by Dr Dawn Gould

04 / electricity: the energy that helps light the world!


How would the modern world with its advanced technologies and in particular how would modern theatres survive without this source of energy? A source which allows the working of stage lighting, scene changes, auditorium, internal and external lighting, plus the same energy needed to run their crime protection units? Not easily.

In South Africa, at the moment, there is much discussion on the future availability of electricity. The public is constantly being exhorted to use less and to try harder to save this most taken for granted service.

The electricity supply in Cape Town has, as we know it today, a history that dates back to around the second half of the nineteenth century. This article will touch on the supply to the mother city of Cape Town and some if its earlier suburbs. In 1879 certain Cape Town citizens, by practical means, had electricity explained and exhibited by the Scientifica Studiosa Company. It was an enlightening demonstration so much so that by 1884 the Table Bay Harbour Board signed an agreement with the South African Electric Light and Power Company to bring into use twenty two electric lamps.

Later the Table Bay Harbour Board went on to buy that particular Company’s generating plant and continued to supply power to the new Somerset Hospital and the Cape Town railway station. In the same year, 1884, the House of Assembly was lit up when a lighting plant was set up in the vicinity of the present South African Museum in the Company Gardens

As regards homeowners using this new means of lighting, it is possible that the 1879 demonstration by the Scientifica Studiosa Company encouraged them to light their properties. In 1891 Coghills Hotel in Wynberg – long since demolished - Fernwood in Newlands, the home of CD Rudd and Westbrooke in Rondebosch owned by C Pigot Moodie were using lighting plans. Pigot Moodie was even able to supply current to the lamp on the horse drinking trough/fountain that still stands on the Main Road, Rondebosch. At a stretch, I dare say, one could refer to this as one of the first suburban streetlights.

Nevertheless the rarity of electric light was such that when C D Rudd’s home was lit, the Cape Times newspaper gave it much publicity. Rudd was after all an important financial figure being a partner with Cecil John Rhodes in what eventually became the De Beers Consolidated Mines. He also, in 1883, represented Kimberley in the Cape Parliament.

In 1892 the interest in home electrification led to a generating plant being built, by Messrs Stevenson and Edlin on land that had once been part of the old Westerfort farm. This supplied electricity to homes situated within the boundaries of the Municipality of Claremont and the Municipality of Rondebosch. Success led to the formation of the Cape Town and Suburban Electric Lighting syndicate. Not too long thereafter they built another plant in Rouwkop Road, Rondebosch, approximately where the Avondrust Retirement Home is today

Further success led to the group forming the Cape Peninsula Lighting Company Limited with E Syfret, a well known business man, as chairman. Demand for electricity grew causing the Company to build two generating plants, one in Selby Road, Mowbray and the other in Electric Road, Wynberg. The continued demand was such that by 1904 the plants, as above, had been closed down and a new company, the Claremont Electric Light Works, situated in Stegman Road, Claremont, came into being. The plant and machinery came from Europe and an application was made, in 1903, to the then Cape Government railways for a goods siding to be built “at the earliest possible moment” so that the unloading of the equipment would be made much easier. To achieve this request was a hard struggle.

In 1895, in Cape Town itself the Graaff Electric Light works had begun to operate when a power station was erected near the Molteno reservoir on Table Mountain. The Graaff part of the name refers to David Pieter de Villers-Graaff (created Sir in 1911) who was between 1891-1892 Mayor of Cape Town and convinced that the future of electricity was a very “bright” one. The demand for “light” continued and in 1907 the Municipality of Kalk Bay and Muizenberg in order to supply their customers, built a power station near the beach. A year or so later in 1908 the Woodstock Municipality received their electricity supply from the Dock Road Power Station. Then in 1912 the Cape Town City Council bought the assets of the Claremont Electric Light Works and became the suppliers of both the city and the suburbs.