The strong, fast running streams of the Yorkshire Dales have long been harnessed as a source of power. Medieval corn mills were joined by Tudor fulling mills and then 18th century cotton and woollen mills. The middle of the 19th century saw most of the village textile and corn mills going out of business. Competition from larger mills elsewhere and the arrival of first the canal and then the train all saw to the general decline. Mill owners began to look for other sources of income, and some had already replaced their water wheels with more efficient turbines, capable of producing an electricity supply. The demonstration in 1879 of the first practical incandescent electric light bulb by Joseph Swan, meant that domestic and commercial electric lighting was an affordable possibility.
Perhaps the earliest hydroelectric plant in the Dales was a private supply put in by the Farrers on their Ingleborough estate in Clapham. In 1893, the water turbine and dynamo in the estate saw mill was used to provide street and house lighting in the village.
A more commercial enterprise followed in Wharfedale. The first power house was built over one of the sluices belonging to Linton Mill sometime around 1900. The Grassington Electric Supply Company was formed in 1909 and a year later, Grassington Parish Council had replaced its 24 street oil lamps with electric ones. New generating plant was bought in the 1920s and a new power house built. The site supplied power to the area until nationalisation in 1948.
Several village electricity supplies were set up in Wensleydale. West Mill in Askrigg was originally a corn mill. It then became a saw mill specialising in making hay rakes. In 1909 an electricity-generating plant was installed and Askrigg Parish Council had electric street lighting installed the following year. The owner of the business, William Handley Burton, continued to make hay rakes, but also went into electricity generation in a big way. The Askrigg Electric Lighting Company installed electric lighting schemes in country houses and villages in both Wensleydale and Swaledale. The company successfully fought off competition from the coal-fired power stations of the Newcastle Electric Supply Company in 1929 and continued to provide local electric supplies until the arrival of the National Grid in the village in 1949.
Another saw mill was converted into an electricity-supply plant at High Mill in Bainbridge in 1912. The Gilkes Vortex turbine was manufactured in Kendal and drove a 6kw dynamo generating 110 volts. It charged a large battery for street lighting and houses in the village. The equipment was installed by William Handley Burton of Askrigg. By 1943, demand was outstripping supply and a diesel engine was added, installed by William Handley Burton’s son Ernest. The company continued profitably until it was bought in 1948 by the British Electricity Authority. Compensation of around £1400 was paid to each of its owners. The water turbine was afterwards used to drive a saw bench and planing machine. The turbine and electricity plant at Gayle Mill is going to be restored and may well be used to light the building in the future.
Not all hydroelectric plant was installed for commercial purposes. Like several country houses, Marske Hall had its own electricity supply. The turbine installed in around 1918 is still running but it is used for heating purposes only now. Several remote farmhouses also relied on their own hydroelectric plant. Kit Calvert had one at his farm Hoggarths in Swaledale. He started with a home made water wheel, but eventually bought three second hand turbines one of which is now in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum.
Although the arrival of the National Grid put an end to most of the commercial electricity supply companies in the Dales, there are still one or two large or remote houses that rely on hydroelectric power for at least some of their daily needs. Increasing interest in sustainable sources of power may lead to the reutilization of water as a power source in the Dales in the future.
Hay, T T (2000) ‘Hydroelectricity Generation in the Yorkshire Dales’ The Cleveland Industrial Archaeologist No 26 pp35-53
Masterson, H (1999) ‘An electrical undertaking in Upper Wharfedale in the early 1900s’ ’Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol 71 pp237-249