Large scale electricity distribution became a reality in South Staffordshire with the formation of the Midland Electric Corporation for Power Distribution, in June 1897. Thomas Parker was the creative genius behind the venture and the Corporation’s chairman was Wolverhampton engineer, J. F. Allbright. In 1898 it was granted Provisional Orders to supply a number of the local towns, including Bilston, Brierley Hill, Coseley, Cradley Heath, Darlaston, Heath Town, Kingswinford, Old Hill, Rowley Regis, Sedgley, Short Heath, Tipton, Wednesbury, Wednesfield, and Willenhall.

The M.E.C. was the first company to get Statutory powers to distribute electricity over such a large and varied area. A power station was built on 14 acres of land at Ocker Hill to supply electricity. It was near to a coal mine and by the side of the Walsall Branch of the Birmingham canal, with access to Toll End Road. Sub stations were built at Bilston, Brierley Hill, Darlaston, Old Hill, Tipton and Wednesbury. Some local councils, including Tipton and Wednesbury decided to distribute the power themselves, whereas others left it to the Corporation.

Ocker Hill Power Station, seen from Darlaston in the early 1970s.

The power station produced a primary supply of two phase A.C. at 7,000 volts, 50 hertz, which was reduced to 200 volts at the sub stations. The estimated cost of the power station was £83,000. Power station staff included James Hardie McLean, General Manager and Chief Engineer; Charles Stewart, Mains Superintendent; and George Reginald James Parkinson, Resident Engineer. Electricity was being produced by June 1902. The plant consisted of two Ferranti 1,200 hp. vertical compound steam engines, directly coupled to 800kW flywheel alternators with belt-driven exciters. Steam at 160 psi. was provided by eight Babcock water tube boilers. In 1903 a Yates & Thom 3,000 hp. vertical compound steam engine and a Ferranti 1,500kW flywheel alternator were added.

The company was unprofitable until 1914 when its first dividend was paid. In some parts of the area, problems arose due to subsidence from mining. In those areas, "loop pits" were built every 200 yards to prevent the mains cables being broken. Each "loop pit" contained 6 yards of slack cable. The cable in between the pits was enclosed in solid pipe work.

Laying a mains cable from Darlaston to Ocker Hill in 1917. From an old postcard.

The M.E.C. changed considerably as a result of the passing of the 1919 Electricity Supply Act that established five joint authorities to oversee and regulate electricity generation. In January 1928, one of the new authorities, the West Midlands Joint Electricity Authority purchased the generating side of the business, and acquired control of Ocker Hill and the power stations at Wolverhampton, Birchills (Walsall), and Black Lake (West Bromwich). The four power stations were quickly interconnected with a 33,000 volt supply network so that they could assist one another at times of high demand. From then on, electricity generation and distribution in the West Midlands were controlled separately. The M.E.C. continued to run the distribution system, but had lost control at Ocker Hill.

The new generating plant installed for the West Midlands Joint Electricity Authority. From the Express & Star, 15th May, 1929.

The National Grid was established around the same time, with a network of 132,000 volt, overhead lines. In about 1932 a sub station was built at Ocker Hill to connect the power station to the National Grid.

The power station, seen from Church Hill, Wednesbury, in the early 1970s.

The demand for electricity from Ocker Hill and the other local power stations was reduced with the building of the 200 MW power station at Ironbridge, which opened in 1932. By that time the plant at Ocker Hill was out of date, and extremely inefficient when compared to the modern plant at Ironbridge. Because of the drop in demand, the number of staff at Ocker Hill was reduced. It is possible that the power station might have closed if it wasn’t for the outbreak of war in 1939.

In the late 1940s, as the demand for electricity grew, much of the plant at Ocker Hill was scrapped and replaced with two 30 MW BTH generators and five Babcox and Wilcox boilers. The power station then had a capacity of 84.5 MW. In 1947 the first two of the concrete cooling towers was built.

The industry was nationalised in 1948 and Ocker Hill power station came under the control of the Midlands Division of the British Electricity Authority. The M.E.C. then became part of the Midlands Electricity Board, known as the MEB.

The power station in 1984.

In the mid 1950s, two new generators were installed, along with extra boilers and a third cooling tower, to increase the station’s capacity to 120 MW. The power station was extremely reliable and gave many years of trouble-free service. In September 1960, coal ceased to arrive by canal boat. By that time there were extensive railway sidings on the site and the station owned two locomotives. It was more economical to transport coal by rail. The canal boats couldn’t cope with the high demand.

A 280 MW gas turbine generating station was added to the site in 1972, powered by two Olympus jet engines. Although the generating costs were much higher than the existing steam plant, it could be put on line in just a few minutes and required only a small number of operating staff. By this time the demand for electricity had fallen and many of the older and smaller power stations closed, including the steam-powered station at Ocker Hill. In 1976 around half of the plant was shut down, the other half ended its working life on the 20th March, 1977. The staff were given voluntary redundancy or transferred to other sites. A few of them joined the team at the gas turbine station which remained open until 1996.

Another view from 1984.

Demolition of the old power station took several years. The cooling towers, once a prominent landmark were demolished in August and September 1985. Many people were sad to see them go. The site is now occupied by a housing estate.

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