Power to the People (Tramway Generating Station, Bristol, UK)

This week’s transport beauty is the result of the modern world happening before architecture is quite ready for it.

On the edge of Bristol Harbour, just by St Phillip’s Bridge, stands an imposing building that can’t fail to catch the eye even though it is currently partially obscured by scaffolding and sheeting. It’s a mad, bad piece of architectural exuberance. Although it has recently served as offices, and is currently being redeveloped as luxury apartments (you lucky lucky things, future residents, I hope you appreciate the history of the building in which you reside) it was originally the electricity generating station for Bristol Tramways.

Bristol Tramway Generating Station, under wraps for rebuilding as luxury apartments. © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Bristol Tramway Generating Station, under wraps for rebuilding as luxury apartments. © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Its location was dictated by its need for fuel – coal – which was brought to it on barges, and then converted into electricity. The power station was designed by William Curtis Green (1875-1960), a British architect who was a specialist in power station exterior design (love it) and would later go on to design power stations in Hove (Sussex) and Chiswick (London). This, however, is the finest example of his power station designs, and that’s not me who says so, it’s Historic England, which has given a Grade II* listing to the building.

Many early railway stations adopted Classical, Renaissance or Gothic Revival architecture, all of which predated the technology of the railways themselves, sometimes by several millennia. And it sort of suited the early railways with their chaotic working practices and smoke-belching locomotives.

On the other hand, such styles arguably weren’t the best visual match for more modern electrically powered transport networks, which is why the Bristol Tramway generating station seems so outlandish.

Green certainly threw every architectural trick he could think of at this five storey structure. Practically every element of Classical architecture is in there somewhere, in a magnificent melange that seems to owe as much to the way someone would construct a fantastical building out of a box of toy building bricks as to conventional architectural practice. Rather brilliantly, that’s not far from the truth, because the generating station was constructed in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, USA) and then shipped over the Atlantic to Bristol in kit form for construction (as you can read here). It is, or was, the ultimate pre-fab.

Bristol Tramway Generating Station, via Google.

Underneath is a steel frame built to the design of American electrical engineer Horace F Parshall (1865-1932). With the exterior therefore having no structural function, Green was free to let rip and indulge his architectural fancy, which he promptly did.

The narrow front end has a Venetian window at the bottom (a three part window with an arched central section and rectangular flanking bits) with a coffered arch above. On either side of the upper part of the Venetian window are smaller rectangular windows with floating cornices. Above that is a huge lunette window, but clearly that wasn’t enough to satisfy Green, who added four Ionic columns in front of it and a balustrade across the bottom. Above that, the pediment (the triangular bit at the top) has dentils (sticky-out bricks in a regular pattern), egg and darts (moulded ovals and pointy pieces) and modillions (ornamental brackets) as well as a narrow window under a shell. The left-hand corner of the building is splayed, which means it is cut off at a diagonal instead of being a sharp right-angle, and on this splay at ground level is the building’s door, under a fan light.

The long sides of the building are just as (over) decorated as the front, having five bays sunken between pilasters with Ionic capitals. Ground floor three-light windows have lunettes above, more Venetian windows above these, and keyed occuli (small round windows with prominent stones at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions) at the top. Did I mention there’s a balustrade on the roof at the corners of the building? I didn’t? Well that’s because with so much going on it’s hard to keep track of all the building’s details.

Bristol Tramway Generating Station from the water. © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Bristol Tramway Generating Station from the water. © Copyright Christine Johnstone and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Not only is the generating station an unusual survivor of the original British tramway story, Bristol itself occupies a pioneering role in the same story. Its tramways were originally horse-drawn, meaning that each tram had a power output of exactly one horsepower. Sorry, couldn’t resist that. A surviving Bristol Tramways depot in Brislington (also by Green, and which I’ll come back to at some point in future) looks very much like a stable block at its front entrance. Bristol Tramways was a trendsetter in new technologies, because in 1895 it became the first tramway in Britain to operate using electric motors instead of equine motors. I assume that Bristol Tramways must have used a temporary generating station at first, because the generating station at St Phillip’s Bridge didn’t open until 1899.

In a world of ubiquitous mains electricity, it’s hard now to understand just how extraordinary this conversion process in Bristol was, and that of the tramways in countless other British towns and cities which swiftly followed suit. For several decades afterwards, even large cities would remain reliant on coal-derived town gas for lighting, and deliveries of coal for domestic heating. The tramways were way ahead of their time. So much so, in fact, that by the time of the Second World War many of them had already vanished. Having adopted electric power so much earlier than electricity’s widespread adoption in homes, and having been around for so long, tramways seemed old fashioned even though they had been pioneers. To many other British cities’ subsequent and lasting regret, only Blackpool’s tramway network would survive the process that culled the remainder by the 1960s. Bristol’s tramways were closed in 1941 after a bombing raid damaged the power supply to the tramway, though not the generating station itself.

During its working life, the generating station sported a 200ft steel chimney, long since lost, but the building itself is a remarkable survivor and a reminder of a time when cutting-edge transport infrastructure was dressed in Classical architecture. Such a mismatch of form and function couldn’t last, and in London, another transport power station was soon groping towards a more modern approach, of which more next week…

Further Reading

Historic England’s listing record for Bristol Tramways generating station, here

If you want to see the building without its wrapping on, Historic England’s article on historic power stations, here, has a lovely one

…and, as usual, anything linked to in the text above

How to find Bristol Tramways generating station

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

3 thoughts on “Power to the People (Tramway Generating Station, Bristol, UK)

  1. Daniel,

    The first Bristol Tramways powerhouse was erected next to the car sheds in Beaconsfield Road, St George in 1895. The first route converted from horse to electric was Old Market – Kingswood. The powerhouse originally had three Willans Patent centre valve compound steam engines, coupled by rope (!) with BTH generators each of 150kW capacity. Source: Bristol’s Trams Remembered by John B Appleby, 1969, published by the author. No ISBN reference.

    I have a great affinity with Bristol, having lived there for several episodes in my life, and worked for Bristol Omnibus for five years. I therefore enjoyed this week’s post!

    Regards David

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