Amazing inventions: the Pittville Gates electricity sub-station

Pittville Gates Underground Chamber: at the corner of Clarence Road and Prestbury Road, adjacent to 1 Pittville Lawn

The first plans for a public electricity supply in Cheltenham were laid in December 1887 when a town councillor suggested the new form of energy, and in April 1892 Prof. W. E. Ayrton, of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, visited the town to study proposals. In July 1893 a visit by electrical pioneer William Preece took things further forward. Soon afterwards, in 1894, a steam-driven generating station was built in Arle Road and cables were laid to the Promenade. Private installations had begun as early as 1882 at the Winter Gardens in Cheltenham’s Imperial Square. Though still on a small scale, on 16 May 1895 the completed public lighting scheme was switched on at the Arle Road works. Sub-stations and transformer chambers were gradually built around the town to reduce the 2,000 volt supply down to the 110 volt domestic level needed as more areas were included. Arc lamps on tall standards gradually filled streets near the town centre. The largest sub-station above ground was in Manchester Street in 1895, diagonally opposite St. Matthew’s Church. In 1900 it was extended in Italianate style and survives as a small hotel.

But the dangers of the 2,000 volt supply became apparent with an early fatality on 16 December 1895, reported in the Cheltenham Chronicle for 21 December. This occurred in the High Street underground sub-station, situated at the corner with the Colonnade. Four workmen were in the crowded chamber when one of them, John Pugh, aged about 26, inadvertently touched the high-voltage supply and fell onto a switchboard. One of the workmen coming to his aid received a shock through Pugh’s body. An appeal for help through the open manhole cover quickly resulted in a passing doctor descending into the cramped chamber. Pugh was soon hauled to the surface, his breathing weak, but he expired soon afterwards. In an interesting echo of current taste, at the mortuary Pugh’s extensive arm and leg tattoos were noted! Subsequently it was found that Pugh was a somewhat careless workman, often not standing on the essential rubber insulation mat or not using rubber gloves to prevent earthing.

The High Street sub-station measured 10 x 7 feet and was 7 feet 6 inches high. This was therefore a smaller chamber than at Pittville Gates, which measures 10 feet square. The High Street chamber was lined in concrete (not the special bricks seen at Pittville Gates1), and contained two transformers against its south wall. Two high-tension switchboards were in the corner of the south and west walls (one on each, three feet in length). Pugh had trained with the Callender & Co. cables company and it was Callender’s cables that were laid in Cheltenham. Their rubber insulation over time became troublesome. On 13 November 1900 a second fatality occurred, curiously enough involving one of the workmen with Pugh on that fateful day in December 1895, namely Richard Edwards, aged 29. His death by electrocution occurred in the St. George’s Place sub-station. In this period the highly capable Martin Kilgour (succeeded in 1905 by Walter J. Bache) was the Borough’s electrical engineer and J. M. Robb his chief assistant.

The first lighting at Pittville Gates came on 17 December 1833, when oil lamps were installed on the six pillars. These would have been converted to gas after late 1839, once the gas supply had reached the Pittville Estate. In April 1897 work began on the ornamental overthrow (or metal arch) over Pittville Gates and the work was completed in six weeks by early May, the impending visit to Cheltenham by the Prince of Wales being an incentive to get the job done quickly. The two central pillars thus lost their old lamps.

An arc lamp running at 30 volts was then fitted in the centre of the overthrow instead. The separate transformer for the arc lamp was fitted in an ornamental metal box adjacent to the second Gates pillar, west side, taking in 110 volts from the chamber. This box is now situated near the boundary wall. The surviving underground chamber at Pittville Gates had probably been built by this time as a transformer station for the area but the earliest published evidence only comes from the Cheltenham Chronicle for 4 March 1899. This reported that ‘The Electrical Engineer advised that a short feeder should be laid from Evesham-road along Clarence-road to the Pittville substation at a cost of about £40.’ The sub-station was next referred to in the Gloucestershire Echo 2 June 1925 which reported that ‘A cable would also run from Pittville Gates Substation through Prestbury to Southam’. A sub-station contained switchgear which a transformer chamber did not, so it is not entirely clear if Pittville’s was technically a sub-station despite that term being in popular use.

Images of the sub-station (below ground level) at Pittville Gates
It is not known when the sub-station fell into disuse after 1925. In one corner a terracotta vertical drainpipe survives, probably a later installation to take water from the street in the days when the pavement did not extend as far out as it does today. The chamber was revealed for the first time in recent years during the Gates restoration in 2012 and again in 2017, reminding us of the earliest years in Cheltenham of the ‘amazing invention’, electrification.

Research 2017-20 by Tom Clarke and the late Dr James Hodsdon

1 Recent inspection reveals that the engineering bricks of the Gates chamber have J. C. E. in their ‘frog’ (depression). J. C. Edwards of Ruabon, Wales, were highly regarded makers of such bricks. Their ceramics were renowned for durability and colour.

This text was originally prepared as part of the Friends of Pittville’s contribution to Cheltenham’s Heritage Open Day 10 September 2022

Further reading: Reginald Acock, ‘Electricity comes to Cheltenham’ (Glenside Books, 1995) makes lively reading.
Also James Hodsdon’s Pittville Gates: Cheltenham’s ‘Grand Entrance’ (2011)