The Generator House at Cliveden

The Generator House

The Generator House


For over seventy years, the Generator House was the key ingredient in allowing Cliveden to bask in glorious heat, light and throw glamorous parties. Within a stones throw from the main house, tucked away in 'the Dell', this significant example of ground breaking engineering remained hidden from public view. Thanks to our £50,000 regeneration project this abandoned structure is finally beginning to see the light once more.



Cliveden’s electric past



In 1896, Lord Astor commissioned the Generator House for Cliveden as he was looking for something to replace the outmoded Gas Yard. It was the latest technology for the time and allowed the mansion to shine with bright electric light. It was described in the Gardener’s Chronicle (June 22 1885):


‘...another “improvement” is the electric light for which we noticed a shed to hold an enormous steam boiler, and the necessary machinery is being constructed at a point in a dell not far distant from the mansion. How bizarre this all seems to us in this quiet retreat! We think any means of lighting preferable about such grounds as these, as this glaring searchlight.’


It is thought the generator building was designed by renowned architects John and Frank Loughborough Pearson, who undertook various works for the Astors in the early 1890s. The original 1890s generating plant, comprising two single cylinder coal fired steam engines, remained in service until 1914. At this point technology had advanced so quickly steam was able to be replaced by three new Gardner paraffin fired oil engines directly coupled to three Newton dynamos supplying 23 KW at 110 volts DC. Other upgrades, namely chambers to silence exhaust fumes were sunk into the ground outside the house and inside a new marble and teak switchboard was put in.  


The Electric Scheme, devised by Consultant Engineer Adrian Collins was implemented by Baxter and Caunter, manufacturing engineers, at a cost of £2,141. This would be around £175k today. Oil was stored in two 500 gallon galvanised underground tanks located in what we know today as Gardeners Yard. The electricity was held in banks of batteries supplied by the Electrical Power Storage Co Ltd ready for onward supply to the house and other locations. 



On site direct current (DC) generation continued throughout the interwar years but as early as 1923 conversion to alternating current (AC) mains electricity supplied by the Bourne End Electric Company was first considered. This would have involved scrapping direct current appliances or installing onsite conversion to DC via a rectifier but it  was decided to maintain the status quo.  Although costs of maintaining the plant had been mounting at each review it was decided that the Generator House was still fit for purpose. By 1931 a Vickers Petter 100hp diesel engine had also been installed to further upgrade the plant to meet increasing demand both for lighting and by then domestic appliances.  


A letter from the Maidenhead Corporation dated February 1940 confirms that the newly built much larger World War II Canadian Red Cross Hospital was to be connected to the mains but to extend a cable to the mansion would have cost £1,100, (£43,000 today). Because the 'private generator was still in good serviceable condition’ and due to war time supply shortages mains connection of the mansion was again deferred. 


Finally, in April 1948 mains electricity was connected at a cost of £8,000 (£204,000 today) by which time Cliveden had passed to the National Trust. There is some evidence that the Generator House continued to supply parts of the wider estate until 1968. Then, when the plant finally stopped backup generation, the engines were exported to provide further service.


Looking to the future

Restoration began in the spring of 2017 and will continue well into 2019. Fundraising continues and it is hoped that after the drying out phase is completed, replacement of the oak doors and windows will have taken place by the summer of 2019. Click on the project updates below to find out how we are doing.  We are still deciding how the newly transformed Generator House will be best put to use for the next 100 years.


Latest updates

01 Feb 19

Beautiful brickwork

The scaffolding has now all come down to reveal the lovely brick work. New guttering has been installed and the building is now watertight. Our maintenance team are working to clear out the many voids (created by old pipe runs) and make them safe by covering them with wood. Please do come down to watch this conservation in action. The building now must be left to dry out before we can implement the next stage. Fingers crossed for a long hot summer!

Generator House brickwork

01 Jan 19

Half Way there

We have now raised £25,000 of the total fundraising ask. This has been achieved through support from our visitors, volunteers and supporter groups. The interactive coin drop game from the viewing platform, sales of books from our second-hand bookshop located in the Gas Yard, and our monthly raffle all contribute towards the project.

Generator House Coin Drop

01 Oct 18

A new roof is added to the Generator House

After over a year of clearing and restoration the first phase is now complete. The walls, once overgrown with vegetation, have been secured and a new zinc roof constructed ensuring the building is kept watertight, adding to its ongoing protection.

Generator House gets a new roof