The Australian Connection

Mr. James Oddie arrived in England in early 1887 to obtain information on electrical knowledge and its developments. He was a wealthy gold miner who became Ballarat’s first Chairman of the Municipal Council, from 1856 to 1858. He stayed in the U.K. for about three years, and during this time became a close friend of Thomas Parker and his family. He met Thomas at Blackpool after the first official running of a Blackpool tram, when Thomas invited Mr. Oddie to visit him at Wolverhampton. Thomas kept many newspaper cuttings, mainly from Australian newspapers, that include articles about Mr. Oddie and his work. I've included copies of the ones here, that relate to Elwell-Parker and Wolverhampton. 

12th March, 1890. A New Picture in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery 

A picture of considerable interest has today (Monday) been hung in the West Room of the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and will be on view for a fortnight. It is an oil painting (executed by Mr. E. Goodwyn Lewis for Mr. James Oddie, of Ballarat) of Mr. Parker, of the Electric Construction Corporation. The size of the painting is about 6ft by 5ft. Mr. Parker, whose likeness is an admirable one, is depicted standing amid some of his machinery, which is finely drawn. A small allegorical picture in the top left-hand corner represents an electric tramcar, and the electric light is introduced to very excellent effect.

A black and white copy of E. Goodwyn Lewis's painting of Thomas Parker. Courtesy of Gail Tudor.

In May 1890 Goodwyn Lewis wrote excitedly to his family in Melbourne of a new painting that "will cause a sensation…it will be a splendid picture - lit by electricity. It is a private matter…most probably it will find a resting place at the Fine Art Gallery at Ballarat." Later the same year he wrote that "the picture was finished and had been sent to Wolverhampton for exhibition, it is a picture by electric light (a night scene) and probably the first ever painted." He goes on to say, "in the manner of a football follower who has decided to barrack for a new team."


"[I expect that] My name will be, both directly and indirectly, connected with the history of Australia…when this electric picture comes to the New Gallery in Ballarat. You know we of Ballarat have had a splendid grant from the Victorian Government. We have had some of the Ministers at the opening of our splendid new Gallery, and before long we hope to beat the National Gallery in Melbourne. This Electric picture will have a noble place on the Gallery walls, and there will be no such other painting in all Australia."


The following year the painting was sent to Melbourne. In a letter to his family in Australia, Goodwyn Lewis wrote on 24th March, 1891 that "it should now be entering Hobson’s Bay (the Melbourne port), where it was to be exhibited in Melbourne before going to Ballarat."

The Wolverhampton Picture Gallery

Is worthy of a word. A building worth £30,000 was presented to the corporation by one citizen, while another died and left pictures of a similar value. When I was there, there was an exhibition on, and it was lit throughout with electricity by Mr. Parker. The whole of the appliances for this were put down and set going in three days, and cost, with three months lighting, the promoters £150, the dynamo and portable engine were only lent.  

A drawing of the Art Gallery by Ernest Coffin. From an old postcard.

Mr. Parker’s Works. A Description by Mr. Oddie
The Ballarat Star. Friday, 18th April, 1890

After the dinner at Blackpool, Mr. Parker visited me, and cordially invited me to see his extensive works at Wolverhampton, an invitation I was not slow to avail myself of. This was the keynote of the best friendship I made in England. I went shortly afterwards and stayed several days, visiting the works daily, as Mr. Parker gave me the run of the whole works. There I ordered the installation of a 60 light dynamo, with a 28 cell storage battery and paraphernalia, now doing duty at the Observatory. I subsequently visited the works frequently, sometimes for a week at a time, and I regard it as the brightest spot in my English constellation. Mr. Parker started his works in 1880, with one man beside himself. He never had a single day’s instruction in electricity in his life; now he daily instructs between 300 and 400 employees, who worship him as a father. He is said to be now the most practical electrical engineer and mechanist in Europe. During one of my visits I took with me an artist, who is painting for me a portrait, 6 feet by 5 feet, of Mr. Parker, surrounded by dynamos, secondary batteries, measuring instruments etc. Electric tram cars are going to be a big thing in England. Parker’s Company Limited, is now, with three other companies, in the hands of the Electric Construction Company, with Mr. Parker as manager of the lot. The whole of the works will be taken to Wolverhampton. Before I left, a tender for £50,000 was accepted for the construction of new works.

The Julien Car

That was tried in Ballarat and was made by Mr. Parker to the order of Mr. Pritchard, of Sydney, who merely said he wanted the car, without giving any plans or specifications; the application of the system was Mr. Parker’s. I saw the car tried in Wolverhampton in January, 1888, when it went off without any hitch, and ran for four hours afterwards. There were a number of electrical experts to witness the experiment, and all were thoroughly satisfied. Seven days afterwards it was shipped to Sydney.

Note: This was a tram car, based on Edmond Julien's patents for storage battery-powered electric traction.

Read a contemporary newspaper article about the tram trial in Sydney

Electric Locomotives

Ten months ago I went to a trial of an electric locomotive, made to the order of the Birmingham Tramway Company (also without plans or specifications), who were then running steam traction engines, each weighing 14 tons. Mr. Parker was asked if he could make an electric locomotive to do the work of the steam engines, and for how much. His answer was - "yes, for £700 each." 

The loco he turned out only weighed 8 tons, and one third the size of the others. I was the first to get on it and rode into the centre of Birmingham, where we picked up the members of the corporation and the chairman and directors of the Tramway Company, and representatives of the London and provincial press, about 66 in all. We took the stiffest hill along the route, a grade of 1 in 17 and surmounted it without the slightest difficulty. 

At a dinner held at a sub-station four miles out, the chairman of the company delivered a grand oration, in which he pronounced the thing a great success. He introduced the company to Mr. Parker, at whom a perfect volley of questions were hurled, and all were answered as promptly. That locomotive has been running on the streets ever since, alongside one of the steam engines, for purpose of observation. The company have decided on a car after the Julien system (as they prefer the storage under the seats to the locomotive and car), combined with the other two patents. The motor is fixed on a bogey in front of the carriage. Of these they have ordered 12. No difficulty is experienced in turning corners, the bogey principle obviating that.  

A Boom in Electricity

I received a copy of "The Star" with a report of the discussion by the Mechanics’ Institute committee with reference to the electric light, and showed it to Mr. Parker. He was much interested seeing that I had described Ballarat to him, and he was not altogether unacquainted with the probable needs of the institute. One fact he mentioned that will be interesting to your readers. At present lamps that cost the manufacturers 8d each are retailed at 5s, owing to the patent rights. In 4½ years those rights will have expired. What will be the difference in the cost?  

The Ballarat Star. Saturday, 19th April, 1890  

After nearly four years in England, James Oddie returned to Ballarat to an enthusiastic reception at Western Station. All the leading citizens were there to greet him. The party was driven to the City Hall where he was formally welcomed back. They next went to the boardroom of the Benevolent Asylum for light refreshments and then visited the Fine Art Gallery which was built during Mr. Oddie’s absence. After inspecting the smaller gallery the party proceeded to the boardroom for light refreshments. A toast was given to Mr. Oddie and in his reply he confirmed that the gallery would receive the £10,000 that he had already promised. He also mentioned Philip Horseman when he said that “In the small town of Wolverhampton a man arrived some years ago with his carpenter’s tools on his back, and he had just left to the town a building worth £30,000. They did not want man to die before making these gifts, but to experience the pleasure of giving while they were alive”.

The Ballarat Star. Wednesday, 23rd April, 1890  

Mr. James Oddie was last night entertained by the citizens of Ballarat, at a banquet at the City Hall. In a speech he said the following: “Electricity too, was coming to the front, and in a thousand different ways going to administer to our wants. One of the leading authorities in England foresaw by it a distribution of motive power as well as of light amongst the homes of the workmen. Then, too, they would have tramways run by electricity all over the country. In about 6 weeks time Captain Baker would probably be able to show them at the Observatory, illustrations of six different styles of traction by means of electricity… In two years time he believed they would have the trams in Ballarat run by electricity – perhaps they might have a chance in six months”.

The Daylesford Advocate. Thursday, 27th August, 1891

Lecture on Electricity  

On Tuesday evening the large lecture room in the Daylesford School of Mines was packed with an audience to hear Mr. James Oddie of Ballarat talk on the subject of “Electricity: Its harmony and contrast with other economic forces of nature, and its modern applied development.”

He talked about electric lighting and electric trains and trams, and he spoke of his recent visit to England:

When he visited Blackpool in Lancashire, he saw the only practical railway in Britain, by means of which 950,000 people had been carried on two miles of railway run by electricity. In Birmingham last year a dozen electric cars had taken the place of a dozen steam engines, and these were worked by storage batteries, which were composed of cells 10 x 12 x 15 inches deep. These were charged with current and when once charged would run for a distance of 40 miles without further attention.

To travel on such a line was a pleasure, as there was no smoke, and no smell, and everything ran smoothly and pleasant. He saw a tram tried through the streets of Wolverhampton, and it went off at the rate of 15 miles an hour without any difficulty whatever. He saw an electric locomotive in Birmingham, and it worked so well that it supplanted the ugly steam engine, which weighed 14 tons, its place being taken by the eight ton locomotive.

By means of a magic lantern view, the lecturer then exhibited pictures. The first was a likeness of Mr. Parker, the electrical engineer of Wolverhampton. It was sent out to Ballarat only about four months ago. The lecturer explained that Mr. Parker was the great electrician of Europe. He started from a foundry, and by his own intuitive intelligence, learned the science of electricity. In the picture were also shown dynamos, manufactured and patented by him. The construction, use etc. of the transformers and galvanometers for measuring quantity were pointed out and explained. The next view on the screen was an electric car running on an electric tram at Blackpool, in Lancashire. The distance it ran was two miles, for which 2d was charged, while at certain times of the year the fare was only 1d. Other slides included a view of the undertaking to light Oxford, for which 10,000 volts were used at the machine.  

Note: The painting of Mr. Parker that was exhibited at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, was transported to Australia and hung in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. It has since disappeared, they have no knowledge of its whereabouts.

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