Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

History Revisited - the night the city was given light

Public meetings have always been a feature of Armidale life. While not always well attended, little could be done without them. They helped organise public support and to raise money for civic activities.

In 1883, the Great Northern railway finally reached Armidale. At night, the town then lay largely in darkness. Those alighting from the railway found their way to Beardy Street along streets dimly lit by fifteen or sixteen kerosene street lights. Elsewhere, darkness held sway. Something had to be done!

In May 1883, a group of leading citizens petitioned the Mayor, John Moore, to convene a public meeting to consider the feasibility of forming an Armidale gas company.

The idea of gas lighting was hardly new. In 1837, the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL) had been given a Royal Charter charging it with responsibility for lighting Sydney’s streets. On 24 May 1841, the first lights were turned on to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. That year, AGL became the second company to list on the Australian Stock Exchange.

While the idea of gas lighting wasn’t new, the cost of bringing coal to Armidale by road mad gas lighting impractical. Now with the railway, coal could be brought easily from the Hunter Valley.

In Friday 26 May 1883, the requested public meeting convened at the Armidale Town Hall with Mayor Moore in the chair. There they heard a proposal for the construction of a gasworks estimated to cost £7,000 to £8,000. A gas committee was formed to consider proposals and to seek expert advice.

In July, the Mayor presented a proposal to another public meeting that an Armidale Gas Company be established and a share list drawn up. There appears to have been some initial hesitation, but finally the necessary capital was obtained and construction begun on a Beardy Street site, along with around five miles of supporting gas mains and associated building connections.

This was quite a large undertaking in a still small city. Finally, in October 1885, all was ready. The mains were filled with gas, and then a team of plumbers and gasfitters lead by gas manager Samuel Rutter walked the mains to check that all the connected buildings were ready to light-up at dusk.

As night fell on Saturday night, 24 October, the streets were thronged with people, many who had never seen gaslight before. As the City Band played outside the gasworks where red, green and blue lights burned, the stores, hotels and public buildings suddenly blazed with bright light. The darkness that had marked the city was no more.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 27 March 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013