The Preservation of a Unique Aspect of Laxey’s Industrial Heritage


To preserve and display the unique industrial heritage of the Manx Electric Railway's substation in situ.

The Laxey Substation Group is a small volunteer group made up of persons with experience and a proven record of delivering projects and preserving historic buildings and artefacts for the future.

We can draw upon a wider body of volunteers with experience in engineering, health and safety, and electrical engineering.


Within the old Laxey Substation is a collection of unique and well-preserved examples of early electrical traction engineering, complete with brass switch gear, marble control panels and of course two original rectifier bulbs.

The two 200kW Hewittic mercury-arc glass bulb rectifiers at Laxey Sub (along with similar installations at Derby Castle, Groudle, Ballaglass & Belle Vue), converted A.C. current to D.C. current by electronic emission from a hotspot on the cathode (a pool of mercury) in a high vacuum; the anodes consisted of six graphite elements. The cathodic hotspot reached 3,000 degrees C, and the upper part of the pear-shaped bulbs formed condensing chambers for the hot mercury vapour. This and the anodes were kept cool by an air-stream created by a wooden propeller fan, mounted under the bulb in the cubicle.

Since the introduction of the new solid-state substation at Laxey, this equipment has lain dormant.

Click HERE for more information concerning the history and operation of the MER's 1930s built Sub-Station

Our group feel we have a unique opportunity to preserve and display this equipment as an example of the Island's industrial and tourism heritage, and recent talks about the project with the Department of Infrastructure have been positive.

The superb marble panels, dials and polished knife switches of Laxey Substation. For many years Laxey Sub was manned and maintained on rotation by Joe Cleator, Arthur Gleaves, Stan Cannell, John Cottier and Martin Cannell, all of whom were familiar faces to regular MER passengers.

Using safe voltages and LED lighting techniques, we propose to bring the equipment back to life, incorporating an interactive visitor attraction and educational experience, explaining how and why the equipment worked, and how the Island was at the forefront of transport technology when the railway was built.

Along with an educational area where groups can learn about electricity, we hope in future to display additional electrical items including’ (in conjunction with the MER), the possibility of an original 1890's tram car motor which visitors can set in motion with an original controller. Future possibilities, again in agreement with the MER, could be a "virtual tram driving experience" providing revenue for the upkeep of the building.

The latest news is that we have been contacted recently by the Department of Infrastructure and we were delighted to be offered the equipment from the old Belle View Substation in the north of the Island. We will eventually display this along with any other donated items offered or recovered from other substations on the line as they are modernised and refitted.

Our first goal is to secure the future of the building and equipment within, ensuring that everything remains intact.

Once we have agreed the conditions in which we can develop our project, we can start to work on presenting the equipment and creating an engaging interactive display which both the MER and the Island can be proud of.

Using volunteers, we can open the display on a regular basis for the public and additionally for specialist visiting groups and railway events as required.

We believe that a visit to the "Laxey Sub" will become part of the whole visitor attraction offer, and as important to visiting railway enthusiasts as riding on the railways themselves.

Our group fully realise that the equipment currently contains hazardous substances and we believe that in taking advice from other groups who run similar equipment for public display, and by using recognised and approved methods, we can safely manage their presence.

Following guidelines and recommendations progressed with the Department of Infrastructure, we plan to make safe any historic materials that would not now be seen as meeting modern standards.

The information we have received from other groups that operate similar displays in the U.K. is that the rectifier bulbs are rather more robust than imagined.

We firmly believe that the Mercury should remain within the bulbs as this is the essence of the project.

By installing laminated glass screens in front of the cabinets containing the bulbs, any risk of them being touched or damaged will be minimised, and the risk of any contact with Mercury or its vapours eliminated.

Safe voltages and LED lighting techniques will be used to power up the equipment and bring it back to life


It is hoped that eventually we can run interactive learning sessions where the public can learn about how electricity works using equipment such as a Vander graph belt and simple circuit making etc. They will be able to carry out experiments using magnets, coils, motors and bulbs to visualise energy production.

With the support of the MER, any donated items could be wired up to work at safe voltages, such as a traction pole, controller and trolley etc. Demonstrating how power is brought down from the lines and used to move the tramcar.

The building opposite the substation known as the "battery house" could be developed and included in the attraction, it is an original Manx stone cottage with a simple hayloft interior, it could lend itself well to representing how people lived at the time of the railway's origins.

This will require further fundraising and the support of the Department of Infrastructure, which owns the building.


Initial funds to develop the project

To kick start the project we estimate funds of around £15,000 will be required.

Some funding has already been offered to develop the project but this is inadequate to create the initial display.

After surveying, cleaning of the interior and H&S compliance has been achieved we would like to begin the project with sufficient funding to install interpretative display boards etc. along with any video equipment.

All labour will be on an unpaid volunteer basis.

Over the past few years since the decommissioning of the equipment, we have been working towards this unique opportunity to save the building and its contents, therefore we would like to appeal to those who could help us financially to get this project underway.


Funds will clearly be needed annually to cover running and maintenance costs and it is hoped to raise these by charging a small fee or placing a donations box when groups are escorted around the building.

We hope to attract charitable status which will enable us to apply to funding bodies for support and we will add to this by holding special event evenings.


Whilst working toward our goal we have been happy to wait until the Department of Infrastructure is in a position to release the building, in the knowledge that the equipment within remains intact.

Once we have secured the lease, we would hope to be able to develop the first phase of the display for public viewing within 12 months, adding further elements as outlined above in a timely manner over the winter periods until the project is completed, hopefully within two years.

We envisage the sub being open to the public regularly on certain Sunday afternoons (subject to volunteer labour) and open additionally to special events and booked parties as required.


We hope to create something that the Island can be proud of, as a good quality attraction relating the Island’s railway and tourism heritage.

We see it as a win win for the Manx Electric Railway and the Island’s tourism in general. Adding to the railway's unique tourist offer at minimal cost to the taxpayer, being created and run by volunteers.

We feel we must preserve this unique and fascinating equipment for the Island and visitors alike.

If you think you can help us make this project become a reality, please contact us by email at [email protected] or visit the group's FACEBOOK page for further information.

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