A spark of genius which lit up the whole town

An aerial view of Falkirk's power station on High Station Road
An aerial view of Falkirk's power station on High Station Road

On these cold, dark winter days spare a grateful thought for the inventive genius of men like William Murdoch, Michael Faraday and Thomas Edison who first harnessed the power of gas and electricity and ushered in a warmer, brighter world in the 19th century.

The streets of Falkirk are particularly dazzling this year, so as well as giving a pat on the back to today’s hard-pressed councillors and their staff, remember as well their predecessors of a century or so ago who move quickly to bring the new power to our streets, shops and houses while Queen Victoria still occupied the throne.

By then many of Scotland’s big cities and many large towns had embraced the new technology and in Falkirk such supplies as there were came from a couple of entrepreneurs with their own generators.

In 1896 for example the town hall, masonic lodge and Free Church in Newmarket Street were illuminated for the three days of a great fundraising bazaar and the crowds flocked in to admire the modern wonder.

The fear that a private individual might apply for a licence to supply the area led the council in 1900 to secure its own approval and the burgh engineer, David Ronald, was given the task of designing a suitable system using coal from the local area of which there was an abundance.

The site on High Station Road, which then housed the burgh stables among other things, was chosen and construction work started in the summer of 1902.

Soon the familiar red brick building with its 120 foot chimney appeared and the complex and expensive equipment – boilers, dynamos and the like – began arriving in the town.

Three main feeder cables were laid to carry a 460 volt supply to the High Street, Newmarket Street and Grahamston from where power was laid to the first 40 subscribers’ homes and shops as well as 35 lamp-posts. By the spring of 1903 all was in place for the great switch on.

The whole thing had cost £21,000, several millions by today’s measure, and a huge gathering of the great and the good filled the building to watch Mrs Fairlie, wife of the convenor of the electric light committee, who “in a very graceful manner switched on the current amid loud applause and immediately the building was brilliantly lit up with festoons of vari-coloured lights which were suspended throughout the engine room”.

Outside on the streets those ratepayers not invited to the party joined in the fun as the street lamps burst into life and the town hall, to which the guests now retired for the usual bun-fight, was itself “brilliantly lit with the new illuminant”.

Seventeen speeches later they emerged, no doubt the worse for wear, into a brighter and safer place than before. From then on growth was rapid. By 1912 there were 74 lamps and 467 subscribers for lighting, 63 of whom were also supplied with power.

Through two wars the power station kept the wheels of Falkirk’s industry turning but the days of town enterprises were drawing to a close and 1947 brought nationalisation of electricity generation and distribution. By then the Falkirk output was 70 times what it had been in 1914.

Some time in the1950s the High Station Road station was reduced to a service centre and the building was eventually demolished.

The site is now home to the new Salvation Army centre and only part of the outside red brick wall remains.