The Commercial Road Power Station

The foundation stone of the Municipal Lighting Works was laid on Monday, 21st May, 1894 at a ceremony performed by the mayor, Alderman C. T. Mander. Several of the guests were involved in the project. They included Thomas Parker, the town’s consulting electrical engineer, who designed and supplied some of the equipment, F. H. Lewis, the town’s electrical engineer, A. P. Brevitt the architect, and H. Willcock the builder.

Afterwards they were entertained at a luncheon at the Victoria Hotel during which speeches were given. Mr. Thomas Parker said that “eleven and a half years ago he came to Wolverhampton a solitary working man, with one boy, and started not many yards from where the foundation stone had been laid that day. Since then they had built, under his supervision, works for the lighting of a great number of towns and for a vast number of purposes, and now Wolverhampton was waking up to the uses of electricity, and he had been able to perceive the consummation of a long-entertained hope in the laying of a foundation stone which meant the lighting of Wolverhampton by electricity. With all the systems devised, and with all the various efforts made by others throughout the world, they had that day adopted the system of his own devolution. They had, he felt convinced, acted wisely in adopting that system, and it would be the one that would be taken up elsewhere.”

The power station, built at a cost of £32,000, officially opened on Thursday 30th January, 1895. The opening ceremony was performed by the famous 19th century physicist and electricity expert Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society.

The power station in 2004.

The coal fired power station depended upon the canal for its supply of coal. When it first opened it supplied an area of roughly 5 square miles using rope driven, direct current generators which were shut down at night, when the town was supplied from a 9,000 ampere hour battery.

In 1892, Thomas Parker, whilst working for the E.C.C developed what came to be known as “The Oxford System” for electricity distribution, in which the central generating station produced either 1,000 or 2,000 volts DC. This was in turn converted to 200 volts D.C. by motor-generators that were housed in sub-stations. The first installation at Oxford used a 2,000 volt high tension line. Following its success, similar systems were installed at Birmingham, Charing Cross, Chelsea, Sydenham and Shoreditch. This is the system that was used at Wolverhampton.

The Commercial Road power station was directly connected to the Town Hall, where the vault under the sessions court contained a switching station, housing a rotary converter, to convert the 2,000 volts DC supply from the power station to 220 volts. From there it went to distribution stations at the Art Gallery and the Free Library.

The initial equipment, which had a capacity of 350KW, consisted of 3 DC generators, each powered by a steam engine. The generators were provided by Thomas Parker Limited and the E.C.C. At the time consumers paid 2½ pence per unit of electricity.

The power station as seen from the canal.

The venture proved to be a success and by 1908 the capacity had been increased to around 6MW. The following description from the 1908 Red Book includes a detailed account of the equipment installed at the power station at the time:

The buildings at present consist of a main generating station and three sub-stations. The system of supply is continuous current distributed on the 3-wire system at a pressure of 440 volts between the outer mains and a standard pressure of 220 volts for the supply to consumers' premises. The outlying portions of the town are supplied by motor transformers, the driving current of which is applied at a pressure of 2,000 volts from the generating station, and is transformed down to the standard pressure of 220 volts.

The plant at the generating station consists at present of eight complete generating sets, as follows :-

One 200 B.H.P. Belliss two-crank high speed compound condensing engine, direct coupled to a Parker two pole dynamo, 140 kilowatt, 2,000 volts. This generating set is used for street lighting and for supplying current to the motor transformers in the outlying parts of the borough.

Two 350 B.H.P. Belliss three-crank compound condensing engines, direct coupled to Parker's dynamos, each 220 kilowatt, 550 volts.

One 460 B.H.P. Belliss three-crank triple expansion condensing engine direct coupled to 300 kilowatt 550-volt E.C.C. generator.

Two 800 I.H.P. Willans three-crank compound condensing engines, direct coupled to 500 kilowatt E.C.C. multipolar generators, 550 volts.

One Davey Paxman 800 I.H.P. three-crank compound condensing engine, direct coupled to 500 kilowatt E.C.C. multipolar generator, 550 volts.

One Bellis 800 B.H.P. 3-crank triple expansion engine, direct coupled to 600 kilowatt 550-volt Parker generator.

All these generating sets are also available either for electric lighting or tramway traction. The five Belliss engines are arranged to exhaust into surface condensers supplied by Joseph Evans and Sons, of Wolverhampton; and the Meirlees Watson Company of Glasgow. The Willans engines and the Davey Paxman engine each exhaust into a separate Ledward ejector condenser, which is supplied with circulating water by a Gwynne centrifugal pump, direct driven by a 20hp. Parker motor.

The combined lighting and traction switchboard was supplied by Thomas Parker, Limited, to the design of the chief engineer.

The Boiler house contains six Lancashire boilers, 30ft. by 8ft., and two "Economic" boilers, 14ft. 6in. by 9ft. 9in., two economisers, and the necessary feed Pumps, etc., and a  water softening plant is in use. These boilers work at a pressure of 130lbs. per square inch and have a maximum duty of 2,000 gallons per hour.

The brick chimney is 115 feet in height, and is of circular section throughout inside, and an induced draught exhaust fan has been installed to improve the draught of the chimney.

A large Battery Room has been built over the present boiler house for the purpose of containing two storage batteries, one of 260 Tudor cells for lighting purposes, and one of 263 cells for tramway work.

An Auxiliary Station has been opened at the Refuse Destructor, in Crown street, and the following plant installed:

Two 125 Kilowatt multipolar shunt wound Parker generators, coupled direct to two Belliss two-crank compound enclosed 180 B.H.P. steam engines. The steam for driving these engines is supplied from the refuse destructor.

A new generating station is now in the course of construction at Commercial Road, especially designed for the purpose of power supply for large consumers. The initial equipment of this new station consists of two steam turbine generating sets of 1,000 kilowatts capacity each. The turbines being constructed by Williams and Robinson, of Rugby, and the generators by the Electric Construction Company, Wolverhampton. Current will be supplied from these generating sets at a pressure of 6,000 volts alternating.

The boiler house equipment of the new station will consist of two large water tube boilers, by Babcock and Wilcox, of London, each boiler having an evaporative capacity of 20,000lbs. of water per hour. The waste gases from the boilers after passing through Green's economiser are discharged into a Steel Chimney 175 feet in height, supplied and erected by J. Thompson.

The extensions to the boiler house and engine room were officially opened on 16th March, 1908 and increased the capacity to 6.4MW. The new buildings were constructed by local builder H. Gough.

The old generating hall seen from the canal.

Under the Corporation Electric Lighting Extension Order of 1913, the area covered by the power station was doubled to 11 square miles by the inclusion of the Parish of Bushbury.

In 1925 the DC generators were scrapped and replaced by two 7,500KW turbo alternator sets to increase the station’s capacity to 23MW. There were then 7 turbine-driven alternators provided by Siemens Brothers Limited, of Stafford; the British Thomson-Houston Company Limited, of Rugby; and the Electric Construction Company, Limited, of Wolverhampton.

The boiler plant consisted of large and modern Stirling, and Babcock and Wilcox Water-tube boilers, with economisers and water softeners. The power station then fed an area of 47 square miles, including Brewood and Codsall. The Borough's own Acts of Parliament in 1928 and 1932 extended the area to 106 square miles to include Saredon, Brineton, Blymhill and Penkridge to the north, Pattingham to the West, and Albrighton and Tong to the north west.

The derelict site as it is today.

In 1925 the power station came under the control of the West Midlands Joint Electricity authority that took over the existing electricity supply companies and generating stations in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Worcestershire.

In 1933 the three phase AC distribution system was introduced, and in 1936 a new generating hall was added. At the time about 80% of the supply was taken by industry.

In 1948 the industry was nationalised, and local supplies were proved by the Midlands Electricity Board (MEB) as from 1st April.

The power station continued much as before, but by the 1970s at 80 years of age it was getting a little old fashioned and un-economical when compared with the large efficient power stations of the day.

A final view of the surviving generating hall.

As a result it closed in the late 1970s, and a local landmark, the cooling tower, was demolished. The power station was the only single-tower power station in the midlands. The power station’s fleet of twenty canal boats were in use until the middle 1950s, after which the coal came-in by road.

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