by the late Selwyn Grant OBE
Recently we have been asked for details from our Archives of a certain West Country engineer called Dr. John Purves. It transpired that he was the main instigator of the Devon conglomerate called "West of England Electricity" wholly owned by Whitehall Securities Corporation Ltd, a national finance company. John Archibald Purves was born in Taunton in 1870 and gained a doctorate at Edinburgh University, after which he gained some experience in Scotland with electricity undertakings. He then moved to Devon in 1902, where he with his brother set up the Paignton Electric Light and Power Company in 1908. At that time he had set himself up as a consultant at 82 Queen Street, Exeter as the Western Electricity Corporation, with one intention of promoting hydro-electric schemes on Dartmoor. The 1920 Parliamentary Bill for hydro-schemes on five rivers was thrown out after opposition from the Dartmoor Preservation Society. The story continues in the pamphlet published in 1948 by the late Selwyn Grant below on behalf of W of E. There is no record of Mr. Grant transferring to SWEB in 1948, so one must assume that he retired.
Chapter I - Inception Of The Scheme
The association of Whitehall Securities Corporation Ltd. with electricity supply in the West of England began in October, 1928, through an introduction to me of Dr. J. A. Purves, D.Sc., by the late Sir John Snell, then chairman of the Electricity Commission, who was a personal friend.
Dr. Purves was a well known figure in Devon and Somerset and had promoted electricity Special Orders in Teignmouth, South Molton, Bampton and elsewhere. It appears to have been largely through his efforts that the local authorities successfully resisted an endeavour by the Greater London and Counties Trust, an American-controlled syndicate, to include the area in the powers for supply now vested in the Wessex Company, and he had followed this up by initiating himself a scheme to be undertaken under English auspices. The information, which Dr. Purves submitted, included a report by himself on the Dulverton and West of England Special Orders which were being promoted by several small non-statutory undertakings, who had formed themselves into a company entitled "West of England Electricity Limited", and a report by the late Mr. W. B. Woodhouse of the Yorkshire Electric Power Company, a leading authority on electricity supply.
The specific proposal was to take a bulk supply from Exeter Corporation and deliver it for sale retail to six small towns and villages controlled by West of England Electricity Limited, and for bulk sale to other places such as Exmouth, Sidmouth, Seaton, Axminster, Crewkerne, Lyme Regis and Wellington, which either had a local D.C. supply or were without supply, and a total expenditure of something like £300,000 was contemplated. In Mr. Woodhouse's report, however, a wider field was covered, including the acquisition of the Minehead, Podock and Teignmouth undertakings, together with several non-statutory undertakings in West Devon.
Mr. Woodhouse's conclusions were generally favourable to the proposals, but he criticised the unit prices, which Dr. Purves had assumed, and emphasised that development to the point of obtaining a satisfactory return on the expenditure would take some years. Included in his report was a reference to the possible acquisition of two electrical contracting businesses, W. G. Heath & Company of Plymouth and M. Partridge & Company of Exeter, as a further thought of Dr. Purves. As will be gathered, it was somewhat difficult to disentangle what was concrete in the proposition from ideas, which cropped up in supporting documents, but after conversations with Dr Purves, it became possible to form a picture that might be worked upon.
The promoting company, West of England Electricity Limited, had its registered office in Honiton and little more than nominal capital, which was not impressive for a concern which was applying in association with the equally small Dulverton Electric Lighting Company, Limited for monopoly powers over some thousand square miles of territory. The Electricity Commissioners were therefore waiting for evidence of adequate financial backing, before giving the proposal serious consideration.
Moreover, there were, before the Electricity Commissioners, competing applications from Christy Brothers for the Culm Valley area and the Power Development Company in respect to the South Somerset portion. There followed talks with Mr. Woodhouse and Sir John Snell. Eventually an inspection of the area took place with Dr. Purves at the end of November 1928, occupying four days. Starting from Torquay and Paignton, the route took in Teignmouth, Dawlish, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton,Sidmouth, Seaton, Honiton, Tiverton, Bampton, Dulverton, South Molton, Minehead, Porlock, Wellington and the Culm Valley. We were accompanied on that occasion by Mr. F. W. W.Pattison, a director of the Exe Valley company, who then acted as Dr. Purves's secretary. In the course of time Mr. Pattison completely merged himself in West of England electricity affairs and he has for many years been a director and commercial adviser of all the operating companies.
The inspection disclosed that only 20 years ago the state of electricity supply in the area was absolutely pathetic. In nearly all the small towns the supply was direct current from a small and often antiquated generating plant, the only exceptions being Crediton as mentioned below, Teignmouth, which had rec. ently changed over to alternating current, Paignton which was taking a bulk supply but continued to sell direct current, and South Molton, where alternating current was furnished by an extraordinary mixture of water turbines and gas producers. Units sold per head per annum were generally of the order of 20, and no attempt had been made to reach out into the country beyond some limited transmission lines at Minehead, Teignmouth and Dawlish, plus a bulk supply given by Exeter to Crediton.
It was clear that any comprehensive scheme would involve a large unproductive expenditure in acquiring existing undertakings, which had in fact nothing more than scrap value, and changing consumers' installations from direct to alternating current, over and above the cost of an extensive transmission system to connect them together, and that any adequate return on this outlay would be slow in coming. The Whitehall Securities interests were, however, accustomed to taking the long view, and I was authorised to proceed.
The possibility of extending the scheme to West Devon led to another inspection tour on 16th and 17th January 1929, covering Tomes, Ivybridge, Yelverton, Tavistock, Okehampton, etc. In Totnes the undertaking was owned by the Electric Supply Corporation, and in the other places mentioned there were non-statutory undertakings belonging to W. G. Heath & Company, who were willing to dispose of them in conjunction with their electrical contracting business already mentioned. The conditions of electricity supply in all this territory were at least as backward as in the area of the Purves scheme, but an option was obtained on the Heath properties.
This brief review does not cover all the possibilities that were taken into account in the framing of a definite scheme; but it will serve to describe broadly how West of England Electricity came into being.
Chapter II - Description Of The Territory From the point of view of electricity supply, the whole area from coast to coast contained between lines running roughly due North from Lyme Regis and Plymouth respectively was open to consideration, with the exception of the larger towns such as Taunton, Exeter, Torquay and Plymouth, in which electrical facilities were already well developed.
A leading feature of this huge area of more than 2,500 square miles-being the whole of Devonshire and a considerable part of Somerset is the large extent of moorland, occupying between them some 700 square miles of territory in which next to nothing exists.
It will be appreciated that the area as a whole was, outside the large towns, decidedly thin in population, being of the order of 150 per square mile. In the territory which later appertained to the Exe Valley Electricity Company, it was in fact as low as 71 per square mile. Moreover, broadly speaking, rich farming land existed only in the Exe Estuary, Crediton Hamlets, the district south of Dartmoor, and parts of East Devon, much of the remainder being what is known geologically as the Culm Measures, and really only suitable for grazing.
Industry on any considerable scale was represented by the textile mills at Wellington and Tiverton, a series of paper mills along the River Culm and at Watchet, and the clayfields in the Teign Valley. In none of these instances were the prospects for taking an electricity supply promising, as the textile and paper mills used largely process steam and the clayfields had available as fuel, lignite which occurred in layers with their raw material. There was therefore little industrial load to be picked up beyond quarries, brickworks and the usual village industries.
Thus, the picture was not particularly encouraging, but it did not require much prophetic vision to see that the beauties and mild climate of this West Country would in time inevitably attract a considerably larger population, and that these new residents would be mostly in better circumstances than the wretchedly poor agricultural communities at that date.
Chapter III - The Scheme Takes Form
The six months, which followed the decision of Whitehall Securities Corporation to proceed with the business, was a period of active and often delicate negotiation with the numerous parties concerned, of which the detailed record in my personal notes and memoranda was unfortunately lost in the destruction of the Exe Valley Company's offices in Exeter in the blitz of May, 1942.
The Electricity Commissioners were satisfied that there was now adequate financial backing, and in consultation with them the applications for the Special Orders were clarified by the arrangement with Christy Brothers mentioned below and by a territorial arrangement with the Power Development Corporation, under which there was relinquished to them the relatively small area in South Somerset included in the original scheme. Christy Brothers agreed to turn over their interests in Cullompton, Silverton and Bradninch and their application for the Culm Valley Electricity Special Order, 1929, under an arrangement by which they would be interested as contractors with the construction of the transmission system and changeover in this valley, and would manage the undertakingthere on behalf of Whitehall Securities Corporation for a term of years.