Nunney was first introduced to the wonders of electricity on Thursday 20 February 1868, when John Fussell fired a cannon in the packed back room at The George at Nunney.
It is easy to forget how different our village must have been before electricity came to Nunney.
When Max Barnes wrote a profile of Nunney for the Bristol Evening World in 1960, one of the people he interviewed was home on holiday from her job in a law firm in London. Jill Clough, daughter of rector Percy Clough, was asked what she thought of recent changes in Nunney.
“I suppose one regrets some of the things that have gone,” she told him. “In my childhood days we could cycle to Asham woods and pick wild daffodils at this time of the year. Now the daffodils have had to make way for the quarries.”
“But life is undoubtedly a lot easier. You can call at the village shops and buy food as fresh and varied as anything you could find in the West End of London. Nowadays even village shops have a deep freeze.”
The moment Nunney was first introduced to the wonders of electricity can be pinpointed exactly. It happened on Thursday 20 February 1868, when John Fussell fired a cannon in the packed back room at The George at Nunney during a lecture “to a large and respectable audience, who had been specially invited by means of tickets”.
The Fussell family set up their edge tool manufacturing works at Nunney Court in the latter part of the 18th century. Land Tax records indicate that the family owned and occupied ‘Late Hoddinot’s Mill’ by 1766.
The site was sold in 1846, and the sale included “a mill, water wheels and water courses, sheds, smiths’ shops, carpenters’ shops, grinding house, store houses, workman’s cottages, gardens and other premises”.
By 1851 the firm was employing about 200 men at Mells, Great Elm and Chantry. In addition, John Fussell and Co, employed about 20 men and Isaac about 30 men at Nunney, making 250 in total.
Samples of their products were sent to the Great Exhibition of that year. The size of their business empire set them apart from their competitors in the south west of England.
All that remains now is a jumble of ruined buildings, including the remains of the manager’s office, old trip hammer shops and a millpond.
John Fussell was born in Mells around 1829, so he was around 39 years old when he gave his lecture.
The George at that time looked very different to what we see today; the bar consisted of a plank over two wooden barrels until at least 1945. The current lounge area on the right was still a separate building and had been in use as a bakery since 1796 – the bread oven is still there.
Contrary to what most people seem to believe, there is no evidence that The George was ever in use as a coaching inn. The main section of the building is undoubtedly ancient, going back to at least the late 15th century. But the two sections on the left – the side restaurant and the arch – used to be a separate cottage.
Upstairs there were just three bedrooms. The yard had a pig sty, stables and a ‘gig house’ used to store carts and a brew house or malthouse big enough for the pub to provide all its own beer.
The function rooms – known as club rooms – were on the first floor and accessed by outside steps. They were used for dinners, meetings and social events as well as inquests into fatalities – crimes, suicides and accidents at work. The main room was big enough to hold sit-down dinners for up to 70 people and had a skittles alley in it.
The Western Gazette of Friday 28 February 1868 gave a detailed description of John Fussell’s lecture. The main function room was packed with nearly 200 people.
John Fussell started off by apologising for his lack of experience in public speaking. “It was evident, however, from the lucidity and ability with which the subject was handed by him, that such an apology was quite unnecessary, as he was clearly a proficient master of his subject, and as clearly understood the best method of illustrating it,” according to the paper.
Mr Fussell spoke in great detail about the history of scientific research into electricity. He did his best to set out its principles and properties “so far as they seem capable of explanation from our present limited development of scientific knowledge on the subject”.
He also gave examples of the use of electricity in business and everyday life. But what really captured his audience’s imagination was the elaborate electric machine and galvanic battery he used to conduct a series of experiments to demonstrate electro-magnetism and electro-metallurgy.
He demonstrated the fusion of wire, the explosion of a cartridge under water, the suspension of a heavy weight to a magnet, the magnetising of several knives and the electro-plating of a silver coin and other articles. He even fired a small cannon using electricity.
John Fussell’s experiment using electricity to fire a cannon is explained in this short video.
“The perfection and power of the apparatus, which was “home made”, showed that he had not spared expense,” according to the newspaper report. Portable electric machines specifically described as capable of doing such experiments were offered for sale to members of the countless scientific societies that had sprung up in the second half of the 19th century.
Much to his audience’s amusement, the experiments proved not without risk. The machine and battery apparently regularly gave Mr Fussell and his assistants Messrs Devenish, Trowbridge and Hellier nasty shocks, “all of which caused considerable merriment”.
Next John Fussell delighted his audience by demonstrating how an electric telegraph machine worked. After an explanation, he invited members of the audience to write down short messages.
He then sent these by telegraph to the smaller function room next door, where his wife received them and wrote them down. They were read back to the astonished audience by Mr Devenish.
The evening concluded with a vote of thanks. “The National Anthem was then played by the band, and the meeting separated, highly pleased with their evening’s enjoyment, and only wishing that similar entertainments were frequently accessible to them,” the newspaper report concluded.
The lecture and demonstrations in Nunney were hardly cutting-edge even at the time; similar public demonstrations can be found in newspapers some 35 years earlier. But the obvious delight and amazement of the Nunney audience nevertheless make this an enchanting anecdote.
Sadly, one of the reasons why the Fussell family’s iron works in Mells and Nunney lost out to rivals in Sheffield is that they stuck to water power for their manufacturing plants, although they did use steam in their final years.
They were not helped by a catastrophic collapse in the agricultural sector in the 1870s, which hit the edge tool market hard. The firm failed in the 1890s and was bought out by Nash of Belbroughton in Worcestershire, and production moved there.
The wonders of electro-magnetism and its alleged medical benefits were heavily exploited by fraudsters. Advertisements offering everything from electro-magnetic brushes to belts and corset to cure nervousness, inactivity of the brain, asthma and baldness immediately.
It may sound superstitious to our modern minds, but are you wearing a magnetic bracelet right now by any chance?
Electrical Association of Women
It would take years before electricity and electrical appliances became part of everyday life in Britain.
The Electrical Association for Women (EAW) was active from 1924 to 1986. Its aim was to familiarise British women with labour-saving electrical household appliances.
When the EAW started in the early 1920s the National Grid did not exist. Where electricity was available, it was supplied by a patchwork of small supply networks. Few houses in Britain had electrical light or heating, and washing and cooking often took up most of the day for women.
Dame Caroline Haslett, co-founder and first director of the Electrical Association of Women, said:
“Way is being made by electricity for a higher order of women – women set free from drudgery, who have time for reflection, for self-respect. We are coming to an Age when the spiritual and higher state of life will have freer development, and this is only possible when women are liberated from soul-destroying drudgery… I want her to have leisure to acquaint herself more profoundly with the topics of the day.”
The EAW positioned itself as a facilitator that on the one hand educated women about electricity and the advantages of electrical appliances. That included practical training and updates on the latest developments.
It also encouraged women to demand better access to electricity and electrical appliances. Nunney, Trudoxhill and other villages in the area did not get access to the grid until the 1930s.
By 1938 the grid was operating as a national system. The growth by then in the number of electricity users in the UK was the fastest in the world, rising from three quarters of a million in 1920 to nine million in 1938.
On the other hand, the EAW targeted the male-dominated electrical industry to try and get them to be more responsive to women’s real and practical needs in the design, production and distribution of electrical appliances.
When after a few decades electrical appliances had become commonplace in households across the country, the zealous drive and sense of purpose had long disappeared from the Electrical Association for Women. In 1986 it quietly dissolved itself – a victim of its own success.