When my grandfather died in 1974, I came across a large brown envelope of photographs he had collected during his time working as a foreman cable-layer in London during the 1920s to 1930s and squirrelled away. They could be dismissed as just a load of blokes digging holes in London streets, but I found them interesting as they showed the work involved in the construction of the National Grid and working methods from nearly 100 years ago.

They also created a giant puzzle as few of the photos are labelled. I like a challenge and decided to try to work out exactly where the photos were taken and what the locations look like in the 21st century. In most cases I have been successful and put together brief histories of the locations and supplemented them with maps, screenshots from Google Street View, and in some cases historical aerial photographs.

Reginald Arthur Watson (1890-1974)

My grandfather was Reginald Arthur Watson Snr. and I was very close to him. He was born at Kensal Town in London, just to the south of the 'Halfpenny steps' - a foot bridge crossing the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal seen on the far right of the map extract below. Kensal Town was built after the arrival of the Great Western Railway which opened in 1838. It was then part of the Borough of Chelsea and was squeezed between the canal to the north, the railway to the south and the Kensal Green Gas, Light and Coke Company gasworks and the fashionable Kensal Green cemetery to the west. Little remains of the Kensal Town of that era as it was rebuilt during 'slum clearance'.

Kensal Town
Kensal Town on extract of 1915 Ordnance Survey map [2]

Reg's father (my great-grandfather) Frederick Watson (1867-1912) had various manual jobs during his life including horse-keeper, cab washer, gas stoker and labourer and died at the young age of 44. His wire Laura (née Chadwell - 1869-1955) remarried and I met her a couple of times before she died, on one occasion taking one of the last of the London trams from Victoria Station to Lewisham. Frederick and Laura had seven children, and most did pretty well for themselves all things considered.

Frederick and his family moved to Stonebridge Park around 1901. At first Reg worked in one of the many local laundries when he left school. For an unknown period before WW1 Reg worked as a steward on the P&O Line ship Morea sailing to Australia and New Zealand. He sent postcards home to his fiancée Louisa née Botsford (1893-1967) and she kept them in a box. I spent hours thumbing through them as a child, intrigued by the exotic scenes. I inherited them and have put them online HERE. My grandparents married in 1913 and my father was born shortly afterwards.

Reg enlisted in the Army on 11 December 1915 and was assigned to the Royal Garrison Artillery and sent to Salonika where he served from 8 August 1916 to 4 April 1919. During this period he was awarded a Military Medal for bravery.

Like most of those that served in that war, he would say little about his time there, but I did manage to get out of him that the medal was awarded because he had rescued a wounded comrade from a shell hole in 'no man's land'. Making light of it, he said he carried the person back over his shoulder so that, should the enemy shoot them, the rescued soldier would get the bullet rather than him. He also suffered badly from malaria and was hospitalised; in fact, he had recurrences of malaria into at least the 1950s. He had been promoted to Sergeant by the time he was demobilised. He told me that he had refused to go to Buckingham Palace for presentation of the medals as the authorities wouldn't compensate him for loss of wages. After three attempts to get him to go, they sent the medals in the post.

Medals awarded to Reginald Arthur Watson Snr. - the Military Medal, the British War Medal (1914-1920) and the Allied Victory Medal (1914-1919) [1]

In the 1921 census, Reg was recorded as an 'Engineer - electrical' working for B. Stillman of 14 Chaplin Road Willesden. This must have been his starting point for electrical work; after that he spent most of his working life with Callender's Cables as foreman of a gang of labourers digging trenches and installing power cables.

The photo below shows my grandfather (centre holding a glass of beer) and a group of Callender's workers sitting on a company lorry. He is wearing his gold pocket watch which can be seen in many of the photos. I have passed the watch on to my son-in-law.

Reginald Arthur Watson and Callender's Crew [1]

By 1939 he had bought his own house in Alperton near Wembley and was recorded on the 1939 Register as a 'Constructional Foreman in Cable Laying and Excavations'.

My father Reginald Arthur Watson Jnr. (1913-1976) was a joiner before WW2 but after it he followed in my grandfather's footsteps and worked for the Southern Electricity Board, also in charge of a gang of cable-layers. He had to retire through ill-health.

For a short period in the 1970s I followed the family tradition by working as an electrician and became a computer telecommunications specialist in the late 1980s.

Development of the National Grid

Electricity was first available in London in 1883 from the Grosvenor Art Gallery in Bond Street - but only to a handful of nearby customers. There were a few other similar independent ventures, but The Electric Lighting Act 1882 favoured supply of electricity by local authorities - many of whom were already providing gas, water and tramways and had the right to dig up roads. The net result was a proliferation of small local power stations with no requirement for standardisation.

By 1900 the Ferranti power station at Deptford was providing high tension supplies and had a system of power distribution; slowly larger power generation plants became the norm. Nevertheless, by 1903 London had 70 power stations of different ages, sizes and efficiency generating alternating current or direct current - sometimes both - and in the case of AC power at widely different frequencies. Given the lack of standardisation it was impossible to link the generation capacity to form a resilient electrical grid system.

Companies providing a DC supply sometimes installed giant batteries to even out the load. DC power was required for the arc lamps that were used in many places but AC power had the advantage of more efficient transmission to places remote from generators with the use of transformers to step the voltage up and down.

There were many twists and turns in the story that led to standardisation, and it is far too complex to cover more than the highlights here. More information is available in an excellent article by the late Mike Horne [23].

The Electricity Supply Bill of 1919 aimed to form district electricity boards and provide interconnections, but this was watered-down by the Conservative Party who saw it as 'nationalisation' and objected to state intervention in industrial affairs. The Electricity Commissioners that were created to regulate the electrical industry had very limited powers and by 1923 there were 109 electricity suppliers in the country that supplied AC only, 176 supplying both AC and DC, and 207 supplying DC only. Of the AC generators, 223 were operating at a frequency of 50 Hz while over 80 were operating at frequencies between 25 and 100 Hz.

The Electricity (Supply) Act 1926 set up the Central Electricity Board that started constructing the National Grid and purchasing electricity from selected generating facilities for resale. One of the effects of this was to reduce spare generating capacity significantly and to reduce the price of electricity.

The installation of the electricity infrastructure shown on these pages was a result of the 1926 Act.

Callender's Cables

In 1870 William Ormiston Callender and Thomas A. Amos set up Callender and Amos to act as importers of asphalt for use in roadmaking. In 1877 Callender, by then the sole proprietor, started importing bitumen from Trinidad and took his sons into the business. They had offices in Leadenhall Street and a refinery at Millwall.

Thomas Callender visited Russia in 1880 where he saw the Opera House being illuminated with Jablochoff Candles (a form of arc lamp) and saw a developing market for electrical cables. Callender's started manufacturing cables insulated with vulcanised bitumen and in 1883 supplied cables for lighting at the Law Courts in the Strand and the Covent Garden Opera House.

By 1914 Callender's was employing 5,000 workers to manufacture cables of all descriptions including for lighting, power distribution, telegraphs and telephones.

Advert for Callender's Cables circa 1921 [24]

In 1945 Callender's merged with British Insulated Cables to form British Insulated Callenders Cables Limited. The company declined after the 1970s and no longer exists.

Before moving on the first location covered in these pages the next link looks at the working methods of the cable layers.