Tamworth, the electricity town: A report from the Powerhouse Museum’s Movable Heritage Fellow for 2011

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My name is Sally Inchbold-Busby and I have had a very rewarding year working on an oral history project at the Tamworth Powerstation Museum (TPM) as recipient of the 2011 Powerhouse Museum’s Movable Heritage Fellowship. I used my experience in Tamworth to complete my final internship for my Master’s Degree in Museum Studies at the University of Sydney.
Tamworth has a remarkable industrial history. In 1888, Tamworth became the first town in the southern hemisphere to have its streets lit by a power station owned and operated by a municipal council. To celebrate the Centenary of electric street lighting in 1988, a group of electricity industry employees created Australia’s first all-electric museum. Today visitors can see a nationally significant collection that includes a working replica of the original power plant and an amazing collection of photographs, industry apparatus, light globes and electrical appliances spanning from early development to the 1960s.
The broad aim of my project is to research and collect the oral histories behind the key objects within the museum’s collections. A further outcome is the development of a publication to provide public access to previously undocumented information. I am working with Sandra McMahon who is TPM Manager and Director of the Tamworth Regional Gallery under the auspices of the Tamworth Regional Council. My brief is to develop a handbook that will take the reader through the museum’s narrative while telling the story of the Tamworth’s electricity industry – the idea being to draw out the social aspects of the story to complement the museum’s strong technical base.
During the first half of the year I set myself the task of selecting twenty-five objects on which to base the story and my oral history research. This was not an easy task as there are so many fascinating objects in the many collections at the museum. I spent considerable time getting to know the collections and the people who work with them. Because I am interested in early steam engines, I decided to focus the first part of the story on the development of the 1888 power station. From there I selected objects that represented the technological and social changes brought about by the introduction of electricity.

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1888 power plant - John Fowler engine and boiler set with replica Crompton dynamo: Image: courtesy Tamworth Powerstation Museum

Throughout the year I have worked closely with the museum’s team of volunteers, who as former employees of the industry have some great stories and a wealth of information to pass on. I have interviewed nine people who have provided insight into what it was like to work in the power station and the importance of the industry to Tamworth. The stories I have heard and will include in my publication are moving, dramatic and entertaining. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Mal Crocker recalling peak load times at the power station in the early 1950s.

I witnessed a power generation overload which was quite exciting. The engine room where the turbines were housed would vibrate at times of peak loading. Most winter mornings around 8.00am when the industry had started for the day, all the offices and shops would have their lights on. In the homes it was breakfast time which meant the jug, toaster, stove and the radiator were all drawing power at once. This was peak load time when all the machinery was operating at high demand. The engines would settle down as the morning progressed but the power station really did rock.”

I have also learnt a lot of new things. For example; As mentioned above I know why the power station shuddered on cold winter mornings and that Hotpoint irons got their name when the maker’s wife said the heat needed to focus on the tip.

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Hotpoint iron display stand, 1950s; Image courtesy of Tamworth Powerstation Museum

Through the Movable Heritage Fellowship I have been able to put into practice the understandings I gained from my studies. I have pursued my personal interest in industrial heritage while producing a publication that will be useful to the museum and its visitors. It has been particularly satisfying to develop my own project and follow it through to completion. Throughout I have been supported by the Powerhouse Museum and my colleagues in Tamworth. The development of working relationships has been very important to the success of my project. I have met some wonderful characters and have enjoyed many cups of tea. My project is due for completion later this year and I am currently working on its design. I can’t wait to see the finished product, a publication called ‘The Night The Lights Went On’.#
The Powerhouse Movable Heritage Fellowship for 2012 is now accepting applications from continuing students who would like to undertake a research project on an object or group of objects in a community museum, historical society or other collecting institution. The Fellow will receive $5,000 and spend a minimum of one week at the Powerhouse Museum working with a supervisor.

# A handbook that will take the reader through the museum’s narrative while telling the story of Tamworth’s electricity industry is being launched by Powerhouse Museum energy curator, Debbie Rudder on November 9th, 2011 in Tamworth at the Powerstation Museum.