The Red Lion flour mill

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Built by Anderson & Mowatt in 1875 and purchased by J&T Meek in 1884, the Red Lion Mill is reputed to be the first building in Oamaru lit by electric light. What is more likely and is recorded on the information panel on the building is that it was the first building lit by electric light generated by hydropower. This building is intimately associated with the charming urban myth that on the night the 23 lamps first illuminated the flour mill, Oamaru had more electric lights than London. It may well be true! London was lit by gas for decades after 1893 with very powerful coal mining and gas making monopolistic companies exerting corrupt influence to stem the adoption of electric street lighting. But it could be wrong, because if other buildings had electric light beforehand (such as Meeks Crown Mill which was lit from a dynamo run off their steam engine in 1888) then it was not first in that race.

The Anderson and Mowatt store in front of the mill is not seen in this picture, confirming that it is pre 1875.

The mill's particular fame in Oamaru lies in the fact that the owners in 1893 (Meeks) installed an American Pelton wheel (genuine patented) connected to a British Crompton DC Generator to generate 110V for lighting the mill. The water for the Pelton wheel came from the town water supply - a fact that is recorded on interpretation boards in The Historic Precinct - but only recorded "lightly"

Well part of that is fact the rest is not. The turbine installed in the Red Lion Mill in 1893 was a Barker's turbine - a reaction turbine developed from the Whitlaws and Sirrat turbine first patented in the USA on 3rd June 1843 - Patent#3153, however the the history of this store then flour mill then store is so badly recorded that the fact that the pair of buildings with the pyramidic lantern lights on the roofs are both cast-in-situ concrete buildings of 1875 vintage, has slipped past without anyone noticing before!

In fact the photograph of the mill buildings above gives us immediate cause to wonder - if the mill was lit by a special set of installed machinery to provide it with light, where did the power to drive the milling machinery come from? And clearly there is no steam plant at the mill because there is no boiler-house chimney.

In fact, there are few boiler-house chimneys visible in any photos of downtown Oamaru in the 1890s - and this is because Oamaru was powered to a very great extent by hydraulic engines and hydraulic motors running off the town water supply - just as Sir William Armstrong 1st Baron Armstrong CB FRS envisaged things could!

Oamaru's capability in this respect was taken account of by the councilors of the 1873-74 Borough Council who specified, when they set out the conditions under which the Borough would raise funds to build the town water supply, that it have "300 spare hp available after meeting the drinking and fire-fighting needs of a town of 4000 people"

Large diameter cast iron water mains were laid in most streets and connections made on application for water supply and undertakings to pay about one penny per thousand gallons. The water pressure was up around 120-140psi (not recorded or at least I haven't found it) making it at least as "powerful" as any commercial boiler at the time and completely safe, into the bargain.

The uptake was immediate - the water supply came on stream in 1880 and there were numerous debates, applications for supply, arguments and even litigation centred on it the very next year.

And now (July 2012) after may hours on Papers Past, I'm confident to say that (a)the Red Lion Flour Mill was not the first building to be lit by electricity in Oamaru. This story (with its simple mistake embodied) goes around and around, whereas it is apparently from the interpretation board that it was just the first lit by hydropower - a minor distinction which might be worth listing as a use of the hydraulic network, but hardly as a stand-alone historic bon mot. The distinction of first light going to Meeks Crown Mills by Oamaru Creek where the dynamo was driven off the steam engine, and to other premises not named but referred to in more than one newspaper report. (b) it was not powered by a Pelton Wheel but by a Whitelaws Pattern (Scotch) reaction turbine made by James Sirrat (c) it wasn't a flour mill in 1875, just a grain store and not converted to a mill until 1881 or 1882 when the grain store was moved to a building in front just built and now much celebrated for its heritage value. 1881 was when water power first became available (c) that The Red Lion mill and its twin building seen in the above pic are both dated 1874-5 and are both extant and are both concrete buildings of great heritage value and charm. So much for relying on received information!

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on June 30, 2012
  • Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works
    by Bruce Comfort