Rochester was once the centre of a pioneering powerhouse.
Kent Electric Power Company was based at County House, 178-184 High Street near Star Hill, until electricity producers were nationalised in 1948 and it became part of Seeboard.
Some readers will recall that M&D buses stopped outside and “a single to the KEP” was a phrase still being used by bus passengers until the 1970s. (I wonder if anybody still asks for a ticket to the Regent in Chatham? Or the Jezreels?)
Mr Geoff Bessant, of Bodiam Close, Gillingham, was a mine of information about Kent Electric Power Company. “I worked for the KEP for about two months, starting in February, 1948,” he wrote. “The KEP was nationalised on 1 April, 1948, and I had 40 happy years with Seeboard.
“The main yard was in Corporation Street, right opposite Alma Place, a site now used for car sales. At the other end of Alma Place, in the High Street, stood County House – remember the electric clock outside?”
Mr Bessant enclosed three photographs, one of which I reproduce. “I know this must be 1936, because my brother Eric is in the picture. I was a 10-year-old schoolboy then,” he wrote. “This must have been a works outing. In the background, you can see the original office and showroom at 240 High Street – at the end of St Margaret’s Banks, almost opposite the railway station.” One of the sidelines at this time was charging accumulators, for wireless sets.
Harold Knell was manager of the KEP until it became Seeboard. He then became the manager of the Kent area until he retired. He is pictured in Home Guard uniform. The power company had its own unit and Mr Knell was commanding officer.
Mr Bessant added: “I do not know when County House was built but it got its name from the County company, of which the KEP was a subsidiary.
“The engineers’ cars were maintained in a block of lock-up garages in Roebuck Road, Rochester. Later they had a proper garage in Whitaker Street, Chatham. Cable joiners pulled a two-wheeled cart with all their tools and materials. Public lighting was maintained from a two-wheeled push cart with a box tower, which was wound up by hand. How things have changed!
“The substation, on the corner of Station Road and Frindsbury Hill, Strood, was always manned 24 hours a day. It was the call centre for KEP consumers, and a meeting point for engineers, in the event of any faults, on the high-voltage network.
“There were no radios or mobile phones in those days: An engineer had to find a phone box and report back to Strood substation, when he found the problem. Then he had to the get the man out to make the repair.”
Lousy gift for the new owners
After the above account was published in the Medway News, Mr Roy Farrow, of Hilltop Road, Frindsbury, added: “My father Ernie Farrow worked for the KEP at the substation on Frindsbury Hill for many years. On several occasions I would catch the bus from outside the KEP offices to visit him at work.
“I played cricket for KEP/Seeboard/Medway Electricity during the 1950s and 1960s. What a side we had! Where have all the players gone?”
Historian Frank Wright, of May Road, Rochester, recalled the KEP well, as you might expect. He wote of County House: “This fine building was built as a furniture showroom and repository for Franklin Homan Ltd. The architect was W Bond, who also designed Chatham Town Hall and the Theatre Royal in Chatham.
“When Franklin Homan closed down, KEP bought it – about 1936 – and converted it into a showroom and offices moving from 240 High Street (where I remember taking accumulators for charging), which was opposite the railway station.
“Cove lighting was installed in the showroom and a map of Kent showing the parts of Kent served was put over the payment counter. The company also had a canopy fitted outside which extended over a large part of the pavement. This was removed a few years before the showroom closed – much to the disgust of passengers who sheltered under it while waiting for buses.
“I believe there were three or four bus stops outside a little further along. Two of the stops were also used by Chatham and district buses. The decoration in the showroom was art deco; 240 High Street was taken over by the Ministry of Pensions and Social Security before moving to a new building in the Brook, Chatham.
“Mr Bessant’s mention of the cable stored in Corporation Street stirred my memory! And if you look at the upper part of the wall of County House facing Star Hill it is still possible to read part of the slogan for Homan’s repository.”
Mr Les Palmer, of Randolph Road, Gillingham, was also inspired to write in. “I have in front of me as I write,” he told me, “a letter signed by Mr H F Knell, instructing me to report to the Kent Electric Power Co at 240 High Street, Rochester, to commence work in the drawing office. This letter is dated 9 October, 1935. I was 16.
“I recall when the Munich Crisis loomed that the company also acquired the old Speedwell Hotel, which was near No 240 at the end of St Margaret’s Banks. This was never used greatly, however, and subsequently County House became the company’s final HQ The rear entrance to County House was by the cobbled yard used by Fremlins’ brewery depot.”
Mr Palmer also recalled that Homan’s upmarket furnishers left an unwelcome legacy to the power company: “The upholstery section was in need of fumigating when we took it over as a meter depot – heaving with fleas!”
A word in Sir Robert’s ear
Finally, a few words from the former Mayor of Gillingham Freddie Cooper, sadly no longer with us.
He wrote: “Your report brought back many memories as I joined the company in 1935 at the old offices 240 High Street, Rochester, opposite the railway station. I was appointed at 25 shillings a week by Mr AT Gray, the accountant, after two years as a junior clerk in an insurance office and was pleased to get a 25 per cent increase in salary.
“We had an all-male staff – even the shorthand typists were men, although in the interim period before the war Miss Packman joined as telephonist and the secretary Mr Dickie Silk and chief engineer Mr Jack Blackmore had Miss Vera Mitchell and Miss Beryl Hazelman respectively as their secretaries.
“We were owned by the County of London Electric Supply Co Ltd, which fostered sporting activities and we soon had football cricket and tennis fixtures at a new sports ground in Valley View Road, Rochester, with a soccer team in the Rochester and District League and inter-company competitions at Raynes Park, Surrey.
“The highlight of the year was the annual sports club dinner Chatham Town Hall, which was attended by Sir Robert Renwick, the chairman of our parent company. I recall seeing Sir Robert standing at the bar with Steve Bradley, our burly jointers’ foreman, learning from Steve what was really right or wrong with the firm.
“The jointers were important workers as they manually dug the trenches and joined the cables for all new developments and faults and I doubt if many company chairmen would seek the opinions of a manual foreman today – but I thought that it was a clever idea.
“I think that most of my fellow pre-war employees have happy memories of the KEP. Welfare was high on the company’s list and I recall that a Colonel Spoforth called at each office once a fortnight to ascertain the name and address of any employee who was absent through illness so that he could ascertain if any assistance was required. It was considered significant that this was the first service that ceased on 1 April, 1949, when electricity services were nationalised.
Lifesaving medical fund
“Before the National Health Service was created, our hospital services were organised by charities and we contributed 2d a week to St Bart’s Hospital, Rochester, and 1d a week to Maidstone ophthalmic hospital, which was deducted from our wages and entitled us to free treatment.
“I benefited from this when I was a patient in Maidstone Ophthalmic for six weeks in 1938 where my life was saved by the devotion of Sister Long. I had bled for a week from a split artery in my nose which had defied all conventional methods to stop but Sister Long and a young doctor sat on my bed on a quiet Sunday evening and devised a type of clamp which, when applied for 24 hours, proved successful and for the past 66 years I have been humbly grateful.”