RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET Issue No 35 September 1993
ELECTRIFYING RUTHIN - 1
by E S Scoins
Illumination in the homestead prior to the introduction of electricity was, of course, by candles, oil lamps or gas. Street lighting was by gas, produced in the local gas works in plenty by relays of stokers who, as it were, "kept the kettle boiling" day and night. The works were located on the site of the present doctors’ surgery [Plas Meddyg].
A series of Electric Lighting Acts 1882-1909 enabled local authorities to invite tenders for providing electricity, having first obtained an Order from the Board of Trade. Electricity at that time was thought of simply as a source of light, as a replacement for coal gas. There were several technical limitations imposed on the widespread development of electricity. The number of customers per 100-yard run of cable initially restricted use to the towns, but much experimentation was under way. The raw material for the generation stage was mainly coal, although some places tried gas-fired boilers. At about this time, the Royal Navy was experimenting with oil. Finally, and possibly the most important, was the supplanting of the carbon fibre bulb by the tungsten filament lamp. These innovations combined to improve the general efficiency of electricity for lighting and brought the small town into economic viability.
Other towns in Wales had 'gone electric' earlier; Aberystwyth and Bridgend as early as 1893, Llangollen in 1901, Caernarfon in 1905, but Ruthin Council continued to waver. The Lighting Committee gathered evidence from the experience of Llangollen (25/2/1908), from Wolverhampton and elsewhere. Finally, the committee sent a questionnaire to numerous local authorities to try to reassure themselves that they were taking the right decision.
The doubts and hesitations are best summed up by the comment of one pro-electric councillor who concluded his speech "let us now honour the light brigade" only to have his advice capped by the leader of the anti-electric group saying "Let us remember the charge they made"!
The introduction of electricity to Ruthin was first considered by the Town Council in 1893. The Denbighshire Free Press (19th December, 1893) carried a report under the headline "Electric Light in Ruthin !" viz.,
“Mr John Roberts moved - 'That the Town Clerk be instructed to call a meeting of the Light Committee on a day to be named by the council and that he do present at such a meeting the report he was directed by the Council to prepare”. Mr T.P. Roberts said they had plenty of rates to pay in a small place like Ruthin and he did not think they should bother about electric light. It was a failure at many places and he would move that they should not bother about it. Mr Theodore Rouw seconded Mr John Roberts' motion and it was ultimately agreed to.
Colonel William Cornwallis West, of Ruthin Castle, wrote to the Mayor/Town Clerk on 8th February, 1894 as follows ‑
I noticed a statement in the local paper that the municipal authority was considering the subject of electric lighting. Can you inform me how far the matter has gone, as it is one of real interest to me. I would willingly take advantage of it for this house, if it was ever brought to Ruthin - in fact, I have often contemplated its installation in the Park, owing to the impurity of the 'gas' - this however is now much improved and the Gas Coy's approach more alive to the just demands of the public.
I am, etc., etc."
The local gas company tried to protect its shareholders and its monopoly in the face of changes by promising to install new and revolutionary burners in the street lamps. When installed, the Council discovered they consumed a third more gas!
By December, 1913, the 'Street and Town Hall Lighting Committee' had changed its title to ‘The Special Lighting Committee’ (9/12/1913) and six months later (31/3/1914) it was agreed that the "lighting the streets and the town hall be considered at a special meeting of the Council in committee."
The archive files contain specifications and tenders from a wide spectrum of the manufacturers of the day, but their choice was a Bristol firm - Edwards & Armstrong, Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The files contain a great deal of information covering the period August, 1913 - July, 1914, when the Council formally accepted the Edwards and Armstrong tender.
It was the practise of Edwards and Armstrong to set-up separate limited liability companies wherever they built electricity generating stations. The registered office of the Ruthin Electric Supply Co., Ltd., was at Stroud, Gloucestershire and the company's letter heading lists associated companies at Ludlow, Chippenham, Tewkesbury and Dulverton.
The agreement provided for the Ruthin Electric Supply Co., (RESCO) to supply electricity to light the Town Hall, the Fire Station then in the same complex, and street lighting in Clwyd Street, Upper Clwyd Street, St. Peter's Square, Castle Street, Market Street, Well Street. The supply cables were run underground and RESCO had the right to try to persuade householders on the route of the mains to convert from gas to electric light.
The generating station was in Mill Lane in the converted Methodist Chapel, now occupied by Messrs J.T. Williams . The plant 'came on stream' in 1914, the source of energy was a diesel engine cooled by a military tank engine which made a frightful din through the night. Local legend has it that the first man employed to look after the plant at night had been given instructions to switch off if he suspected that it wasn't working properly. On the first night the noise was so deafening and unnerving in so small a space that in exasperation he switched it off and plunged Ruthin into darkness!
A letter (28/11/1916) from the Assistant Secretary of State to the Board of Trade informed the Corporation that permission had been granted to RESCO to place overhead lines throughout the Borough, with the exception of Clwyd Street, Well Street, Upper Clwyd Street, Record Street, St. Peter's Square, Castle Street, Market Street and Mount Street.
There is also correspondence during 1916 following the introduction of Defence of the Realm regulations which imposed limitations on the amount of fuel used for civilian lighting. The company thought that their reduced income should have been eased by the local authority. The Council took legal opinion on this. In 1917, the company again asked the council for a 10% increase in charges. Again, the Borough sought legal advice.
The original agreement between RESCO and the Borough contained a clause which provided that the electricity undertaking should give the council an opportunity to purchase the undertaking at an agreed price at the end of twenty-one years or at any subsequent five-year period from the transfer.
The Electricity Supply Committee on 11 November, 1935, considered a letter from RESCO summarising the terms on which the parent company, now the Western Electric Supply Co., were prepared to sell. The land and buildings in Mill Street, the plant manager's house at 61, Clwyd Street, and the showrooms at 3d, Clwyd Street, were all offered for £31,000 plus £1,000 for stock and stores at the Clwyd Street shop. This would be equivalent to approx. £1.076m at today’s prices.
Perhaps we should recognise the dilemma of the plant manager. On 19th December 1935, he was a servant of RESCO and was bound by ethics, morality and law to maintain the secrets of the company that paid him. On the following day, 20th December, the business passed to the Borough and as part of the deal, he became head of the new Corporation Electricity Department. At his first meeting with the Electricity Committee he had to report that the floor and floor joists of the Clwyd Street showroom were rotten and needed immediate replacement. He knew the Borough Surveyor had not spotted the condition when he performed the pre-sale inspection.
Within days of purchasing the plant and buildings from RESCO., the Corporation started enquiries through Sloan and Lloyd Barnes of Liverpool for the purchase of bulk supplies of current from the North Wales Power Co., of Wrexham. Technical pressures forced the Corporation to change from D.C. to A.C. supplies. These discussions dragged on for several years and agreement was accelerated by the outbreak of war. By 1941, the Town Clerk was negotiating the lease of the old electricity works to the Lang Pen Co. for war work.
The Electricity Department was responsible for lighting Ruthin using purchased energy until nationalisation in 1947 when MANWEB took over.
Clwyd Record Office, Ruthin: BD/B/70;7;228;9:30:31;85;60; II; ORI; Dr. Trevor Hughes, Ruthin, Changes & What Next? [n.d.]
RUTHIN IN 1871
The Outbreak of Fever
The Denbighshire Free Press of 23rd January 1909, printed retrospectively and in full the report of a Dr Homes of the Medical Department of the Local Government Board. Dr Homes had been despatched to Ruthin on 24th October 1871 to investigate a serious outbreak of fever, its causes, and the sanitary state of the town in general. His report revealed an extraordinary state of affairs.
In the first week of August, cases of enteric fever occurred in a house in Mill Street and within a few days, other houses in that part of town experienced similar outbreaks. By the second week of the month, the Head Master of the Grammar School, the Rev John William Freeborn, thirteen members of his family and pupils of his school contracted the illness. For the Head Master, the occurrence was fatal and he died on 7th September. Simultaneously, the fever struck other households in the town. A peak was reached in mid-September, but outbreaks continued to arise during October.
They were by no means confined to the poorer houses of the town where sanitary conditions and hygiene might have been expected to be inferior. On the contrary, in addition to the Grammar School (then located off School Lane), residents of properties in Castle Street and Record Street were also affected. Indeed, the medical officer, pointed out that the fever seemed to have a preference for the houses of the well-to-do, where the servants seemed to have suffered most.
At that time, there were 797 houses in the borough, but they were not generally crowded together. However, most of the houses were very old, small and deficient in decent accommodation, some were ruinous and empty, and some of those occupied were unfit for human habitation. There were about thirty new houses built alongside the Railway (presumably Railway Terrace) and "beyond the river on the west side". The population which had been 3,372 in 1861, had fallen to 3,299 in 1871.
The arrangements for sewerage disposal consisted of a few badly planned, badly constructed and inefficient drains, with only some houses being connected. From the west side of the town, the discharge was into the Clwyd at the nearest point. From the east, the discharge was into an open ditch close to the town ffullbrook'?1, but a new sewerage system had just been completed.
This was in three parts, that for the east of the town still discharging into the open ditch and 'injuriously' close to the railway station. The drains for the western portion of the town still discharged, though temporarily, into the Clwyd, but reasonably distant from houses while the main for Llanfwrog joined that for the western part of the town. The ultimate intention was for the discharge to be directed to irrigation ditches on land (the sewerage farm) purchased from the Castle estate in 1919, an arrangement which continued until the 1950s-60s.
The Borough as Sanitary Authority had made no arrangements for privies and house refuse. The arrangements for those requirements are, for our purposes, best dealt with in only general terms. Some 26 houses with privies drained into cesspits, but in all there were some 376 privies, less than half the number of houses. Another problem was the unknown location of some of these cesspits. The emptying of cesspits seems not to have occurred to their owners and leakage, e.g. into adjoining cellars, was a common problem. Ventilation of the drainage 'system' was a concept yet to be applied and inevitably gases from cesspits travelled freely along such drains as did exist into the houses.
Pigsties, undrained, were another nuisance, some being located within three feet of houses. There were twenty-five yards in Ruthin, including one in Record Street, where pigs and other animals were kept. Generally, conditions were ideal for the breeding of typhus.
An essential element in maintaining public health is, of course, an adequate supply of clean water. In July of that year, a new public water supply system had been inaugurated [RBS Nos: 27/28], but only 50 or 60 houses were benefiting from this. The quality of water was described as excellent and there was plenty of it. The majority of the inhabitants had still to depend upon other sources. Those living in the town centre used the pump on the Square, but this was at risk of contamination from surface drainage. Other people derived their water from wells sunk in their own back yards and these were obviously at risk from contamination of a similar - or worse - kind. In the outskirts of the town, people made use of springs and, of course, the Clwyd itself, but above the point where the drains discharged.
The town council, faced with these serious health problems and the enormous task of removing the causes, had already taken certain steps, e.g., work had commenced on a new sewerage system which Dr Homes regarded as quite inadequate. Again, a Police Constable had been appointed as an 'Inspector of Nuisances', in addition to his usual duties.
Between 1861 -1870, there were only two years in which there were no recorded deaths due to fever. Even among the deaths not ascribed to fever, some might have been wrongly diagnosed. The term 'fever' was clarified and defined as being usually of two types, 'typhus fever' and 'typhoid', both often embraced within the generic term 'enteric fever'. In Ruthin, both types had been present at the same time. A surprising statistic emerged in that deaths occurred with greater relative frequency in the most affluent houses of the town, suggesting that social conditions as such were not a factor but rather the place of residence.
The doctor's analysis of the statistics showed that on average some 70 people each year suffered from enteric fever solely because of the town's insanitary state. The average annual death rate was 27.61 per 1,000 living, compared with 24.8 in the larger towns and 20.1 in the smaller towns.
The cause of the outbreak was not immediately obvious. Certainly, at the time it occurred, the water drawn from the well of the Square was found to be contaminated and was immediately sealed. But outbreaks had occurred in widespread parts of the town, many of which used clean water sources. At that same time, work was proceeding with the laying of new sewer mains, a process which entailed breaking open the existing sewers. In Record Street, for example, where the outbreak had been particularly severe, the old sewers had been exposed for some time and distance so that the stench had been overpowering. This was to such an extent that the Council wisely and temporarily suspended operations. But, the doctor concluded, this was a one-off operation and the outbreak of enteric fever had been an annual occurrence. The workmen had not been affected and there had been many outbreaks irrespective of work on the sewers. The final conclusion was that the epidemic could be attributed to a neglect of sanitation for hundreds of years.
Dr Homes listed 9 recommendations, ranging from the statutory need to supply every house in the borough with plenty of wholesome water, to completing the new sewerage system as soon as possible and extending it to every inhabited part of the town. Thereafter, he recommended, the council itself should empty and cleanse all cesspits. Another important and probably difficult to implement recommendation was the control of pigsties, which, in some cases, might have amounted to prohibition. The introduction of new byelaws to control housing conditions and standards of new building, and a refuse collection system, were also recommended.
And so Ruthin's sanitation and health standards improved - but at what cost! So many deaths and much suffering. So much agonising in the Council Chamber over high rates and public expenditure.
POST SCRIPT : BACHYMBYD
Mr Peter Randall has very kindly drawn attention to that excellent guide (p.38) to Llanynys Church by Rev. L. Parry Jones, B.A., in whose parish Bachymbyd lies.
A set of panels in the north nave, within the sanctuary are carved with strange figures and the date, 1570. These are reputed to have come from Bachymbyd, possibly from the old house dismantled in 1666 prior to the building of the present house by Charles Salesbury. These may have been the panels mentioned in the Will (dated 14th November 1580) of John Salesbury of Rug and Bachymbyd which bequeathed "the seelings and wainscottes in my houses of Bachymbyd and Rug" to another son, Robert.
The connection with Rug is much in evidence, for the monogram on the altar "IHS" has a cross on the bar of the 'H', a feature rarely seen in this district but occurs several times in Rug Chapel, Corwen. The altar was a gift of William Salesbury and bears the date '1637', the year Col. William built his Chapel at Rug.
Rug Chapel, just off the A494 to Corwen, has recently re-opened after extensive renovation by CADW and may be visited in partnership with the nearby ancient but disused church at Llangar which is gloriously set in the Dee Valley.
PLAS UCHAF Graigadwywynt, Near Ruthin
Plas Uchaf, once known as Plas Goodman , has been described as one of the most distinguished of a number of early Tudor hall-houses in the Vale of Clwyd. The house first comes to notice in the Cl6th when Morris of Plas Ucha and Langwm/Dinmael is recorded as the owner. Morris may have been a close friend of Gawen Goodman but is something of an enigma as is the alliance of two such geographically disparate estates. The house itself dates from the late Cl5th or early Cl6th.
The house was listed by Edward Lhuwyd's in "Parochiala" [c.1700] as 10th in order of importance of 15 houses of note in the parish.
Plas Ucha, located in the former commote of Llannerch, the largest of the three commotes of the Ruthin Lordship, may have served its immediate township in enforcing law and order at that level. Local tradition is that the kitchen was the courthouse, and what became a dairy was a prison. There is reputed to have been a shaft and passage linking the house to nearby Plas Enion [Broadsheet No: 26].
Prior to the refurbishment valiantly carried out by the present owner, there seem to have been two main building phases, the first c.1500 when it consisted of a hall and cross passage between the two bays containing the solar and service quarters. The earliest part of the building was until recently the dairy. The house once bore the date 1585. The second phase was undertaken c.1650 when it was reconstructed in two storeys with very tall chimneys.
Plas Uchaf contains wall-paintings of considerable importance; there being only a handful of houses in Denbighshire with similar work surviving from this period. They date from perhaps the period of reconstruction in the second half of the C 16th and may be contemporary with the ceiling of the halls and the insertion of new windows.
Some of these wall-paintings are to be found on the back of the dais portion at first floor level. The posts were painted alike but the panels alternated in pattern. Almost the whole of the pattern on the posts remain, about 2/3rds of one panel, but very little of another. The posts are imitations of carved and turned pilasters with moulded bases and bright red bands. The lower shaft is in black with a vertical band of imitation, gouged chip-carvings in white. At the mid-point of the column, there is a bulbous 'vase' with red enrichment, fluting and a capital banded in red. A narrow band of fleur-de lys in bright red over white on a dark red background decorates a shaft.
The panels were painted with black lines and patterns in red oxide, yellow ochre and subtle tones of grey. There is a top border of lobed shapes, alternating red and yellow, above a scroll ended border. There is a rectangular cartouche outlined in yellow with a lobed yellow terminal in the middle of one panel. There are symmetrical designs of fruit and leaves, a pomegranate[?], a gourd [?], topped with a bunch of fruit between outspread leaves. Either side, a vigorous, scrolly foliage.
Decorations on another panel have not survived as well. This has a rectangular cartouche possibly with two grotesque animals with a red arch between.
John Ingleby, Thomas Pennant's illustrator, painted a water-colour of the house in 1794, although Pennant makes no reference to Plas Ucha in his "Journey to Snowdon" or in "A Tour in Wales".
The alternative name of "Plas Goodman", is not surprising in view of the strong Goodman connections. Gawen's eldest son Edward married Elizabeth Morris of Plas Uchaf in c.1575 and his brother Thomas, High Sheriff for Denbighshire in 1613, married Lowry Morris, heiress of Plas Uchaf. Thomas died in 1623. His eldest son was Simon and his third, Charles, became known as "of Glan Hesbin" [Broadsheet No: 33].
Plas Ucha left the Goodman family following Simon's sale of the estate to the Thelwalls and Lady Margaret, widow of Simon Thelwall of Plas-y-ward, was resident c.26th March 1661. Lady Margaret was daughter of Edmund, Lord Sheffield and Earl Mulgrave. The Thelwall of Plas-y-Ward estates passed to the Williams, eventually the Watkin Williams-Wynn, family and John Williams of Plas Ucha was High Sheriff in 1740.
The house and land were eventually purchased by Sir A.E.H. Naylor-Leyland, Bart., Nantclwyd Hall, by which time its role had changed to that of farmhouse. The house is now owned by Mr John Kerfoot Jones.
Lloyd, Powys Fadog, Vol:3, p.50; Vol.4, p. 185, p.187, n.2.
Powell, articles Denbighshire Free Press. Hubbard, Buildings of Wales - Clwyd, Penguin Books; "Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales - Denbighshire, 1914"; Special edition Pennant's Journey to Snowdon, 1794, [NLW]. Houses of the Welsh Countryside, 2nd edn. RCAM file, Aberystwyth; Arch. Camb. 1960, p.197.