Newcastle and Tyneside in general, is rightly famous for the inventions produced here. From the railways to the hydraulic crane and from the first turbine driven ship to the electric light bulb (and many others besides), Tyneside was the home of some of the most important inventions in human history. But the last invention mentioned above would be of little use to use without a switch to help us turn it on. Thankfully that was also invented. And the place where it was invented? Yes, Newcastle again, not far from Heaton, by a man with strong links to Heaton itself.
That man was John Henry Holmes, an engineer, Quaker and inventor. Holmes was born in Newcastle on 6 June 1857 and grew up first of all in Gateshead and then in Jesmond. His father was a ‘paint and color manufacturer, glass and oil merchant’ with his own factory. John attended the Friends School in Bootham, York, where he was taught the rudiments of science. Holmes must have absorbed much of what he was taught as, at the age of 16, he won a place at the Durham College of Physical Science, later Armstrong College, now Newcastle University. Two years later, having completed his studies, Holmes was apprenticed to Head, Wrightson and Co of Stockton-on Tees.
It was at Head, Wrightson and Co that Holmes began to handle electrical apparatus. Then in August, 1881, Holmes became an electrical engineer, working for John S Raworth of Manchester. His first work with Raworth was helping to fit out a new ship, City of Rome, built by Barrow Shipbuilders in 1881, with 16 arc lamps and 230 Swan lamps.
In April 1883, John made a bold decision. Having built upon his successful work with City of Rome by continuing to install lamps both onshore and in ships, Holmes decided to establish his own company in Newcastle, along with his father and two elder brothers, Alfred and Theodore. So it was that an electrical engineering business under the name of J H Holmes was established. The company was to last until 1928, fully 45 years, until their work was taken under the wings of A Reyrolle and Co Ltd. Consequently, the work initiated by Holmes went on for over 50 years under his supervision and in some respects continues to this day.
It was the following year that Holmes invented his light switch, the first in the world, at his workshop on Portland Street, Shieldfield, just outside Heaton. This switch enabled electric light to be easily used. In1883, Holmes had installed electric lighting in ‘Wellburn’, the family home in Jesmond, which thus became the first house in Newcastle to be lit by electricity. This work caused Holmes to develop what is now the familiar quick break switch. He patented this invention in Great Britain and the United States in 1884.
This was a huge breakthrough, in helping people to use electric lights. This new technology ensured that what was known as electric arcing was prevented, by causing the internal contacts to move apart quickly enough. This was very important as electric arcing could cause fires or shorten the life span of a switch. You can still see Holmes’ original invention at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.
Holmes didn’t restrict his work to this country. The Suez Canal was opened in November 1869 and by the late 1880s had become an important transport artery for the British Empire, cutting travel time for ships between the Indian subcontinent and Britain. In 1889, Holmes visited Egypt, where he studied the requirements of vessels traveling along the canal at night. Subsequently, Holmes ‘designed and supplied portable lighting apparatus that effectively increased the capacity of the Canal by greatly extending its use in the dark hours’.
Holmes then moved on to finding ways of lighting trains and producing electroplating dynamos. These are described as being, ‘designed for low potential and high current intensity. They are wound for low resistance, frequently several wires being used in parallel, or ribbon, bar or rectangular conductors being employed. They are of the direct current type. They should be shunt wound or they are liable to reverse. They are sometimes provided with resistance in the shunt, which is changed as desired to alter the electro-motive force.’ So there, now you know… However you describe Holmes’ work, he was certainly developing a reputation for pioneering electrical engineering work.
Holmes was indeed a prolific inventor. In 1897, Holmes commenced the sale of ‘Lundell’ motors under patent from the USA. This has been seen as a ‘pioneering step in the electric driving of industry’ and indeed one of the early and most interesting uses of this motor was in electric cabs.
The following year Holmes was at it again! This time he invented something which would help the publishing industries, for it was in 1898 that the Holmes-Clatworthy 2-motor system was patented and this would go on to drive newspaper presses for many of the world’s most important newspapers.
As the twentieth century dawned, so the company continued to develop and Holmes remained involved. It has been said of Holmes that his, ‘personal influence on its engineering side was invaluable because of his almost passionate love of good mechanical ideas’.
Holmes was known as a kindly man, with a reputation for having a quiet, retiring nature. Indeed it has been said of him that his nature prompted Holmes to perform, ‘many kindly acts and caused him to take a particularly keen interest in young people, and his orderly mind compelled him to do his best in all that he undertook and enabled him to play a notable part in the spread of a new way of doing things’.
Holmes and Heaton
So we have learnt that John Henry Holmes invented the light switch very close to Heaton in neighbouring Shieldfield, but what links did he have to Heaton itself?
Holmes had at least two close links with Heaton. The 1901 census shows us that his brother Ellwood was living in High Heaton at ‘Wyncote’ on Jesmond Park East. It describes him as being 35 years of age and an ‘employer’. He is described as an ‘Electrical Engineer and Paint and Colour Manufacturer.‘ He is evidently working in the family business. At this time, Ellwood has a 28 year-old wife called Edith, a son called Charles, aged three, and two sisters, Margaret and Ada, aged 30 and 24 respectively, living with his family. In 1911, Ellwood was still on Jesmond Park East and had added ‘licensed methylator’ to his list of occupations. This is someone licensed to manufacture and sell methylated spirits.
In 1928, when John Henry Holmes was 71 years old, his company, J H Holmes and Co, was incorporated into A Reyrolle and Co in Hebburn as a wholly-owned subsidiary. So it was that six years later, in the last year of his life, Holmes’ work gained a direct Heaton connection. It has been noted that, ‘A Reyrolle and Co established Parolle Electrical Plant Co Ltd as a private company for construction of electrical and other plant with the specific aim of acquiring shares in C A Parsons and Co from the executors of the estate of the late Sir Charles Parsons. Two directors were appointed by Reyrolle and one by Parsons.’ So Holmes’ work became directly connected to Heaton’s most famous company.
John Henry Holmes’ eventful life ended in 1935. He is buried in Old Jesmond Cemetery.
As the saying goes, ‘if you want to see his legacy, look around you’. If you are reading this somewhere indoors, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see an electric light switch. It has been noted that Holmes’ ‘quick break technology remains in use in domestic and industrial light switches modern times.’
‘A Fine and Private Place: Jesmond Old Cemetery‘ / by Alan Morgan; Tyne Bridge, 2000. 1857951557
‘The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People: a new history’ / by Dan Jackson; Hurst, 2019. 1787381943
Find My Past
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group with additional material by Arthur Andrews. Thank you to Newcastle Libraries for the image of John Henry Holmes.
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