Let there be light: New EL Museum display chronicles history of electricity

Before the Umtiza Arts Festival kicks off this year, the EL Museum will have a new display at the entrance to the museum marking the city’s electrification progress from the early 1900s to present day.

Three poles from Botha Road in Selborne will comprise the open-air exhibit that chronologically, in material and design, marks the different eras of electrification in the city.

Conservators Jonathan Bals and Reece Moss will stabilise and protect the poles to withstand long-term outdoor exhibition. The restored poles will be partially sunken 1.5m into the earth and will demonstrate in a linear fashion the evolution of the street poles from cast iron to sleek metal and then the wooden poles of today.

The museum believes this exhibit will give visitors a perspective on the achievements that brought power to our region.

During October and November last year, the municipality initiated the replacement of outdated electric poles in Selborne and EL Museum’s Derek Holder engaged with the contractors to have three of the poles from Botha Road preserved and transferred to the museum.

Botha Road has long been a patchwork of poles from different eras including from the earliest poles in the 1900s which were metal lattice poles, followed by the cylindrical metal pole and finally the wooden poles of today.

In 1897, Messr’s Reunert and Lenz Ltd were contracted by East London Municipality to build a power station on the East bank of the Buffalo River.

On October 5 1899, the first 12 streetlights were switched on in East London. The street lighting originally consisted of 20 arc lamps and 283 incandescent lamps.

At the end of February 1900, there were 182 private consumers receiving electricity and demand soon began to outstrip the installed capacity of the power station and recommendations for a new power station were commissioned in 1905.

This would mark the start of rapid development in West Bank that saw East London play a pivotal role in the generation of power.

Holder believes it is important to capture this history so that the contemporary East London community has a shared connection to and appreciation of the leaps in technological progress forged by the city’s early innovators.

Holder also believes that the exhibition will inspire us to face present day national power challenges.

Holder said: “The introduction of electricity was a leap in technology, enabling the construction of the tramlines.

“The history of the electrification of East London shows us that the challenge of the growth in the population back then increased the demand for additional power.

“Present day challenges can be addressed by exploring renewable energy sources.”

The Border Historical Society believes the exhibit may counteract apathy in the face of continued vandalism and theft of electrical infrastructure.

BHS said: “That the scale, size and complexity of reticulating electricity through a country, a town and in this case a suburb is significant.

“That this process commenced in East London at the beginning of the 20th century and expanded and flourished but is now in decline, is certainly of concern.”

In addition to the preservation of the streetlights, Holder hopes that the museum will be able to preserve pieces of the curbs from some of the older streets in the city that are made from locally quarried stone.

A CENTURY AGO: A photograph from the museum archive of Botha Road in 1929, showing the lattice electric poles feeding electricity to the trams and houses.
CELEBRATING CHANGE: Staff and contractors relocate the poles from Botha Road to the EL Museum. Pictures: EAST LONDON MUSEUM
CELEBRATING CHANGE: Staff and contractors relocate the poles from Botha Road to the EL Museum. Pictures: EAST LONDON MUSEUM


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

CAPTCHA ImageChange Image