If you are strolling through the grounds of St Mary's Church you might spot a relic from our gas-illumined past. Its story starts with the New Plymouths Gas Company Limited.
The New Plymouth Gas Company was established 1878 by a group of bright spark businessman who pooled their resources to form the company to convert coal to gas. Tenders were invited for the construction of the works and units were shipped in from Glasgow. In late 1878, construction began on the site of Gasworks Lane, adjacent to Gill Street. On Saturday 6 March 1880, the city's first gas light was lit and set the CBD aglow. Although gas lighting technology was well ablaze in England, the sight of it on the corner of Brougham and Devon Streets had onlookers enthralled. The 25 gas lights were left on until 10pm that evening for visitors to savour the novelty of their gas-lit town.
Since there were no port facilities in New Plymouth at the time, coal for the works was shipped from Greymouth and ferried ashore using surf boats. The process involved heating the coal to high temperatures in an oven, which created several by-products including coke, tar and coal gas. The gas was then piped through underground gas mains. Surprisingly there were no reports of accidents during the company’s operation despite the potentially explosive conditions around the manufacturing process.
The coal gas industry in New Plymouth continued well in to the 1950s, although changes in politics, economics and technology caused fluctuations in its popularity over electricity. In 1952 Athol Blackman, Manager of the New Plymouth Gas Company at the time and an advocate of gas fuel, explored the possibility of utilising natural gas from oil fields and coal gas was replaced by natural gas from the Moturoa oil well and later, Kāpuni.
The New Plymouth Gas Company was bought by the New Plymouth City Council in 1961 and the City Gas Department was created. Eventually the old gas works were demolished, the only reminders of our coal gas past now being the iron gas lamp standard in the grounds of St Mary's embossed “N.P.G.W.” and a street sign on a lane off Molesworth Street.
This story was originally published in the Taranaki Daily News.