Electrical Entrepreneur? – The Life and work of Henry Massingham

by Kayt Button

In the 1880s, long before the concept of Dragons Den, when the electrical supply industry was born it was up to pioneers, experimental entrepreneurs and evangelists who believed that electricity would change the world, to nurture it from a scientific possibility to a desirable and profitable commodity. One such man who believed in electricity “as a pure light for our homes” was Henry Massingham who introduced electricity supply to much of the South West of England.

Henry Massingham, could be described as an Electricity Evangelist, converted to electric lighting by a display he witnessed at Bristol Cathedral in 1878, aged 27, “…that caused me to become one of the early pioneers, owing to my ardent advocacy of a pure light for our homes, and my determination to bring about a system of house to house lighting by means of electricity, in which I was successful, although at a considerable loss to myself”[1]. The losses he described included bankruptcy and severe ill health.

His newly found enthusiasm for electricity led him to hire the generating equipment that had been used to light the cathedral and demonstrate electric lighting in Taunton. The success of the demonstration, impressed the municipal authority, allowing him to found The Taunton Electric Light Company, licensed through The Board of Trade.

This company provided the town public street lighting from May 1886, with the first private customer, The Castle Hotel signing up in 1887. In 1888 he approached the Bath Corporation with a scheme for electric lighting for their city. They agreed that he would apply for a Board of Trade License to operate for 7 years after which the corporation could choose to take it over. Here he founded the Bath Electric Light Company and began lighting the city in June 1890. The Electric Lighting Committee of the Bath Corporation, the trading arm of the municipality, took over the company in January 1897.

Massingham also went on to supply Exeter in 1889 after canvassing local businesses to gather support for the creation of an electricity generating company for their city. One of the first private customers here was the New Theatre Royal which had been burnt down in 1887 due to a Gas Lighting fire. In 1890 the Municipality applied for a license to enable cables to be placed underground. Demand for electricity grew quickly; but with expensive works to move all overhead cables underground as well as equipment failures, he ran out of funds. The Exeter Corporation bought Massingham’s electrical supply company in 1896 after some disagreements as to the company’s value. Although he also approached Bristol and gave The Electric Lighting Committee a plan to deliver electric lighting via overhead cables, he was not offered a contract there. In fact, Bristol were a late starter into electricity though made rapid progress a few years later.

Although successful in his efforts to bring electricity to the South West, for Henry Massingham, it was at a significant personal cost. The rapid expansion of electricity demand required huge amounts of capital investment and he was left Bankrupt by 1901 and suffered poor health. However, he was a resilient man, and later gave lectures on his experiences as a pioneer of the electricity industry, and his vision for its future. The chairman of the Electrical Engineering Conference in 1927 praised Henry Massingham, along with the other few real electrical pioneers across the country, saying that “The high position which electricity occupied in the world today was due to the indomitable faith and courage, financial hazard, and hard work of the early pioneers in Britain”.

[1] The Past and Future Developments of Electricity and Its Bearing on World Peace, H.G. Massingham, 1927

(Image courtesy of The South West Electrical Historical Society)


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