Nostalgia on Tuesday: Towering presence

One of the most controversial pieces of news to hit South Yorkshire in recent times has been the proposed demolition of newly built homes on the old Mexborough power station site to make way for the HS2 train route.

The demolition of the Mexborough cooling towers in 1982.
The demolition of the Mexborough cooling towers in 1982.

The Mexborough site was developed as a power station by the Yorkshire Electric Power Company (YEPC) as reported in April 1939 by the Yorkshire Post.

The station’s cost was estimated to be about £1m and its construction would provide employment on a large scale during the ensuing three years. Annually it would use a large amount fuel produced at local collieries and once established would attract new industries to the district.

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The YEPC was incorporated on July 26, 1901, under the Yorkshire Electric Power Act, “to construct electrical generating stations for providing a supply of electrical energy throughout the greater part of the West Riding of Yorkshire”.

Another view of the cooling towers demolition in 1982.

Shortly before the Second World War, the power company had existing stations at Thornhill, Ferrybridge and Barugh, where for a number of years they boasted producing electricity at the lowest running cost of any coal-burning power station in the country.

The Mexborough station was to generate high-voltage current and be coupled to the grid system. Comparable in size to Ferrybridge, it was to be built between the river Don and the canal at the Doncaster Road boundary of Mexborough.

During November 1939, WB Woodhouse, managing director of the YEPC, announced the scheme for the Mexborough Power Station “was to be proceeded with”. The general feeling in Mexborough was that the war would bring a postponement to the plan but Woodhouse stated there was a great demand for electricity.

Orders were given for a large part of the plant and work was expected to start early in 1940 but was postponed in 1941 due to the war.

Ferrybridge power station in 1954.

Mexborough Power Station was operational by 1945, the Yorkshire Post of Monday, November 4, 1946, confirming: “The new station at Mexborough which started running last year has the lowest running costs in the mid-east region of England’.

Details about the station were given in the Electrical Review August 17, 1945. The plant comprised two 30,000kW turbo-alternator sets served by four 200,000lb-per-hour boilers. The first set was put into commission a few months before the end of the war.

The station stood on a triangular site bounded by the river Don on the south, the Doncaster Road on the north-east, and the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Canal on the north-west. On the south side of the river was the LNER Sheffield-Doncaster line, and to the west of the station five standing sidings were laid from this main line to service the area.

The main station building was built towards the north corner of the triangle. The boiler house was on the canal side of the station and the adjacent turbine house was on the other side of the boiler house. The four boilers were supplied by the Mitchell Engineering Company, designed for burning Yorkshire fine slack coal, and weighing about 1,230 tons each in working order.

Publicity material for the Mexborough generating station.

From bunkers, the coal was delivered to the stokers through traversing chutes and boiler hoppers. Ash from the travelling stokers fell into hoppers from where it was fed into lorries in the basement for disposal. There was one chimney to each pair of boilers.

The YEPC was merged into the Yorkshire Electricity Board in 1948 as part of the nationalisation of the electricity industry by the Electricity Act 1947. The establishment of the company involved the amalgamation of 50 private and local-authority power companies.

During the post-war years, to meet an ever-growing demand for electricity, further power stations were brought into commission in Yorkshire and the rest of the country. In Yorkshire they included Doncaster, 1953; Eggborough, 1967; Elland, 1959; Keadby, 1952; and Thorpe Marsh 1963.

Mexborough power station closed on October 26, 1981, with a generating capacity of 113MW. Crowds gathered early from about 5.30am on Sunday, July 4, 1982, to see the twin cooling towers detonated. By 6.25am there was elbow room only as crowds lined the canal and riverbanks. The towers collapsed into a heap of rubble in two dramatic explosions four minutes apart.

Mexborough power station control room.

Explosives expert John Turner of Northern Explosive Services, who carried out the operation, afterwards described it as “perfect”. Preparations to demolish the two towers – each about 200ft high, 2,500 tonnes in weight and 141ft across the base – had taken some eight weeks. Final preparations involved laying 25 to 30lbs of gelignite round each tower. Mr Turner set off the charges from behind a brick wall only 30 yards from the towers.

Two windows on Don View, the nearest homes to the power station, were broken by the blast.

The power station buildings survived until 1988. Planning permission for houses on the site along with associated work was initially refused by Doncaster Council during October 2007. A resubmission was received by the council a year later. By 2011 Strata Homes had started work on the site, which was marketed as the Shimmer Estate. Five years later Sir David Higgins, chairman of HS2 Ltd, reported that the Phase 2b route of HS2 should be realigned. Unfortunately, this would impact on Mexborough, in particular the Shimmer Estate.

In March this year, The Yorkshire Post said surveyors were battling strongly for fair compensation for those with homes in the path of 

Mexborough power station No 2 locomotive.
Mexborough power station turbine hall in 1982.
Thorpe Marsh power station in April 1994.