The spiritual birthplace of ActewAGL

Kingston-power-station
Kingston Power Station under construction, May 20, 1914

Long before bars, boutique restaurants and high rise apartments lined the Kingston Foreshore, a small community powered Canberra. Yarralumla resident Alan Kelly – one of the Causeway children who grew up in a power station cottage during the early 1940s – reflects on the iconic site’s construction and what it has meant to the community across generations.

Mid-century life in Canberra was full of simple pleasures, with Alan Kelly – who shared Power Station 2 with 15 siblings – saying a standard afternoon would involve knocking up a canoe out of old corrugated iron and sailing down what was the Causeway Creek.

“We didn’t have toys or anything like that. You had the willow trees and you would climb to the top of them and we had a swing. They [the children] would just go down the side of our house, get a canoe and head out to the river. It was amazing there were no incidents or anything, as a lot of us couldn’t swim.”

Mr Kelly’s father was a fireman at the power station, which saw him shovel coal into a furnace to supply the city with electricity. Staff that worked shifts included an engineer, the leading fireman, a greaser, a coal conveyer attendant, an ashman, a cleaner and labourers.

“They used to have a good scrub up before they came home,” Mr Kelly said.

“But you know, the floor and everything was covered in soot. There was nowhere for it to go.”

Political icon King O’Malley championed the idea of the Kingston Power Station, declaring electricity should be the primary energy source for the city. The chief engineer and general manager of the Melbourne Electric Supply Company, E.W.Clements, recommended a power station and distribution network suitable for a city of 25,000, despite only 1000 people living in Canberra at the time.

Civil engineer Percy Owen decided the coal-fired station was to be built on an 8ha site on the southern bank of the Molonglo River at Eastlake, now known as Kingston.

Construction of the power station began in October 1912. Initially, those involved in constructing the power station and their families lived in tents close to the site. Commissioned in July 1915, the station was the first permanent building constructed in Canberra, generating electricity at 5500V. Electricity was supplied to Duntroon and Action by transmission and distribution lines, with the first streetlights installed at Action in the vicinity of Lennox House.

“It would have been bloody hot carrying bricks with a hod,” 83-year-old Mr Kelly said.

“It was boot-shaped, wooden and with a pole in the middle. You put 12 bricks on it, put it on your shoulder and walked up two flights on a ladder.

“When I lived at the Causeway and I went past that power station I thought it was marvellous. That’s because it was brick; it represented something really solid. The design of the roof and the red tiles stood out.”

One of the unmistakable sounds that defined the infant city was the first whistle, which was installed at the power station in 1924. The whistle could be heard far and wide, and was used to mark the divisions of the workday. It sounded at 7.30am, noon, 12.42pm and 4.12pm.

“The sound wasn’t ear piercing or anything. But it had plenty of volume in it. You could hear it all over bloody Canberra,” Mr Kelly said.

“You’d hear it because there was nothing else to compete. I used to work in O’Connor. My first job was out in the paddock in Macarthur Avenue and you could hear it.”

Around the power station a real sense of community and industry developed.

“From the power station to the railway was every imaginable workshop,” Mr Kelly said.

“There was an office furniture repairer, a joiner’s shop, the sawmill, a blacksmith and the people who used to paint signs for the road. There were all these corrugated sheds for the fire brigade and a weatherboard for the ambulance station.”

Mr Kelly recalled those who worked at the power station and around the Causeway were family-orientated people, who displayed great generosity.

“There were 134 houses in the Causeway and there was not one that wouldn’t do something for you,” he said.

“There was an old lady opposite who you’d borrow milk and sugar from. And if you went to her place and she didn’t have milk, you’d be told to keep going until you got it.”

The unreliability of power supply from New South Wales meant there was a need to maintain the Kingston Power Station regularly until 1955 before the steam plant ceased on January 26, 1959. Today, the Kingston Power Station is one of the few icons that remain, including the famous smokestack that has a special place in the heart of Mr Kelly.

“That smokestack has got a lot of memories for me,” Mr Kelly said, smiling.

“My wife Sylvia used to also live at the Causeway when we were courting and we were at the power station then. We’ve been together since we were 12 or 13. On a winter’s night, the smokestack was only 60m from my bed but I often couldn’t make it from the stack to bed. It was too bloody cold!

“I used to stand there for a couple of hours to keep warm and we’d stand there too long and be late to school.”

ActewAGL is celebrating 100 years of local energy. For more stories, visit the company’s website.