First Light

Electricity in the Streets of Tamworth

Tamworth was the first town and municipality in Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere, to install electric streetlights. The Veness Letter Book, pictured here, documents the unfolding story of this celebrated occasion. Installed in 1888, the electric streetlights replaced poor performing gas and kerosene lamps, which dimly lit the centre of town. The installation of electric streetlights was considered a mark of the town’s ‘colonial progress’.

Festivities were held to celebrate the occasion and included a switching on the lights ceremony held on 9 November 1888, at the power station engine-house on Peel Street. The Tamworth Borough’s twenty-eight-year-old Clerk, Daniel Veness (1860-1929), carefully recorded the Council’s decisions concerning the supply and installation of electric lights by way of letters, his exact copies were filed in the letter book.

One of the details Veness’ records show us is that in 1887 Tamworth’s Mayor (and solicitor) William Frederick Tribe (1846-1919) signed a contract with ‘Messrs. Harrison and Whiffen’, acting on behalf of the renowned electrical engineers Crompton and Co. of Chelmsford, England. The contract approved that Crompton and Co. would supply and install the infrastructure needed for the lights.

The installation of electric lights in Tamworth followed other ‘progressive’ changes made in the town a decade or so prior. This included the dedication of Tamworth as a Municipality in 1876. The new Council swiftly embarked on activities such as town beautification by way of providing well-kept streets and tree planting.

Other public services that had been established to this time included a Post and Telegraph Office, Court House, Land and Survey Office, Police Station and gaol, two railway stations and a school. These developments were viewed as much needed advancements, as was the electric street light system.

To begin the ceremony to switch on the new lights for the first time, Alfred Whiffen of Crompton & Co. sparked-up the two steam engines purchased to power the lights. Along with a souvenir bracelet, a miniature gold key was presented to Mayoress Elizabeth Piper by George Harrison, also of Crompton and Co. The miniature key was used By Elizabeth to unlock a switch that turned on the lights.

As the lights were turned on enthusiastic ‘cheering followed’ and, outside in the illuminated street, the town band played the National Anthem. And what of Daniel Veness? He left Tamworth for Bathurst in 1891, where he went on to serve 38 years as Clerk for Bathurst Council. His work at Tamwork Council had begun when he was 17 in 1877, but he left Tamworth, with wife Amy, following the loss of their infant twin daughters.