — features in his ‘Below the Mill Dam’ of 1902 as a symbol of the modern world with which the Tory old guard has failed to come to terms.
Until the establishment of mains electricity throughout London, the Millwall works supplied temporary lighting for functions, especially during the London Season. In July 1885 the Prince of Wales gave a garden party at Marlborough House in a marquee lit using an E.P.S. battery, following which there were a number of royal clients, including Queen Victoria.
In 1883 an experimental tramway was laid down at the works to test a battery-powered tramcar, which was later given a public trial on the West Metropolitan Tramway Company’s track from Gunnersbury to Kew. This led to further trials and ultimately to the use of E.P.S. tramcars in Berlin, Vienna and Philadelphia.
A list of some of the board members, managers and engineers at the works reads like a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the fledgling days of the electrical industry in Britain:
- Bernard Mervyn Drake, Managing Engineer, went on to set up Drake & Gorham – a major firm of electrical contractors – along with..
- John Marshall Gorham, Works Manager, engineer and motorboat racer who competed in the 1908 Summer Olympics
- Hugo Hirst, Engineer, co-founder and chairman of the General Electric Company (GEC)
- William Henry Patchell, Works Manager from 1888, specialist in electrical supply and later president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers
- Edward Clark, Engineer, founder of the Hart Accumulator Company
A few notable moments in the use of their batteries (information from Grace’s Guide) :
- 1884 Demonstration of 2 electric boats on the Thames
- 1885 Successful demonstration of a battery-driven tramcar by South London Tramway Co.
- 1888 New Pullman vestibule car introduced on London-Brighton line in conjunction with a dynamo to supply electric lighting
- 1889 Demonstration of electric disc brakes powered from accumulators
- 1897 Demonstration of electric taxicabs in London
In 1915, Electrical Power Storage Co Ltd amalgamated with Pritchetts & Gold Ltd of Dagenham Dock and Feltham (a firm which was later absorbed into the Chloride Group), and the Millwall plant was moved to Dagenham, after approximately three decades of manufacturing on the Island. A logical move, as the company needed more space, and there was no room off the Westferry Road to expand. Dagenham Dock was also more convenient for ship-based supply and delivery.
Later, Sun Wharf was renamed Lollar Wharf. Most of its buildings were burnt out during World War II, but a couple of sheds which were once part of the old EPS works survived, one of which was used for storing building materials until as late as the mid-1960s when the area was cleared to make room for Sir John McDougall Gardens.
Batteries have become more important than ever in the 21st Century, powering everything from small mobile devices to large vehicles and boats. If you’re ever basking in the sun in Sir John McDougall’s Park, listening to Bucks Fizz’s Ibiza mix on your phone, dreaming of that new Tesla (smirk), remember….. you’re lying where it all started!