On this Day 21st January 1887

Gas v Electric

Mr Branwell, President of the Penzance Gas Company, has not enjoyed 1887 so far. There are new boys in town, selling what they claim is a better – albeit more costly – product than his company can offer. Coming to a street near you, and soon – the new electric light. 

Today, Friday 21st January, has been set for a public meeting. Mr Norton warns of gas poisoning. Mr Uren, spokesman for the electricity lobby, makes repeated assurances that he intends no criticism of the Gas Company. “It is for you to say”, he tells his audience. Listeners are free to decide whether they like their back streets bright or murky, whether they are happy to risk persons falling into the Dock on a moonless night, or whether the electric company should be allowed to demonstrate, at its own expense, the clear, bright nightscape of tomorrow. 

Mr Branwell ripostes, reminding the town that the price of gas has reduced steadily as the technology has improved. The new Sugg lamps – recently rushed into the town to show gas to better advantage – are a match for anything the electric company can offer. The true cost of the new system is being concealed. The “electric faddists”, he says, have been milking the major cities until the limits of their credulousness are reached. Now, they are “reaching out to the “Johnny Raws of the country”. 

But the Gas Company is not relying solely on civic pride and suspicion of outsiders. The gas men have documents on their side, and Mr Branwell has arrived with an armful of paper. Specifically, the Gas Company has a contract, all signed and sealed, promising them two years’ business lighting the town. 

This is a claim that the Mayor, Wellington Dale, calls into question. He is positive that he has not set his seal to any such contract. The matter, he insists, is still under discussion. Mr Branwell stands on his dignity. The Mayor must be in the wrong: Mr Branwell knows what he has seen.  In due course, the town clerk is sent off on an errand to find the document. He returns with it, and hands it to the Mayor.  Sure enough, there is no signature, no seal. It is just as the Mayor has stated. 

Mr Branwell is discomfited, if not downright suspicious. The Mayor passes the document to him. We imagine his slight smile, imagine the recipient turning the paper over, frowning; perhaps looking for scissor marks or signs of recent tearing. 

After a short while, the Mayor asks for the contract to be handed back. Mr Branwell refuses. An increasingly hostile exchange between these two great men of the town stops just short of fisticuffs, with the Mayor describing Mr Branwell’s insubordination as “shameful”, and finally giving rise to audience “sensation” when he bids Mr Branwell “will you hold your tongue, Sir; I am the chairman and not you”. 

Mr Branwell comes off worst. Although he has begun with encouraging “applause from friends”, he is now “hissed and hooted at”. When the meeting draws to a close and a vote is taken, he can secure barely a dozen votes.

A letter in the Cornishman the following week provides a fitting epigraph to the public deliberations: “no acted farce can equal what frequently transpires before our eyes” 

Cornishman 27th January 1887; Cornish Telegraph 27th January 1887



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"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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