Power to the people

by Val Polley
7th December 2015

SIXTY years ago this December 23, the electricity supply was finally extended to Warrandyte.

Can you imagine how wonderful that must have been? We take our electricity supply so much for granted whether it’s for lighting, cooking, heating or cooling or running the many and varied electronic devices so essential to modern living.

Imagine houses that had to rely on kerosene lamps for lighting, kerosene or ice-block fridges for cooling food, combustion stoves for cooking and open fires for heating? Then imagine being able to flick a switch to undertake these tasks. It was revolutionary.

Yet Warrandyte had to wait a long time to become connected. Many areas surrounding it, such as Eltham and Doncaster, had an electricity supply long before Warrandyte.

Up until the establishment of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) in the early 1920s under the chairmanship of Sir John Monash, various small private and municipal companies had provided electricity to different areas. Warrandyte was not one of them. The general push initially was to have good street lighting. There were three street lamps in Warrandyte requiring a measured amount of fuel to light and the services of a lamplighter.

It was generally felt the lack of electricity was holding the town back. In 1924 a newspaper reported Warrandyte as one of the worst lighted districts. Pressure for connection mounted and all through the mid-to-late 1920s there were various deputations and agitation to have the supply extended to Warrandyte.

In 1926 when arguing for connection, Councillor Angela Booth pointed out Warrandyte was only 18 miles from Melbourne and the district had grown rapidly. She was given to understand, however, that projected revenue was too small and the distance too great. For whatever reason, no electricity supply was forthcoming at that time. In that year the Warrandyte Progress Association was very active in trying to get a hydro-electric plant established using the Pound Bend tunnel. However, a civil engineering investigation found that the capital cost of establishing this would be greater than that of providing a transmission line.

That had already been deemed too costly. The SECV also would not support any undertaking that might involve it in future expense. The commission’s policy was to set electricity prices according to the cost of providing supply. In 1927 a guaranteed annual revenue of £A520 (approx $40,000 in today’s currency) was sought from township residents within a two mile radius.

This, however, was found to be too high a cost for the relative size of the town and after surveying residents, the Doncaster Council reported such a guarantee could not be obtained. Some deputations continued but nothing definite emerged.

By early 1935 discussions between the commission and Eltham and Doncaster and Templestowe councils were taking place about an electricity supply to Warrandyte. The commission was reported to be anxious to install lighting. Each council was asked how many street lights it would support (Eltham three, Doncaster and Templestowe 12-14) which together with strong consumer support from within the community meant the cost of supply would be defrayed.

By October the SECV had made the decision to supply electricity to Warrandyte. Advertisements soon appeared in local papers for the supply of electrical appliances. Work on the scheme was well underway by November with completion expected by that Christmas.

On December 23 in 1935 Warrandyte became the 285th town to be supplied by the SECV. A well attended of official ceremony was held to switch on the supply. This was performed by W.H. Everard, local member and speaker of the Legislative Assembly. He praised the work of Sir John Monash and thanked the SECV for expediting the system before the commencement of the Christmas holiday season.

‘Let there be light’ was the apt heading in the Hurstbridge Advertiser on 3 January 1936. It reported over 30 Warrandyte subscribers had the supply installed at their properties. The Doncaster and Templestowe shire had provided 10 lights in Main Street and Eltham Council three road lights on Kangaroo Ground Road. While considered a good beginning, the road lights were thought to be too far apart and that more would be required to make the scheme a success. Over time the supply was gradually extended outwards though it was many years later before some of the more far-flung properties in the area were connected. It was the 1960s before the SECV turned to equalisation of tariffs, which meant rural areas were not so disadvantaged cost wise and more remote areas were serviced. The SECV continued operations until 1993 when it was broken up and sold to private companies under the government of Jeff Kennett.

Now wind and solar power are ever increasing elements in the supply of electricity. However, no matter how the power is generated electricity is a major part of modern life. It is indeed very difficult to imagine a life without the capacity to obtain lighting, heating and cooling and so many other necessities of daily living without it.

And as the Christmas lights are switched on in December to sparkle and glow, surely those early residents who fought so hard for its supply 60 years ago are worth a thought – and our thanks. Enjoy the festive season.