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Page last updated at 14:32 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010
A Kendal device that took electricity to the world
belinda Artingstoll
Belinda Artingstoll
Special Features producer
BBC Radio Cumbria

The Vortex turbine
One of the Vortex turbines produced was used at Cragside

The Vortex turbine in the Museum of Lakeland Life in Kendal is not the most attractive item you will have seen but do not let that fool you.

This machine was involved in the early days of taking electricity to homes, businesses and streets across the world for the first time.

The turbine is the first Vortex to be made by Williamson Brothers in 1856 in their Kendal factory.

More than 400 were eventually made and they were exported all over the world.


At first the turbines were used to power farm machinery. Water poured into the turbine which turned cogs inside and that motion was then used to power the machinery.

James Arnold at the Museum of Lakeland Life
A turbine was installed in Troutbeck Bridge in 1893

The one in the museum was on Holmescales Farm near Kendal for around 100 years. James Arnold, the assistant curator, says the fact that it rarely needed repairs during that time is a testament to Victorian engineering.

One of the Vortex turbines was supplied to Balmoral during Queen Victoria's reign to power a sawmill on the estate.

Eventually the turbines were used to generate electricity. Sir William Armstrong, the owner of a house called Cragside in Northumberland bought one of the Vortex turbines in 1878 and his house was the first private residence in the world to have hydro-electric powered lighting.


Because there was a factory in the area making turbines, parts of South Lakeland got electricity relatively early. A Vortex turbine was installed in Troutbeck Bridge by a local businessman in 1893 to supply hotels in Windermere and street lights in Bowness.

Roger Mallinson, who has lived all his life in the area and is interested in all sorts of technology, says the early electric streetlights were actually dimmer than the existing gaslights. He says some of the early electric lamp posts were still there when he was a child.

He says there was a lot of suspicion about the "new-fangled" electric lighting and the company installed electric lights for free in some local homes to persuade people to change their minds.

Matthew Crosher of Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon Limited


Mind you that was only downstairs. If you wanted lights upstairs you had to pay for those yourself he said. School friends of his who lived in those houses still had to take candles to bed in the 1930s and 1940s. The Troutbeck Bridge generating station supplied electricity until 1948.

The Kendal factory is now owned by Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon Limited and they still supply and refurbish turbines. They have a small room on site with examples of some of their early turbines dating back to the mid 19th Century.

Their hydro-turbines UK sales manager, Matthew Crosher says they are very proud of their history and delighted that the local museum recognises the contribution the company made to the early days of electrical power.


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