The thread about everything you never needed to know about the coming of electricity to Edinburgh; why the city had to use sewage to cool its main power station; and how it was the first part of the National Grid

Electricity first arrived in Edinburgh in 1881, when on an experimental basis a number of temporary public lights were installed around the city by the Edinburgh Corporation, including on North Bridge, around the Holyrood Square and Waverley Station. These were powered by a portable steam engine and dynamo which had been sourced from london by Councillor Landale. Crowds came from far and wide to marvel at the sight of the clear, bright light, but were frequently disappointed as things would go wrong and the system had to be turned off after a few hours, sometimes for days at at time. The lighting contract was allowed to expire at the end of December and the city went back to the duller glow of the gas lamp.

Our story begins a decade later in 1891, when the Corporation was given the powers to provide the city with mains electricity under the 1890 Electric Lighting Act . When I say “provide the city“, I mean provide anyone who was willing and able to pay. A site for the power station was needed; it had to be both central, for the most efficient distribution of electricity (no super high voltages then), easily supplied with coal and yet not somewhere that would offend the New Town as the New Street gasworks had. Such a site was found on Dewar Place, convenient for the Caledonian Railway who had an existing coal yard nearby and a small gasworks adjacent already. The power station swallowed up a vestigial street called Tobago Place, named after a long-gone older tenement.

Dewar Place. The power station would occupy the cleared triangle, and also consume the 3 tenements and corner shop at the top of the hill. OS 1893 Town Plan, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Dewar Place. The power station would occupy the cleared triangle, and also consume the 3 tenements and corner shop at the top of the hill. OS 1893 Town Plan, Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

An elegant and unobtrusive red sandstone structure was completed to the designs of Robert Morham, the city architect, in a style in keeping with the time – this was a period when red sandstone was increasingly being seen in the city. There was a generating hall in the centre section, workshops to the north and offices to the south at the top of the street. There were 8 high-speed reciprocating steam engines in all, each coupled directly to a DC dynamo; initially the supply was for central districts at 230 and 460V DC. Later, alternators would be provided to supply outlying districts with AC (better suited to longer distance transmission) as 2kV, 50Hz. These steam engines had a total power of 400 horsepower, or 300kw; that’s about the same as a top-of-the-range German executive car. The site was large enough for up to 20 steam engines capable of producing 6,000 horsepower. The whole undertaking, including laying all 21.5 miles of under-street wiring, cost £100,000 or about £15.3 million.

Central Electricity Generating Station
Dewar Place in 2020; the façade little changed in 125 years. Embedded from the Flickr of FotoFling Scotland

The current was to be switched on at Dewar Place “Central Electric Station” on 11th April 1895, a grand affair, so the Corporation sent out invites to the worthies of the city to request their attendance at this grand occasion.

The Lord Provost, Magistrates and Council…
request the honour of your presence at
The Central Station, Dewar Place,
at 5 o’clock afternoon,
when you have the opportunity of inspecting the works prior to the turning on of the Electric Current on that evening (About 8 o’clock.)

Current began to flow about 8PM when it was switched on to the toast of “Success to the electric light undertaking” by the Lady Provost, Mrs McDonald. This was done from a switch within the Rutland Hotel, where a celebratory banquet was being held by the Corporation.

And lo’ and behold, there was light! A line of electric arc lamps had been installed along the north side Princes Street especially for the occasion.The spectacle of instant light attracted thronging crowds, who came to marvel at this wonder of the age. With the brilliant light from incandescent carbon every 50 yards, mounted 23 feet high, Princes Street could claim to be the best lit street in Europe. But this being Edinburgh, the corporation had half of them turned off at midnight for reasons of economy. Further lamps were duly added, completing a line all the way from Haymarket to Waterloo Place. The city’s lighting plan was to illuminate the principal tram routes, so the network was quickly extended to Dean Bridge, Viewforth, Fountainbridge, down Leith Street, along the Bridges (which had seen the first gas lighting in Edinburgh not 80 years before, and it’s first electric lights in 1881), to Clerk Street and the Meadows, the Royal Mile and Waverley Bridge to Forrest Road via Cockburn Street. A contemporary verse recorded “When o’er our hills came lines with power, it was indeed our brightest hour;With fourteen lamps our street is bright, a pleasure now to walk by night

The generating hall of Dewar Place
The generating hall of Dewar Place

Edinburgh had actually been pipped to public electric street lighting post by Leith. The Leith Dock Commissioners had the Victoria and West and East Old Docks lit by electric light in December 1894. A small generating station adjacent to the Commercial Graving Dock housed two steam engines and dynamos to power a system of arc and incandescent lights. The work was done at a cost of £4,000 by the Brush Electric Lighting Company. The Burgh of Leith joined in on the act too too, opening its own power station on Junction Place in 1897, turning on the first section of its electric street lights on Leith Walk on Friday December 23rd 1898.

Back in Edinburgh, demand far outstripped the supply from Dewar Place – on the day it started to operate, 177 street arc lamps and 40 private connections were already made with fully 1/2 of its capacity had already been subscribed for. The station was just too small, so it was extended as soon as 1897 to allow for more capacity. But even with expansion, such was the demand for this new-fangled, must have, life changing stuff, that Dewar Place was again already too small. Penned in on all 4 sides, it couldn’t realistically be expanded any further so a new station was needed. A site next to Carson Street off Leith Walk was selected; you will know it as McDonald Road, the old street was extended and renamed in 1897 to accommodate the power station, the name being that of the Lord Provost Sir Andrew McDonald, whose wife had turned on the electricity in the city just a few years before.

Sir Andrew McDonald by William Ewart Lockhart. CC-BY-SA 4.0 Stephencdickson
Sir Andrew McDonald by William Ewart Lockhart. CC-BY-SA 4.0 Stephencdickson

The new site was conveniently adjacent to a railway that ran past the north of the site, for direct deliveries of coal. Construction started in 1899 to the designs of City Architect Morham and it was an altogether grander affair than Dewar Place; with a steel frame clad in a sandstone “Renaissance Basilica”, completed by a rather mismatched, octagonal, red-brick chimney.The Corporation had already been caught out twice in as many years with the rapid expansion of demand, so this building was to be big enough to meet future demand PLUS, sufficient land was reserved to double or even triple it in size. When completed it had a capacity of 5,000 horse power but it was estimated it could make 20-30 thousand if the site were to be fully utilised. If you look at the remains of the generation hall today, you can see the stubs of the projecting steel arches for where the next half of the building could have gone.

McDonald Road today, retained as a transformer house. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Richard Webb
McDonald Road today, retained as a transformer house. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Richard Webb

Part of the project included an intriguing 1,220 yard tunnel under Leith Walk from the top of McDonald Road to Little King Street (where John Lewis now is) to carry the 21 principal power cables to a distribution node. It was 6.5 feet high and 3.5feet wide to allow workers access to maintain the cables without having to repeatedly dig the street up. When McDonald Road was connected to the network at the end of October 1899, it was noted that there were 245,000 electric lamps in the city (at this time the supply was only for domestic and municipal lighting) and that the peak load was 10,400 Amperes. New connections were being made at the rate of 1,500 lamps per week. A report of the Corporation’s Electric Lighting Department in 1905 recorded “The municipal reputation… has been greatly increased by its management of the electric light, the success of which has been quite phenomenal” It also went on “The waste of… plant is very considerable, arising not so much from ordinary tear and wear, but through carts and other vehicles coming into collision with the lamps…Breakages are… frequent… representing a considerable annual expenditure.”

Workers lay the electric cables in the passageway at the top of McDonald Road towards the city centre
Workers lay the electric cables in the passageway at the top of McDonald Road towards the city centre. Edinburgh World Heritage

Notice in this last picture that there’s no electric overhead wires for the trams; they were hauled instead by underground cables driven from a power hourse at nearby Shrubhill (and also Tollcross, Henderson Row and Portobello). Edinburgh had decided to opt for this sytem and persist with it; the wires and poles for Electric trams would have been vulgar in its Georgian heart.

Let us now consider Leith; the smaller neighbouring burgh of Edinburgh and stalwartly independent. In 1898 the burgh had opened a small electrical generation station on Junction Place, next to the Victoria Baths, to produce a supply for municipal and domestic lighting. It had five steam engines, producing 660hp and was expanded continuously after that. I assume it may also have helped to heat the pool and public washing baths. The site required all coal to be brought in by horse cart and also included housing for the workers.

Junction Place Power Station, 1906, from a Goad Insurance Map. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Junction Place Power Station, 1906, from a Goad Insurance Map. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

On the subject of public transport, Leith rejected joining Edinburgh’s antiquated, complex and slothful cable-hauled tramway. But that left her stuck with horse traction, so in October 1904, Leith Corporation took over the private, horse-drawn Edinburgh Street Tramways Company (which it had powers to do so) service within its boundaries. It rapidly ripped the whole thing up, relaid it with stronger rails and electrified it; nothing but the best for Leith! Electric trams of course need electricity, and so the Corporation Electricity Works was expanded to cope; to 4,600hp with space for a further 4,000hp. The first electric tram ran as soon as August 1905 (think about that, Leith built an entire electric tram system in under a year…) but the extensions to the power supply did not complete until November 1906.

Leith Corporation electric tramcar built by Brush on a test run at Bonnington Toll, 1905
Test run of Leith’s first electric tram car on a test run at Bonnington Toll, with the general manager accompanying it alongside on his bicycle, in his top hat. Embedded from the Flickr of Kenneth G. Williamson

Back in Edinburgh, yet again the Corporation was quickly faced by problems. The new site at McDonald road had the room for the machinery to expand, but the world had now settled on turbo-alternators (steam turbines producing AC current) as the most reliable and efficient way to produce electricity. The difficulty was that steam turbines – to operate efficiently – have to exhaust steam into a vacuum. To create that vacuum you need a condenser; a very big and effective condenser. And to have a condenser you need either a very large cooling tower or a huge supply of cooling water. McDonald Road had neither – there were cooling towers at Dewar Place for its small turbine units, but the vapour clouds they produced were totally unsuited to a city centre location, and the Water of Leith was totally insufficient for cooling purposes.

As an interim solution, it was proposed to draw cooling water for the condensers from Lochend Loch to the east and return it back, warmed, from whence it came. However Leith Corporation had a veto over this as it still used its former drinking water supply for industrial purposes and the scheme came to nothing. Its customers were paying for water for cooling purposes too, and would not accept it being pre-warmed by the neighbouring burgh of Edinburgh. Instead, in 1908 an ingenious scheme was hatched whereby small turbines were added running off of the exhaust steam of the reciprocating engines. To solve the condensing issue, a shaft 26 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep was sunk from the power station to intercept the main sewer running between Edinburgh and Leith. Four eighteen inch pipes were run down the shaft through which the liquid contents of the sewer were pumped up into the power station and run through the condensers, before being returned to the sewer, nicely warmed. But for the long term it was back to the drawing board…

The drawing board needed the Corporation to find a new site, and to solve the cooling question they decided to make use of the abundant waters of the Forth, which we all know to be nippy, even in the summer. They soon settled on two candidate, logically on the outskirts to keep pollution away from the city. One was at Granton adjacent to the Edinburgh & Leith Gas Commissioners gasworks, the other was off the Kings Road at Portobello. Granton may have been attractive as land and infrastructure could have been shared with the existing municipal gasworks, but it was half a mile and 100feet of elevation above the sea and that would have required significant effort in pumping just to get to at the coolant. So Portobello was selected, right on the sea shore and just off the existing railway that gave it direct access to the plentiful Lothian coalfield which was rapidly expanding production at this time.

In 1914, consulting engineer Alexander Kennedy was instructed to draw up plans and arrange quotes for a station with two of the latest turbo-alternators with a power output of 5MW, and with ample room to expand as required. Demand for electricity at this time was insatiable and production could hardly keep up, even with the constant extensions to the stations in Edinburgh and Leith. In the ten years from 1903-1913, the amount sold doubled; actual demand was far in excess of this.

Graph of Edinburgh Corporation's sales of electricity, 1903-1914
Graph of Edinburgh Corporation’s sales of electricity, 1903-1914

And almost immediately, Europe went to war and the Ministry of Munitions had all work big industrial works stopped so that the country could focus its industrial might on the business of death and destruction. The Portobello scheme was no exception. Unsurprisingly, production of electricity dropped in the war years, not increasing again until 1918.

Graph of Edinburgh Corporation's sales of electricity, 1903-1918
Graph of Edinburgh Corporation’s sales of electricity, 1903-1918

When the war ended, the Corporation wasted no time, and even in 1918 they were petitioning the Board of Trade to allow them to revive their 1914 plans. The Board referred things to Ministry of Reconstruction, who passed it to the Coal Conservation Sub-Committee. The men in grey suits in the opaque sounding sub-committee considered the matter and gave it their blessing; but only if it was undertaken on a grander scale so that it could also supply neighbouring counties. Alexander Kennedy dusted off his 4 year old plans plans and proposed three 10MW turbo-alternator sets, with expansion possibilities up to the giddy heights of 100MW (for comparison, the “small” coal power station demolished at Cockenzie in 2015 was 1,200MW).

The Board of Trade formally approved the scheme in June 1919. The new station would supply not just the burghs of Edinburgh and Leith, also the larger supply territory called the Edinburgh and Lothians Electricity District – including Musselburgh, East Lothian and Midlothian – which it served with the Lothians Electric Power Co. Contracts were issued in October. The power station itself sat to the south of the King’s Road road, directly accessed by an existing rail branch under the road junction that had been laid for the brick works. It was supplied with fuel from a rail-served coal stockyard to the west, beyond the High Street and Balleyfield Road, via a conveyor system running under the roads.

OS 1:1250 Town Plan, 1944. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
The railway tunnel and coal conveyor. OS 1:1250 Town Plan, 1944. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The most elaborate tunnels at Portobello however belonged to the cooling system. Three 9ft diameter shafts were sunk to a depth of 60ft, below sea level directly below the station, which was itself 25 feet above the shore line. From these, 4.75ft diameter tunnels ran 1,500 yards out to sea, emerging well below the lowest tide levels. This tunnelling was done in the same manner as London’s tube railways, lined with cast-iron segments and smoothed off with a skin of concrete. Two tunnels at any one time were used for the cooling water supply, the third to discharge the warmed water. The average temperature at the inlet was 12C and at the outlet was 19.5C. There was public optimism that this warm water might be used to heat a public swimming pool… The managers of the power station had to develop a pattern of cycling the discharge water temperature at different levels for set periods of time, and swapping each pipe between inlet and outlet to deal with the problem of mussels growing on the pipes’ filter screens and blocking them.

Portobello Power Station was commissioned on Monday 11th July 1923 at 11:30AM, when it was opened by King George V and Queen Mary as part of a state visit to Scotland. It was fitting that the King was opening the power station on the King’s Road, as the latter street was named for the predecessor of his regnal number – George IV – who had ridden in his carriage down it a century before on a historic visit to Scotland to inspect the gentlemen Cavalry Volunteers parading on the beach. George V was given a thorough tour of the insides which interested him greatly; as a result of his time in the Navy he had developed a nostalgic fondness for boiler and turbine rooms. There were three 12.5MW turbo-alternator sets generating 3-phase AC electricity at 6,600V and 50Hz.

The King and Queen are greeted by the Lord Provost and assembled worthies of the city before opening the power station.
The King and Queen are greeted by the Lord Provost, who handed them a golden key to unlock the door, and assembled worthies of the city before opening the power station.

By the time it opened, the City of Edinburgh had forcibly subsumed the Burgh of Leith and was in the process of integrating the tram networks and switching its old cable-hauled system over to electric traction. This had required an additional turbo-alternator to be installed at McDonald Road in the interim. In 1924 a further turbo-generator was installed at Portobello, for 50MW in total. McDonald Road and Dewar Place were downgraded to be the principal substations for the city, together with a third in the Cowgate. The 5MW turbo-alternator from McDonald Road was transferred to Portobello. Dewar Place became the principal public office of the Edinburgh Corporation Electricity Supply Department and that’s where you went, until recent memory, to pay your bills in person. The ECES cypher can still be seen all over the city on lamp posts, tenement wiring cabinets and access covers.

ECES cypher on a lamp post

And what became of Leith’s Junction Place power station? It was never big enough. After expansion in 1906, it was expanded again in 1910 and in 1919 it had been agreed to supply additional electricity in bulk from Dewar Place to Leith. As part of Edinburgh’s settlement to the aggrieved folks of Leith for taking it over, it was to be converted to a public wash house; “at a cost of £20,000 it would be the largest washhouse in Edinburgh, with 100 tubs and a separate ironing room.” Edinburgh’s obligations clearly irked her and it took until 1926 to start work and it was not opened until January 1928. On opening, the Lord Provost said “the Council [has] now just about given Leith all that it needed and so they might give the Corporation a little breathing space to do something for other parts of the city?” The Convenor of the Plans and Works Committee went so far as to claim that Leith now had the “biggest and most up-to-date washhouse in the world!”. As a rather limited consolatory gesture, Edinburgh made it free to use for the first 3 days. Leith Steamie remained the largest and busiest wash house in the city. It became an automated laundrette about 1975 and was closed in the early 1980s.

So Leith had “all it needed” and the Corporation got on with the business of running and expanding electricity production at Portobello. For much of its life the place was a permanent building site, as unit after unit was stuck on to increase the capacity. In 1926, the Electricity (Supply) Act was passed to set up a national grid using a national standard frequency and supply voltage. As one of the biggest and newest stations, and with room to expand, Portobello was selected to be the principal station for the East of Scotland. Conveniently too, Edinburgh had selected 230V and 50Hz as its supply standard and this matched the new national grid requirements, so no changes were required to voltage and frequency. Portobello was quickly expanded with two new 31.5MW sets, for a total of 118MW, well in excess of the planned 100MW.

One of the new Turbo-Alternators at Portobello. © Grace’s Guide

In 1929 the first transmission tower of the new “National Grid” was erected by the Central Electricity Board on the Mortonhall Estate. On April 30th 1930, the first phase of the British National Grid was inaugurated with the switching on of the Central Scotland Electricity Scheme by Minister of Transport, Herbert Morrison. He threw a switch at the new high tension transformer station at Portobello and energised the 132kv lines, connecting Edinburgh, Glasgow, Motherwell, Dundee and Stirling.

Herbert Morrison at the opening ceremony of  the Central Scotland Electricity Scheme at Portobello, 30th April 1930.
Herbert Morrison at the opening ceremony of the Central Scotland Electricity Scheme at Portobello, 30th April 1930.

More generation required more boilers, which required more chimneys and required more coolant, so a 4th tunnel was sunk out into the Forthto bring in more seawater. The place ended up being a weird mixture of municipal classical and modern industrial architecture with 7, stumpy steam-punk looking chimneys out back

Portobello in 1930. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Portobello in 1930. © Edinburgh City Libraries

In 1936, “Portobello “Edinburgh’s Seaside” finally got its promised open-air pool, which was first mooted before the power station had even been completed.

The open air pool on what looks like a cool day in 1930. This was a test of the wave machine prior to opening. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The open air pool on what looks like a cold day in 1930. This was a test of the wave machine prior to opening. In the background is the power station, now up to 8 chimneys. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Whether or not the pool was kept at the 20C promised from the hot water exhaust from the power station is a matter of much nostalgic debate. You can see many more poscard pictures of the pool at this website.

Portobello in happier, sunnier times
Portobello in happier, sunnier times

But the Corporation were restless and had much bigger plans afoot to expand the station. Portobello was to be expanded to 149MW and a huge extension was to be added to create space for this extra capacity. Step up the wonderfully named Ebenezer James Macrae, City Architect.

Ebenezer James Macrae, the man who designed modern Edinburgh (1881-1951).
Ebenezer James Macrae, the traditionalist who designed much of modern Edinburgh (1881-1951).

Macrae is one of those legendary figures in Edinburgh municipal architecture, he designed much of the modern city, and designed it well, with an uncanny knack of being able to balance the vernacular tradition, the classicism of the “Athens of the North” with the modern. Usually conservative, Macrae broke his mould a bit and went for a strikingly modernist style in red-brick and concrete, but with its roots hinting at Edinburgh’s Georgian.

Macrae's sketch impression of the reconstruction of Portobello. The right hand, mirror-side of the rear extension was never completed. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Macrae’s sketch impression of the reconstruction of Portobello. The right hand, mirror-side of the rear extension was a proposal for future capacity and never completed. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The dominant addition was going to be an immense 350ft tall chimney to try and clear the stoor away from the washing lines of Portobello. That chimney alone weighed in at 10,000 tons and had seven hundred and ten thousand (!) bricks in it. These could be conveniently be brought into the site directly by rail from local brickworks like Prestongrange, Roslin, Newbattle and Wallyford. People often say Scotland doesn’t have an architectural tradition in brick; perhaps it’s less pervasive than in England, but it’s there; the Power Station, after all, was built on a brickworks, out of bricks!

South view of Portobello and Macrae's chimney. © Edinburgh City Libraries
South view of Portobello and Macrae’s chimney in 1967. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The original station was dwarfed by the new additions, hiding from the public’s eyes the mechanical parts behind a towering facade of red brick and glass.

The view of Macrae's Portobello Power Station that greeted visitors arriving from Edinburgh. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The view of Macrae’s Portobello Power Station that greeted visitors arriving from Edinburgh. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The new structure was completed just in time for another war, a booklet published by the Corporation proudly called it the “Hub of Greater Edinburgh”. Note that the artist has made a couple of errors in the image of the power station.

After the war, the electricity supply was nationalised, so in 1947 Edinburgh Corporation’s finest asset was transferred to the nascent South East Scotland Electricity Board. Expansion was then ago, by 1950 up to 212.5MW (over twice the original expectation). More reshuffling occurred in 1955, when the SESEB and its west coast equivalent the SWSEB were merged to form the SSEB. By 1957 Portobello was producing 272.5MW and had the highest thermal efficiency of any power station in the UK. It wasn’t all smooth going though. An explosion caused by seawater in the switchgear caused an Edinburgh-wide 2 hour blackout in 1953, and in 1961 there was a fire which fortunately was quickly contained.

Fire at Portobello Power Station 22 July 1961 at 5:31PM
Fire! July 22nd 1961 saw a fire break out at Portobello. Embedded from the Flickr of Lost Edinburgh

Portobello continued keeping the lights twinkling in Edinburgh and the Lothians for a further 16 years, although it was soon playing second fiddle to the new station along the coast at Cockenzie which opened in 1967. The end came in 1977, with a huge new coal powered station opening at Longannet, one with its own collieries feeding the fuel directly from underground into the boilers, with a nuclear plant on the way along the coast at Torness.

Inevitably, Edinburgh was quick to demolish the place before somebody could think of anything else to do with it.

Demolition at Portobello.
Demolition at Portobello.

You can view a rather sad video of the demolition progress on YouTube here and you can still visit the old gates and fences if you happen to be passing, and there’s a building on the other side of the High Street that used to house some of the first National Grid switchgear on the other side of the road.

The former gates to Portobello Power Station. © Self
The former gates to Portobello Power Station. © Self
A switchgear building.

And six years ago, the monumental city coat of arms that was once proudly displayed over the entrance door turned up, broken into at least 3 pieces, in a council yard in Sighthill. The promise to incorporate it into a new sports centre for Portobello having been quietly forgotten… I have no idea where this fine municipal symbol is these days.

The Coat of Arms. Embedded from the Flickr of W. F. Bryan

Edinburgh’s Latin motto “Nisi Dominus Frustra” is an abbreviation of Psalm 127, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” I’m not a believer myself, but I think there’s something in that…

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


  1. […] With work progressing on the two new depots and power stations, attention turned to the tracks, which had to be totally rebuilt to accommodate the cables and also the heavier cars. Work started at the new Newington terminus on September 9th 1896, with a formal ceremony presided over by Lord Provost McDonald (who the previous year had brought a public electricity supply to the city.) […]


  2. […] The shallowness of this tunnel totally precludes the urban myths of any tunnels under the road running up Leith Walk towards Elm Row from Shrubhill. Those tunnels are actually a single passageway, just large enough for a man to walk up, that ran under the pavement from Mcdonald Road up to Picardy Place, which was to carry the first electricity cables into the city from the McDonald Road Power Station. […]


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