Providing services to remote areas such as Dartmoor has always been a challenge and none more so that ensuring the adequate supply of electricity, especially in the cold winter months. Back in the 1950s the local newspapers often had reports of power cuts, especially in the Princetown area. Such as this from the November of 1950; “The cold snap yesterday, caused a rush demand for electricity which West Devon power stations were unable to satisfy in the evening peak period and there were short power cuts in the Yelverton – Princetown area. The cuts started about 5.30 p.m. and lasted about three quarters of an hour. A South Western Electricity Board official said last night that the abnormal load was caused by people switching on electrical heating apparatus at tea-time. If the public would co-operate and be more moderate in the use of such appliances and electricity generally, during peak periods there would be no need for such cuts.” Anybody who is acquainted with Princetown will know only too well how cold it can get and clearly it was asking a lot for people to forsake the much needed heat when returning home from work of an evening. Fortunately a solution was at hand thanks to the then chairman of the South Western Electricity Board, Mr. A. N. Irens. Prior to taking up this position in 1956 Mr. Irens was the Chief Electrical Engineer for the British Aeroplane Company. It was whilst in this post that he saw aero engines being used for the generation of power and so the possibility of using them to generate electricity was born. If such a scheme could be put in place it would solve two problems, act as a short boost during the periods of wintertime peak demand and reduce the household cost of paying the higher electricity tariffs which were levied at such times. All that would be needed to accomplish this would be a small generator which could be remotely called upon as and when it was needed. However there was one small snag – under the rules of nationalisation no power company was allowed to generate electricity in its own right. But an approach to Parliament was made which resulted in a new Electricity Act being introduced in 1957 which, under certain conditions, allowed the various boards to operate generating stations.
Thanks to the new act the door was then open to introduce Irens’ scheme and as Princetown was experiencing power shortages during cold spells and voltage reductions it was chosen as the first place in the world to have what became known as a ‘Pocket Power Station’. The Bristol Siddely Proteus was the engine of choice to power the station which was remotely controlled via a public telephone line in Electricity house. The ability to remotely control the station was later transferred to the South Western Electricity Board’s control room at Avonbank in Bristol and more latterly to their SWEDAT system. On the 11th of December 1957 the power station was commissioned and had initially an output of three megawatts which was later reduced to 2.7 megawatts. At first the engine ran on diesel but it was found that this became waxed in cold conditions so kerosene was used instead. This now meant that during peak periods the local electricity supply could be boosted at the flick of a switch and Princetown was the proud owner of the world’s first Pocket Power Station. There is a brilliant Pathe News report of the Princetown Pocket Power Station which can be viewed – HERE.
When Princetown’s Pocket Power Station was finally decommissioned and in 2003 its Proteus engine was donated by the South West Electricity Board to the Internal Fire Museum of Power in West Wales. Thanks to the work of volunteers the engine was restored and in 2010 it received an Institution Engineering Heritage Award. These awards only go to what are considered to be unique examples of engineering excellence which have either left their mark on history or have had a significant impact on society or mankind. This really illustrated the importance of Mr. Irens’ contribution to the industry and to the the residents of Princetown.
At the January 2017 meeting of the Dartmoor Forest Parish Council they approved plans, despite a great deal of local opposition, to built a £4 million whisky distillery and visitors’ centre at Princetown. When this work begins it will mean clearing a large section of land upon which sits the ‘World’s First Pocket Power Station’. Sadly both this building and the old Electricity Generating Station were never listed a scheduled buildings as they were considered to be ‘not aesthetic enough’ and therefore are vulnerable to demolishion. Naturally there has been a huge outcry from local conservationists and, indeed from the Dartmoor National Park Authority itself, to preserve the buildings. There are very few structures on Dartmoor that can claim to be unique on a worldwide scale or represent what at the time was considered to be a revolution in generating electricity. This also begs the question as to why the Council approved the plans to build a distillery when there is already one established some seventeen miles away? It is hoped that somebody will recognise the importance of these buildings and somehow incorporate them into the plans for the new distillery. Perhaps His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales could be persuaded to have some input on the matter?