In June 1930, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirsts’ daughter Ruth, aged four, flipped a switch and formally started up a new hydro station to bring hydro-electric power up to the Dartington Estate. Town Mills, which was leased from the Church Commissioners by Dartington’s trustees, was previously a corn mill built over Staverton leat.
In those days, electricity to this area was controlled by Torquay Borough Corporation. They had advised the Elmhirsts when they bought the estate in 1925, that the Hall and village were too remote to have a mains supply. With his appreciation of small scale electricity generation, Leonard Elmhirst moved forward with plans to convert Town Mills into an ‘automatic turbo electricity generator’.
Detail from a drawing of the estate by Dartington architect Rex Gardner (print located in Totnes Community Hospital):
From 1932 to 1942, the plant provided electricity to Staverton Builders, but wartime production proved too demanding. Staverton switched to the mains and the Dartington trustees were ready to scrap the plant. However, the estate’s electrician, Frank Christy, was able to make the modifications necessary to overcome the technical obstacles. He also successfully conducted the high diplomacy needed to enable the plant to be run in connection with the Torquay supply.
The salmon grille at the end of the Staverton hydro mill race, 1968:
The plant produced power for forty years via its two turbines (15kW and 35kW). Dartington took the electricity it needed and more if necessary, although by the late 60s the plant was primarily serving the Hall area. In the early 70s, the plant was closed down. Town Mills was bought at auction by Nigel Amherst, a member of staff in the music department at Dartington College of Arts and it remains the private residence of the Amherst family.
Thanks to the staff at The Totnes Archive for locating a 1968 issue of ‘Dartington Hall News’—providing most of this information—and to Totnes Renewable Energy Society for researching the subject.