This is part of a series about the political economy of electricity, an invention of the 19th century that eventually penetrated to most towns and villages around the globe and even to the west of New South Wales during the Great Depression. This story begins in a small town to the west of the Great Dividing Range, further out than the fertile Bathurst Plains stolen from the Wiradjuri people by the first wave of settlers during the Homeland Wars of the 1820s.
“The truth is, like all places in the past, it cannot be found any longer.”
― Niall Williams, This Is Happiness
My family arrived in Kalari country in a wave of colonisation from east and south. They bought land in the west near Parkes in 1886 – on country suited to growing wheat and sheep after millennia of aboriginal grazing kangaroo, farming and making tools for hunting and fishing along the Murrumbigee (a Wiradjuri word for ‘Big Water’).
First nations people had cleared the land that was later taken from them. That same land around the Lachlan River valley was cleared more extensively by Chinese indentured labour who ring-barked the trees so that white settlers could grow wheat and graze sheep. This clearing occurred from 1873 till 1908. Ringing the timber consisted of cutting a scarf around the tree, three to four inches wide and taking this bark out from the wood. In 1885 Murrumbogie station was open forest country with some 6 to 8 trees to the acre, and a small amount of edible scrub.
The squatters even adopted some aboriginal names for the selection they had stolen. In the case of my family the property they occupied near Trundle was called Murrumbogie by its original settler, Josiah Strickland. It means ‘big water hole’. The selection where the homestead was built on the country of the Kalari people along the Lachlan (Kalari) River was termed Portion 27 Parish of Sebastapol, County Cunningham by the Department of Lands.
The lives of settlers was interrupted by the Great War in Europe where my grandfather served in France, was shot and gassed but came home to a brighter future along with some of his mates. By the Great Depression Ted Curr and Eunice Palmer had already had four children, my mother, Bet, being the eldest.
Early in 1935, Ted Curr and Bert Townsend set up the Trundle Electric Light Co. Bert and Ted canvassed people in town to see if they would be interested in having electricity supplied from six in the morning till midnight. The cost would be a flat rate of one shilling a week per light and power.
They had a good response from the business people and after the scheme had been talked about they made a list of definite clients. They purchased a new Lister diesel engine of 35 hp which ran for 16 years with only three breakdowns.
They hooked up a DC generator and assembled the plant in the back of Bill Roache’s garage. Their first trouble came when they set up their transmission lines to cross Forbes Street. The local council refused permission. Undeterred, they applied to the Main Roads department who gave them permission to cross with 20 foot clearance on 30 foot poles, 10 feet in the ground. They erected the lines in Forbes Street first on both sides and after testing they joined them up to the plant, a 55 horsepower Crossley diesel with a 45 KVA alternator on a cement base in the garage. More customers came on line now that Ken Plevey was wiring new places.
The Parks council helped by allowing their electric engineer, Norm McDonald, to draw the plans for the electricity rent reticulation in the village of Trundle. He was also available to them for advice on all matters. They submitted their plans to the Goobang Shire and after a few alterations got them past. The shire councillors were not much help because the old gentlemen came from the hurricane lamp and candle days.
The Australian General Electric Co worked out all the quantities for the fittings needed including poles and cross arms and supplied them at trade prices. They helped a lot by packing the parts into wooden cases with a list of each item on the box.
Lines ran down Hutton street, Parkes street and part of Croft and Godondery streets as Burt Townsend lived in the latter. The Pleveys now started to erect switchboards and meters for all the customers – the meters to be rented by the company to the customers.
Four large street lamps were active in the main street, and five smaller ones at the street junctions. These were maintained by the company and paid for by the shire at a flat rate.
The accounts were payable at the newsagents where they had an office and Phil Walsh took the money and signed the receipts. Bert strolled around the town and read the metres and Ted sometimes did the job for him.
The customers meters were read every month, and the accounts posted, to be paid by the 20th of the month. If the accounts weren’t paid the company could cut them off.
Now the plant was running well Bert and Ted went by boat to North Queensland for a tour of three weeks. They had only been back a few days when the plant caught fire in the garage and contents were burnt out. They could see the flames as far away as Murrumbogie but they still managed to get there in time to save Ted’s lorry.
The trouble was the fuel tank containing 500 gallons that boiled over and melted the riveted seams. The fuel ran down the back lane and burnt some fences before they dug a drain into a vacant block to contain it.
The fire burnt the butcher shop and Howard’s machinery depot, but the end of the hotel was saved by a bucket brigade. This happened late in 1937 just after the plant line to settle all new.
Friday, no electricity, and the town at a standstill, when George Barry offered to lend them a tractor to get a start. They rang Norm McDonald and he got them an alternator to suit the Berry’s tractor. Next Bill Hawkins offered to go and get down to Sydney on back non-stop.
They erected a pole over near the hall and the Plevey’s wired it to the mains. Someone brought the tractor from the Berry’s and with many willing hands the alternator was unloaded on arrival. Bill Roache had it all hooked up, and lights for the pictures and pubs on Saturday night.
Bert and Ted decided that the Trundle electric light would make a new start in a new garage on their own property. They bought two blocks in Railway Parade from Mrs Jack Maloney at the back of Bloomfield’s store.
They went to Sydney and bought a steel frame building 60’ x 20’ with iron walls and roof ready for action and sent it up by rail to Trundle. They also bought a one ton chain hoist and some tools lost in the fire.
They arranged for a cousin of Bill Roache, Jim Cornish, who was out of work in Wollongong, to come and build the shed for them straight away. He put up the steel garage, with a cement floor, in a few weeks ready to move the plant in. This was divided in half, one for the light plant and the other half for Bill Roache to carry on his garage business.
They built a four room cottage with sleep-out, bathroom and laundry on the second block for Bill Roache to live in, so it would be close to his work. They moved the Lister plant over to the new garage and after thanking George Berry for his time to help overhauled his tractor and returned it to him.
They bought a Man diesel tractor second-hand and hooked it up to the alternator from Mr O’Donnell as a standby plant. After getting in the necessary parts, Bill Roache built up the Crosley engine which the fire had not badly damaged, and put it in their new garage.
They sent across the alternator down to Mr O’Donnell and his firm rewound it for them. They were lucky to have good insurance as Bert had forgotten but Ted got off the boat before it sailed and went up the city and took out the policy.
The franchise was granted to Trundle Electric Light company by the Goobang Shire from 1937 to 1957.
The company ran well until December 1938 when Ted’s partner and best friend Bert Townsend died suddenly of a heart attack. Ted took over all the bookwork, accounts and had to make all the decisions on his own. Bill Roache kept his engines in good order and had no worries from that end of the business. After Bert Townsend’s will was read, Mrs DM Frances was the executor and became Ted’s new partner. Bert Townsville’s death was a great loss to the town and his wheat buying for a big company was a great help to the farmers as day and night he kept in touch with the world markets.
Ted opened a new account In joint names, Ted Curr and Doris Francis with the Union Bank to Gary to carry on until probate was granted. This was in January 1939. Mrs Owen helped Ted with the book work and he read the metres every month and sent out the bills. With cash coming in they had no trouble with finance.
Now with the talk of war fuel prices began to rise. As it was a public utility supply of fuel was assured but not the price. Early in 1940 Ted volunteered to join the army as an instructor and was accepted to be called up at a later date.
Albert Clark offered to take over the management of the electric light during the war and Ted handed it over to him. Ted care was called up by the AIF in July 1940 and went into camp.
Alva Clark ran the electric light company for five years and Ted took over from him in August 1945 at the end of the war. The Trundle people owed Alva a lot for his work at a difficult time through the war when fuel and oil were always hard to get and spare parts had to be made. In 1946 Ted bought a Man diesel second-hand rated at 100 horsepower. This set could run the town at night except on Saturdays when one of the smaller sets helped.
The following year they lost Bill Roache who took over the Ford garage next to the hall and started on his own. Jim O’Bryan took the job of running the powerhouse for some time but gave up as he found the long hours too much for his health.
The next band to run the power house was Harry Dixon, a returned Air Force mechanic, who stayed with Ted till the central West County Council took over supplying electricity to the town and district in 1951.
Council simply pulled out the switchboard and pushed in theirs not losing a second in a ready-made electricity supply business.
The central West County Council took over all their power lines at council’s valuation and left them with all their engines to dispose of as best they could. Doris and Ted sold two engine sets to a man who started to run a power station at Tottenham. He had a hard time before the Shire it took over.
They then sold the 100 horsepower Man engine to some people on the Murrumbidgee to pump water for irrigation. Ted took the Lister diesel for himself as he was unable to sell it. The electric light company did not make any money but they got their capital back by sale of the cottage and garage.
So there you have it – a tale of how electric light was brought to a country town by resourceful people working together with their local Shire council.
Political Economy of Electricity
I was surprised that that Trundle Electric Light went for so long. It appears to have been an interesting mix of mateship (Bert and Ted), free enterprise, community help and a reluctance by state authorities to get engaged in providing electricity to remote towns until after the Second World War.
The next story in our series on the political economy of electricity will describe how local government ran power stations in the early days of a capital city. This occurred in Brisbane / Meanjin until electric power was taken over by a state government authorities in the 1960s and 70s.
The final part will describe how electricity power supply comes full-circle and is taken over by profit making private companies and corporatised state authorities.
I wish to thank my grandfather Edward A. Curr for leaving this record in his ‘Selected stories from the Past’ published in 1979. Both he and Bert Townsend showed great enterprise in setting up electricity supply in a small town who’s population fluctuated around 900 people in the years mentioned.
26 July 2022.