Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton (1845-1940)

PUBLISHED: 11:40 08 June 2015 | UPDATED: 11:40 08 June 2015




Engineer, innovator and famous son of Chelmsford, Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton left a lasting legacy on the city and his chosen profession. Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office looks back at his life of achievement

When the engineer, inventor and industrialist Col Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton died in February 1940, the Chelmsford Chronicle described him as, ‘the grand old man of electrical engineering’. He was the founder of Crompton & Co in Chelmsford, which was one of the earliest large-scale manufacturers of electrical equipment and provided employment for hundreds of people in the town.

Crompton was born in Yorkshire and had an interest in engineering from an early age. During his school days at Harrow he conducted his own electrical experiments and in his holidays he designed and built a steam tractor named Bluebell.

On leaving school, Crompton joined the Army and spent from 1864 to 1868 in India. He continued to invent and build things, and had Bluebell shipped out from Britain to convince the military to adopt steam transport instead of using bullock-drawn carts.

In 1875 Crompton left the Army and bought a partnership in the Chelmsford engineering firm THP Dennis & Co. While there, he designed a new iron and steel foundry for a business owned by his brother. The mill was to run day and night and needed to be well lit, so Crompton designed a system of arc lamps to light it. Crompton’s improved design produced a brighter, steadier light and in 1878 he bought out THP Dennis and established Crompton & Co to manufacture, sell and install his lamp.

The company installed electrical lighting in factories and stations, such as King’s Cross, and also in Windsor Castle and several country houses. It also undertook work abroad, installing electrical lights at the Vienna State Opera, making it the world’s first theatre to be lit by electricity.

Crompton also did pioneering work developing a public electricity supply. The first centralised power station he designed was built in 1887 in Kensington Gardens and soon numerous orders were received for similar systems.

Crompton & Co supplied electrical equipment to places all over the British Empire and built power stations as far away as Australia. In 1929 the company merged with F&A Parkinson Ltd to become Crompton-Parkinson. Crompton was a popular manager and well known for joining in with the social life of the factory and attended the company sports days with his wife.

Crompton maintained his links with the military, and led a detachment of the Electrical Engineers Volunteers in South Africa during the second Boer War, deploying a range of searchlights for military use. During World War I, he was invited to contribute ideas in the development of the ‘land ship’, and his designs helped form the basis for the first practical tanks.

In the early 20th century, Crompton was at the forefront of attempts to standardise electrical systems internationally and in 1928 began work on Britain’s National Grid. In 1926 he was awarded a Faraday Medal for his decades of work in electrical engineering.

Crompton also had a busy personal life. He married Elizabeth Clarke in 1871 and the couple had two sons and three daughters. He was a keen cyclist (modifying his bikes for better performance), was an early motorist and a founder member of the Royal Automobile Club. He was also a keen squash player and was still playing aged 90.

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