The city’s light source

By Ashley Smith - Royal Historical Society of Victoria

As William St lies eerily quiet, a lone chimney stands far away from the throng of houses and Spencer Street Station.

Standing at 195 feet (59m) tall, a closer examination reveals several buildings and gasometers placed around it. For 114 years, this building, known as the West Melbourne Gasworks, provided Melbourne with its energy needs.

Along with the photograph of the West Melbourne Swamp (see Docklands News, September 29), this photo of the southern end of the William and Lonsdale streets intersection and its docks (S-1298.001) was part of John Noone’s 1869 panorama of Melbourne. It was captured from the tower of Dr Fitzgerald’s house “Rostella” on Lonsdale St and includes the Spencer Street Station Railway Yards at the city outskirts, and the ships berthed at Australian Wharf. The gasworks, just right of the wharf, had already been in operation for 13 years as gas lighting and appliances were the norm in a pre-electricity world.

While gas lighting was already common in London when the first British settlers arrived in Melbourne, it took a while for Melbourne to catch up. If you didn’t have an oil lamp or a candle, you were in for an early night. Inns were required by law to keep a lamp burning all night, but even then, a walk through the dimmer areas of Melbourne was likely to be fraught with either an accident, or an unfortunate encounter from an opportunistic mugger.

By the 1840s, a Fitzroy blacksmith named George South was one of the first people in the city to offer containers of gas for sale and, in 1845, watchmaker William Paterson used five burners of gas to turn on a revolving light for his Collins St shop window. His display lasted for three weeks until a gas leak put an end to the venture (The Argus, August 2, 1849). Then on July 23, 1849, William Overton (with help from South), installed gas lighting at his bakery and confectionery shop in Swanston St. The Port Phillip Gazette and Settlers Journal (July 30, 1849) noted that the half-dozen gas lights “completely eclipse the sperm oil burners of his neighbours”.

By 1850, gas lighting had gained such public interest that even the Reverend John Allen jumped on the bandwagon. At the Mechanics Institute in Collins St (later the Athenaeum), he gave lectures to “numerous audiences” (The Argus, July 11, 1850), using diagrams to explain the use of gas. By August 28, Allen and Overton were among the men who gathered in a general meeting to establish the city’s first gas company, the City of Melbourne Gas and Coke Company. Among the arguments for gas lighting, was that it would reduce crime, attributed to “the horrid Egyptian Darkness” of night (The Melbourne Daily News, August 29, 1850). Allen became its first secretary and, although Overton pulled out of the enterprise as he disagreed with the company’s terms, his shop was later used as the company’s office.

The gasworks itself took longer to become a reality, especially as the Gold Rush lured away many workers. After buying five acres of land near Batman’s Hill, the first foundation stone was laid in a masonic ceremony on December 1, 1854. The wet conditions didn’t deter the estimated 1000 to 1500 people attending the celebration, with the company’s chairman of directors, Mr Walsh, declaring, “the whole of this city will be simultaneously illuminated with the pure and beautiful light which it is our object to supply” (The Argus and The Age, December 2, 1854). Notably, the 40th Regiment band that was part of the celebration was recalled mid-party with the rest of the regiment due to “disturbances” in Ballarat (The Argus, March 9, 1855). Considering the date, the disturbance was likely the Eureka rebellion, which would reach its zenith two days later.

Within a year, the gasworks was erected under the management of engineer Alex Kennedy Smith (who later worked on various gasworks and waterworks across the state and became a member of the Legislative Council). While the initial cost estimate was £20,000, by the time of completion, the project cost had blown out to £150,000. When it was completed in late 1855 the gasworks included coal stores, a retort house, a purifying house, an engine house, a gasometer to store the gas, and around 25 miles (40km) of piping. Then there was the tall chimney stack, which upon its completion, hosted a sky-high champagne luncheon in late October. The Age (October 29, 1855) reported that guests were carried up the chimney in a carriage pulled up by a portable steam engine and a rope. Sometime later, Walter Woodbury would climb the structure to take the city’s first photographic panorama (see Docklands News, July 29, 2020).

The gasworks’ first fire was lit by Governor Charles Hotham on December 17, 1855, in a ceremony featuring around 60 people. While the ceremony was free of problems, it would ultimately prove fatal for Hotham. By the time the gasworks were properly opened on New Year’s Day 1856, Hotham was announced dead after a short illness. His obituary in The Argus (January 1, 1856), reported that he had caught a cold while waiting in the rain on that fateful day.

Despite the sombre start, the gasworks would soon make its presence felt in Victorian life. Coal would be delivered daily from the wharf, burned in the retort room and sent through a complex system of pipes and machinery for purification, before it was stored in the gasometer for delivery, with Melburnians paying 25 shillings for every 1000 cubic feet. In its first year of production, the gasworks produced more than 18 million cubic feet of gas. Notably, along with supplying lighting and heating in a pre-electricity world, the gasworks also played a role in Australia’s aviation history. When the nation’s first hot air balloon flight took off from Cremorne Gardens on February 1, 1858, the balloon was taken to the gasworks first to partially fill the balloon before 30 men moved it to the gardens where the remainder was filled.

The Gas Company eventually became the Metropolitan Gas Company, and then the Gas and Fuel Corporation. As the company changed, the gasworks expanded and evolved with the times, including the construction of an elevated tramway to transfer coal from Australian Wharf. By the 1950s, it was reportedly producing as much as more than 38 million cubic feet of gas in a single day (The Age, August 20, 1954). While the works converted to catalytic oil gas in 1962, the discovery of natural gas in the Bass Strait signalled the end of an era, resulting in the works shutting down in December 1970, and demolished in 1974.

Today there are little to no traces of this site to be found in what was the heart of the industrial West Melbourne. The space is now occupied by the Collins Street extension and, thanks to Docklands Park, now has a more climate-friendly use •

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