Energy supply and gas has been in the news a lot lately, so I thought it would be timely to take a look at Sydney’s gas history.
The first gas street lights in Sydney were lit on 25 May, 1841, along with illuminations to mark Queen Victoria’s birthday.
The Sydney Herald the next day was delighted: ‘We have at length the pleasure of congratulating our fellow-townsmen upon the actual commencement of that long-looked for improvement in their concerns – the application of gas as an agent of light. Australia is the first country, and Sydney the first city, in the Asiatic world – and, indeed, in the southern hemisphere – into which this beautiful art, justly denominated “one of the most important inventions of modern times,” has been introduced ……….it is seldom that the first night of gas lighting passes off without some interruption, some check to the general joy ; but. in Sydney, more than fifteen thousand miles from the manufactories whence all the machinery was procured, every thing went on with perfect regularity. The gas was ready at the appointed hour; and no sooner had the sun left the world to darkness, than this new luminary burst forth in the silver radiancy so peculiarly its own.’
The Australian Gas Light Company which was responsible for this radiance is now known as AGL, and was founded in Sydney in 1837 by Charles Nicholson and Ralph Mansfield with the aim of supplying light to the streets of Sydney. The gas was made by burning coal, as opposed to the natural gas we think of today.The first gasworks was down at the Darling Harbour edge of Millers Point, where Barangaroo is now, and some traces of the site still remain. The little street called Gas Lane is perched above the escarpment there while the sandstone warehouses below are connected with the offices of AGL. The Darling Harbour gasworks was supplemented by smaller works at Balmain and Five Dock.
The Australian Gas Light Company’s growth helped to drive the development of Sydney, both through providing access to energy and the associated industrial infrastructure and developments that shaped our suburbs.
The suburb we now know as Mortlake is very closely associated with our energy history. AGL had purchased 32 hectares in the area in the early 1880s and established the gasworks there in 1886. This location enabled gas mains to be extended across to the north shore.
By 1890, Mortlake was the largest and most densely populated area in the Concord municipality. Within four years the gasworks had attracted: “Mr Sturt’s hotel, several large stores, an eating-house with the sign ‘all meals 6d’ in large letters; the Concord Working Men’s Club, … an Anglican and a Congregational church, a large number of working men’s cottages”.
The Darling Harbour works continued to operate until 1922, when the company’s entire gas-making operation was transferred to Mortlake.
After the process of carbonisation to obtain gas from coal was discontinued on 31 December 1971, natural gas from the interior of Australia was piped to Mortlake. There it was given an odour for safety reasons and distributed to consumers throughout the Sydney area. The gasworks finally closed in 1990 and the land once occupied by the Mortlake Gasworks was redeveloped, becoming the new suburb of Breakfast Point.
AGL wasn’t the only gas company established in Sydney. The Manly Gaslight and Coke Company was founded in 1883 to supply gas to the Manly area, and the Parramatta Gas Company was formed in 1872, operating for nearly a decade before it was bought out by AGL. The Natural Gas & Oil Company was formed in the 1930s to extract gas from the old coal mine in Balmain, but after a series of fatal accidents and lacklustre results, folded in 1950.
You can read all about the AGL gasworks and how it functioned at Mortlake in our article on the suburb of Mortlake by Gregory Blaxall here, or, for a poetic piece that explores the history of the first gasworks, why not listen to “Death at the Gasworks” from These Walls Have Ears: My Place 2013 on the Dictionary here. This is a tale of three deaths at The Rocks and a silent killer. The backdrop is the city’s first gasworks. A neighbour to houses and schools, the gasworks gave its power – and industrial pollution – back to its community, and keeps on giving today, long after its smokestacks stood tall.
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