The owners of country houses have rarely been quick to adopt new technologies, and electricity was no exception. Although electric light of a kind was installed at a dozen pioneering country houses in the 1880s, it was another forty years or so before it began to appear on a large scale, partly because rural remoteness usually meant the expense of a dedicated power plant, and partly because of the disruption to old and fragile interiors which was entailed in wiring up a centuries-old mansion.
The guides at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire used to tell the story of how in the 1920s Lord and Lady Braye were baffled by the prospect of having to run cables through their long ballroom without wrecking its delicate 18th-century stuccowork. Then someone had a bright idea: they prised up a floorboard at one end and dropped a dead rabbit into the void; then they prised up a floorboard at the other end and unleashed a ferret, with a string tied to his collar. When the ferret had managed to negotiate the joists and reach the rabbit, the string was used to pull through a cable and hey presto! the problem was solved.
A complicated generating system was installed in 1936 at the magnificent and massive Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, remodelled by Vanbrugh for the 4th Earl of Manchester in 1707-14. It powered 350 lighting points, eighteen electric fires and six portable radiators. An electric pump was used to circulate hot water round the central heating system; there was a large electric refrigerator; and even a small electric cooker, ‘installed for occasional use’. (No need to take modernisation too far, obviously.) Low loads of up to forty lamps were powered by a small battery; if more lamps or one of the electric fires were connected, a 7.5kW generator started up. And if that wasn’t enough, a second, 16kW generator kicked in, shutting down the first. Both plants, which were housed in a converted stable, could work simultaneously if needed, and the battery was re-charged automatically. The generators were made by R A Lister & Co.
The situation was obviously much easier with new houses. In 1939 an article in Country Life extolled the virtues of the all-electric house, with its own washing machine, dishwasher and room heaters – which should have some glow effect, ‘as we have not yet become accustomed to general heating as opposed to the open fire’. The writer of the article, J. V. Brittain, conceded that the absence of chimneys was odd, and admitted that it might cost a little more to heat and light an all-electric house than it would with a mixture of coal, gas and electricity. ‘But as electricity can be obtained at 1/2d. or 3/4d. a unit the extra cost will not be excessive and is considered to be more than offset by the saving in labour, the added convenience, and the cleanliness.’
But in an older house, there was always a danger than new technology would disrupt old-world charm. Fake candles were popular, both in the form of candelabra and as candle wall-brackets. Concealed lighting in bedrooms was considered acceptable, and when it came to removing ‘that chilly feeling which is generally present in winter in a spacious house’, aesthetics went out of the window along with the coal scuttle, and frankly hideous wall-mounted convector heaters were installed in medieval manors and Georgian mansions without compunction.
One of the more intriguing uses of electricity in the country house came to prominence in the lead-up to the coronation of George VI in 1937. Although ‘the commercial associations of flood-lighting have created in some minds an uneasy feeling that it may be faintly flavoured with vulgarity’ (Country Life again), there was a drive to celebrate the coronation with the 20th-century equivalent of bonfires and flares and torches – the flood-lighting on a grand scale of great houses and local landmarks throughout the countryside. ‘Bonfires, laboriously built up, exhaust their glamour in a single night; a flood-lighting installation is available for a week or a month or as long as the festivities continue.’ And anyway, where would we be without the occasional faint flavour of vulgarity?