Power to the people

Power to the people

Poverty Bay Electric Power Board reunion to celebrate nearly a century of memories

Neville Jenkins has retired from Eastland Network now, but he still vividly remembers his “51 years and two months” working in the local electricity industry. He joined Poverty Bay Electric Power Board back in 1964, and spent seven years as the resident faultman at Tolaga Bay.

“That was rather unique then because I operated from home,” he reminisces. “There were no radios, just the manual telephone. Everywhere I went I took the red power board truck. If someone wanted me they’d be able to track me down by ringing around to find out if I’d been seen!”

He also played his part in electrifying the East Coast. “My stand out memory is when we closed the switch just north of Ruatoria to liven to the top of the coast up to Tikitiki, on to Te Araroa and beyond.”

On October 20th, Neville will be joining colleagues at a special reunion celebrating the past, present and future of electricity in our region.

The reunion is being organised by three staff from Poverty Bay Electric Power Board days. Ruth Williams worked in accounts for 17 years, and Lyn Kay-Allen was a stalwart of various departments for over 20 years. Aroha Arago-Kemp started with PBEPB in 1989 in the engineering draughting office, and is now a project manager for Eastland Network.

Lyn recalls the company as being like “one big family”. She says the impetus for the reunion is to remember and enjoy the old times with, in some cases, lifelong friends who haven’t seen each other since they left or retired.

So far over 120 people from all over New Zealand and Australia have registered for the reunion’s two events. The oldest attendee is 92, and was born just a few years after the Poverty Bay Electric Power Board district was constituted in 1923.

The story of the PBEPB is integral to the story of our region. As power came to our communities, it transformed the way people lived and worked.

Electricity arrived in Gisborne on the 20thof March 1912. With great fanfare, the Gisborne Borough Council flicked the switch on diesel generators at Carnarvon Street, illuminating 12 street lamps in Gladstone Road for the first time.

Mayor William Douglas Lysnar was an early electricity enthusiast. He put the wheels in motion for Gisborne to become, in 1913, the first city in the Southern Hemisphere to have battery-driven electric trams.

The PBEPB supplied and sold electricity, constructed the electricity network across the region, and established a showroom dedicated to the wonders of electrical appliances.

Uptake of this revolutionary power source was steady. By 1930, a newspaper advertisement was proudly declaring that “450 houses in Poverty Bay are now using electricity for cooking”.

Electric cooking demonstrations were a hugely popular social occasion. Another ad described one such event, hosted by a Mrs E. Barrington, as: “this is an afternoon which you must set aside… bring your friends… make up a party.”

Gradually, the region’s residents were connected to electricity, with the new 110kV transmission line from Gisborne to Tokomaru Bay going live in 1980.

Government regulations saw several major shake ups in the industry. In 1993 the Poverty Bay Electric Power Board became Eastland Energy, and the Eastland Energy Community Trust was formed. In 1999, lines and energy companies split, and Eastland Energy was renamed Eastland Network.

Today, Eastland Network keeps the lights on for more than 25,000 business and residential customers in Gisborne, Wairoa and the East Coast.

In the book Isolated Lines by Sheridan Grundy, the focus of the Poverty Bay Electric Power Board is summed up as “providing power to the people”.

People are also what has made this organisation such a strong one over the past 95 years.

“The staff have always been a uniquely committed group, and are a special breed,” says Aroha. “Through storms and earthquakes, working in challenging and remote areas, they brought electricity to Te Tairāwhiti, and maintain that supply today. As we enter the age of technological disruption, it’s fantastic that we’re reuniting to remember and appreciate where it all started, as well as looking forward to the future.”

“The committee would like to thank Eastland Network and Eastland Group for supporting this reunion and helping us make it happen.”

Neville encourages all current and past staff, friends, family and associates to come along. “Time and people are moving on, and this is an opportunity not to be missed.”

Register for the reunion

The PBEPB Reunion is on Saturday October 20that the Gisborne Cosmopolitan Club. There’s a meet and greet event from 10am to 1pm, including a buffet brunch. This is followed by a nostalgic cabaret from 6pm, which includes a buffet supper and live entertainment. Tickets cost $30 for the daytime event and $70 for the evening event, or $80 for both.

To register, phone Aroha on 021 860 384 or email pbepb2018reunion@gmail.com

And to see a short video about the history of electricity in the region, go to eastlandnetwork.nz