Early electricity woes

by | Feb 29, 2020 | Events, Forgotten Heroes, Places, Street names | 0 comments

Providing electric power to Potchefstroom has never been an easy matter. Just like today an economic slump, disagreements and failing equipment had an influence on supplying electricity to Potchefstroom since even more than a decade before it became available for the first time.

In 1890 the government of the ZAR granted a concession to erect a power plant in Potchefstroom to Mr Ferdinand Saunders of Johannesburg and his partner, J Dowel-Ellis. A slump in economy of the town prevented them proceeding with the scheme.

After the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) Potchefstroom experienced a boom time. In the space of a few years the old Royal Hotel, on the corner of Kerk and Lombard Streets (Walter Sisulu and James Moroka), was demolished to be replaced by a new double storey building and fitted with electric lighting and bells. The Queens Hotel, currently the Impala, was extensively refurbished and in 1902 the Kings Hotel, in Potgieter Street (Nelson Mandela) was built on “a substantial scale”.

During a meeting of the town council on 20 May 1903, it was reported that the electric power plant for the Queens had already been ordered from England.

By 6 June the Potchefstroom Consumers’ Electric Light and Power Company had already been founded. A plot of land was acquired in Lombard Street (James Moroka) where the plant could be erected and the company intended to not only install and maintain the power plant, but would also do the wiring of houses and even install telephones! The company would also be in a position to supply electricity to the Cantonments (military base) and that they would be able to do so from July 1903.

The plant was subsequently installed on the south-western corner of Gouws and Lombard Streets (Sol Plaatjie and James Moroka). This was in spite of government’s opposition, who insisted it first needed to sanction the installation of wiring for street lights.

Senex, a long-time columnist of the Potchefstroom Herald, wrote in 1975: “On Saturday evening 15 August 1903, a large number of townspeople, including several ladies, assembled at the power station of the Potchefstroom Consumers’ Electric Light Company to witness the inaugural ceremony of the turning on of the electric current.”

This auspicious occasion was marred by the fact that the “turning on” did not happen so smoothly. Senex continued:

“After some delay in making trifling adjustments, the ponderous machinery was set in motion and ran with apparent smoothness for some fifteen minutes when it was found necessary to stop the engines, as some parts had become unduly heated.”

With the aid of six workers the flywheel recommenced its revolutions and soon after, “under Mr McInnes’s personal manipulation, the dynamo began to hum,” wrote Senex. Mr Geo McInnes was the engineer.

Mr JB Skirving, resident magistrate, and the wife of Mr John Gaisford both pulled levers to indicate that the Queen and Kings Hotel were lit up. Champagne, sponsored by Castle Breweries, were consumed and Potchefstroom was a little lighter than before.

The first power station of Potchefstroom was on the corner of Lombard and Gouws Streets. The photo was taken by Fred Coop. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

This first power failure was the first of many that afflicted the users. For many years the supply of electricity was heatedly discussed at meetings of the town council. Electricity was also only available at night which meant that it was unavailable to housewives and industry.

The plant functioned until 1911 when the town council installed its own power plant on the corner of Wolmarans and Kock Streets.

Municipal electricity

In anticipation of the inauguration of the new municipal power plant, the editor of the Potchefstroom Herald on 23 May 1912, called this an “event marking an important epoch in the municipal history of Potchefstroom.”

On Friday, 26 June 1912, the inauguration took place and on 28 June the Herald published a supplement on the historic occasion.

A steam generated plant was supplied by Messrs Siemens Ltd and the boilers were capable of providing steam equivalent to 125 horse power.

The Herald explains:

The burnt gases are carried into a four feet steel (1,21 m) chimney stack, about 80 feet (24,38 m) in height. The boilers are fitted with steam super-heaters, raising the temperature of the steam to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The steam pipes are carried from the boilers to a main steam range provided with the necessary valves and steam traps for draining of condensed water and from thence are carried into the engine room and connected to two Bells and Morgan quick revolution engines, each coupled to 60 KW generators giving 540 volts direct current.

The building was erected by Messrs Bracher and Andrew costing £1 800. “The building of Rand brick, with stone foundations and granolithic floors, the roof being steel. The dimensions are 110 feet (33,5 m) by 40 feet (12 m), divided into engine, boiler and battery rooms, workshop, store and office.” An engineer’s house was also built. The total costs of the scheme amounted to £15 000.

The power station on the corner of Kock and Wolmarans Streets was officially opened in 1912. The chimney stack was 1,21 m in diameter and 24,38 m high. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

The chimney stack of the electric power plant towered over the town in 1912. On this photo it is visible from the eastern bank of the Mooi River near Bremner Street. In front is the stone bridge over the river at the eastern end of Lombard Street (James Moroka). The current bridge is just north of the MooiRivier Mall. Photo August D’Ange D’Astre

The consulting enigneer was Mr Ferdinand Saunders of Johannesburg who received the concession from the ZAR as far back as 1890 to install an electric power plant in Potchefstroom.

Siemens subcontracted V Frolich and E Jansen to do the installation in Potchefstroom. Reunert and Lenz supplied and installed the switchboard.

Day-long festivities

Mayor MA Goetz (centre front) switched on the dynamos of the new electric power plant on 26 June 1912. To his left is the deputy mayor, Reuben Gericke (with blond moustache). The face of Charles Holcroft, chairman of the electric light committee of the town council, is visible beneath the thick steel pipe to the left of Gericke. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

For the inauguration of the power plant, the mayors of Parys and Klerksdorp and officials from numerous neighbouring municipalities were invited. After a function, given by the contractors at the Kings Hotel, “a move was made” to the plant. Numerous speeches followed after which the plant was set working by mayor MA Goetz.

This photograph was taken on 26 June 1912 when the electrical power plant was inaugurated. In the middle (with top hat) is mayor MA Goetz, who switched on the dynamos. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

That evening “an electrical demonstration” was conducted at the town hall, which was crowded. Telegraphs conveying the congratulations were read. The street lights and those installed in the town hall for decorative purposes were switched on by the wife of the mayor, Mrs Elizabeth Goetz.

By 10 pm a late supper was held, again at the Kings Hotel. The day-long festivities ended at midnight.

Electrical engineer for four decades

The man who, for nearly four decades, was inextricably linked to the supply of electricity to Potchefstroom, was William Davidson Ross. He came to Potchefstroom in 1907 as the engineer of the private company who, at the time, provided electrical power to the Royal and Kings Hotels.

William Davidson Ross Photo: Potchefstroom Herald


When the town council built their own power plant in 1912, he was placed in charge. In his term he experienced countless changes in the supply of electricity. This included the change over from direct to alternating current, followed by the link-up with the Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom).

Ross was born in Scotland, where he was trained. In the early years of his career he was a marine engineer and visited many parts of the world. He came to Potchefstroom from Bloemfontein and remained here after his retirement. His final retirement was in 1946, nine years after he reached pensionable age.

He passed away on 14 May 1951 at the age of 74 years and in his obituary the Potchefstroom Herald of 18 May 1951 reported that he was an avid bowls player and also played soccer in his youth. He was survived only by his wife, their children having died young. According to the Potchefstroom Cemetery Register their two babies were respectively four hours and eight months old when they passed away in 1913 and 1914.

Ross Street in Potchindustria, aptly near one of the large electrical substations in Potchindustria, was named after him.

Novelty becomes a necessity

The novelty of 1912 became indispensable. Businesses, factories and households quickly became dependent on the electricity.

The Electricity Supply Commission, currently Eskom, was founded in 1923. In its first year end report Potchefstroom is named as one of four municipalities in the old Transvaal who generated their own electricity. The others were Witbank, Johannesburg and Pietersburg (now Polokwane). Potchefstroom was connected to the national grid of Eskom, sometime between 1938 and 1946.

Do not iron on Tuesdays

By 1951 the power-consumption grew to such an extent that electricity cuts had to be imposed. In the lead article of the Herald of 22 March the first instances of load shedding were announced. Consumers, especially housewives, were repeatedly asked to curtail their use of electricity, which did not happen. This necessitated the power cuts. Potchefstroom then consumed about 2,412 kW electricity, a mere 133 kW less than what was available.

A few week later the Herald reported that housewives, through the local chairlady of the National Council for Women, promised to try to save power. Housewives were also requested not to all iron on Tuesdays, as was the tradition, but to spread their ironing over the whole week.

By June 1951 it appeared that all this was futile and the shortage of electricity became critical. Power cuts during peak hours became inevitable.

The next year, 1952 the Vierfontein power station near Orkney started to generate electricity, which alleviated the load.

900 light bulbs for a première

By 1957 there was enough electricity available to light up the 900 electric bulbs that were temporarily installed in Church Street in front of the Grand Theatre for the première of the movie “Dis Lekker om te Lewe”. This picture, with Al Debbo and Frederick Burgers, was for the greater part of it filmed in Potchefstroom. The Grand Theatre was at 142 Church Street. The building currently houses Jet Mart.

In September 1975 the electricity department occupied their new building in Potchindustria. According to a report in the Herald, readers viewed this building as “peculiar”. While it was constructed they speculated that it was going to be a discotheque, theatre or dance hall. The building was officially opened in January 1976.

In order to reduce power consumption, a load control system was bought by the city council in 1996 at a cost of R4,5 million. An apparatus was installed in each household to switch off the geyser during peak hours. The subsequent lack of hot water, sometimes at critical times, had many residents up in arms.

Longest power cut

The longest power cut in the history of Potchefstroom was in April 2004 after lightning struck a big transformer at the Alpha substation on the corner of the N12 and Ross Street in Potchefstroom and it caught fire.

Afterwards Eskom initially supplied power to Potchefstroom directly from its distribution network, but due to overload a second transformer broke down. The two power cuts lasted over a period of 24 hours.

Eskom announced the first surge of load shedding in 2008 and now, twelve years later, it is frequently effecting the lives of many South Africans.

With large-scale developments mainly in the Bult area, it was necessary to upgrade electricity supply to this area, which was done in 2011.