Millers Point gasworks

Forgotten Sydney: Gasworks

Australia s second oldest company, The Australian Gas Light Company, was established by private interests in New South Wales on 7 September 1837 to light the streets of Sydney with coal gas. The first gas street lights were turned on in 24 May 1841 to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria. By March 1843 there were 165 gas lamps in the city - 14 Government lights, 11 Corporation lamps, 106 Publicans' lights, and 34 Private lamps. They comprised of 14 Government lights, 11 Corporation lamps, 106 Publicans  lights, and 34 Private lamps. The rest of the people used traditional oil lamps which were to remain as the predominant source of lighting both industrially and domestically until the arrival of eletricity at the turn of the century.

The Australian Gaslight Co. operated from premises built in Pitt Street on land south from Campbell Street to Redfern that was known as the Government Paddock that was originally part of the brick pits from Sydney s earliest years. The first gasholder and a two storey building were erected in 1855. By 1858 the company purchased another eight allotments in Pitt St., and in 1860 were considering extension of the service to Newtown, Redfern and Glebe. Two new holders were constructed in 1861 and 1865, a fourth holder was built in 1874. The former Australian Gaslight Co. Building at 479-487 Pitt Street, Sydney, was the company s head office. Coal was stored in a coal store from where it was delivered to the vertical retorts by overhead converyor. Gas was produced in vertical retorts before being piped to the scrubbers and purifiers to remove any impurities. It then passed through a meter room before being stored in gasholders under pressure.

It was only a matter of time before other companies were formed to bring gas to the homes and business of Sydney s suburbs. Gas was manufactured from coal, which had to be shipped in by barges and ferries. Consequently, suburban gas companies established their plants at harbourside locations. With the growth of Sydney, the sites where these now-abandoned plants were built have become valuable real estate, being at key locations around the harbour. Some sites have been re-developed for other industry or housing, while a few have been reserved for public use in the form of harbourside parklands.

Gas was manufactured from coal from the Hunter Valley, which was shipped in from Newcastle by colliers known as the 'Sixty Milers'. Consequently, suburban gas companies established their plants at harbour and river side locations.

The effects of the various gas works around Sydney then and now have been detrimental for Sydneysiders  for example, in the 1850s, a resident of The Rocks, George Puzey worked as a gas purifier at the Millers Point works. He started having fits and was sent to a mental asylum and died, leaving behind a wife and lots of children. It s thought that his workplace was the cause of his illness and subsequent death. And the negative environmental impacts of the historical gas production at this site continue to this day, and have been hampering development in more recent times.

Millers Point

In 1885, The Australian Gaslight Company purchased land in Jenkins Street, Millers Point, for the Gasworks in July 1839. Construction of a retort room, purifying room, forge, wharf and gasboilers commenced soon after. In 1844 AGL decided to build a store and cottage on the site. The buildings were designed by Henry Ginn, John Morris was the builder. The stone used for the construction of the buildings was quarried on site by Morris after the local quarrymen refused to supply the material. Gas lighting in the streets of Sydney was inaugurated in 1841 on 24 May, Queen Victoria s birthday (Empire Day). The gas for these lights came from this gas works.

The gas main of about 12" (30cm) diameter supplied gas to Sydney street lights during the initial operating phase (in 1841) of the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL Co) gas works at Kent Street. The shortage of cast steel pipe caused AGL to have local contractors fabricate the wooden pipes. The pipes would have been reasonably gas tight as they were painted with tar and then further coated carefully with tar impregnated calico. Jenkins Street came into being as a boundary road between properties created by the subdivision of surrounding land in 1842. The name honours ex-convict James Jenkins, who owned the land prior to subdivision. It was for many years a private laneway across the end of Gas Lane which led to the gasworks there. Parts of a sandstone office and store at the end of Gas Lane are all that now remain of a large gas works which used to exist here.

Gas Lane today

Millers Point Gasworks operated for close to a century, providing millions of hours of light and generations of employment before the onset of the age of electricity. The gasworks was decommissioned in 1921 and its aboveground structures were removed by 1925 as part of efforts to combat the bubonic plague. This included building a rat-proof wall to stop rodents moving from ships to wharves to Sydney streets. At that time, certain underground gasworks structures were left behind: gas holders and tanks cut in the sandstone and containing coal tar. The Sydney Harbour Trust used the main building as a store and renovated the top floor to include offices in 1923 and again in 1950s.

Prior to the commencement of the site's remediation, there were around 150,000 cubic metres of contaminated fill material underneath Block Four and Block Five. The Barangaroo Delivery Authority is the owner of the land today. Remediation of the site began in September 2015 and is expected to be completed in 2019. This work will not affect the amenity of, or access to, Barangaroo Reserve, the headland park on the northwest tip of the precinct, which is unaffected by the contamination. It will not affect continued construction work at Barangaroo South.


As Sydney grew along with the demand for gas, new gas works and holders were established throughout the inner metropolitan area. 32 hectares of land for the largest of these was purchased at Mortlake by the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL). Their plant, on the eastern shoreline of Kendall Bay on the Parramatta River, became operational in 1886. AGL's earlier gasworks at Darling Harbour had opened in 1837. The new works were modelled on the Beckton Works in East London, and AGL's engineer, Thomas Bush had previously been employed at Beckton. Mortlake was a very suitable site for the works. The river provided a cheap and efficient means of obtaining its raw material, coal. Land in the area was cheap and the railway bridge, opened in 1886, provided access to many new customers by extending the gas mains to the north shore. The first coal wharf was built at the end of Breakfast Point. It was T-shaped and projected into the Parramatta River. Here is a description of the gas-making operation beginning at the Breakfast Point jetty.

When a new Gladesville Bridge was opened in 1964, it was built to replace a bridge that had a swing section on the southern end of the bridge to permit large coal carrying vessels to pass through. The gas works closed and the land redeveloped into the Breakfast Point residential development. When AGL's Mortlake plant was in full operation it used nearly 460,000 tonnes of coal per year. This was brought from Hexham on the Hunter River, north of Sydney, by colliers known as the 'Sixty Milers'. The colliers used were the SS Felton Bank and the SS Mortlake Bank, each of 1400 tonnes, and the MV Hexham Bank of 1650 tonnes. The Hexham Bank was built in Brisbane in 1953. The last collier brought coal to Mortlake in late 1971.

The process of carbonisation to obtain gas from coal was discontinued on 31 December 1971. After that time, natural gas from the interior of Australia was piped to Mortlake where it was given an odour for safety reasons and distributed to consumers throughout the Sydney area. The gasworks finally closed in 1990. The gasworks site underwent remediation and significant redevelopment, including a landform change, to accommodate the Breakfast Point residential development which now occupies the site.

Gasworks Bridge, Parramatta

In June 1871 about 30 men met with Reverend Ralph Mansfield (Secretary of Australian Gas Light Company) to form a local gas company. Parramatta gas works was established on the outskirts of Parramatta in 1872. The Parramatta Gas Company purchased land on the river in 1872 and immediately began the construction of the brick retort house. The gasworks opened in 1873, bringing coal along the river to the works where it was converted to gas. On 29th March 1873, the first street light was turned on at Parramatta. George Street was lit by gas in 1876. In 1913, gas lights were replaced by electricity but gas continued to be a popular fuel domestically. The Australian Gas Light Company bought the Parramatta Gas Company property in 1890. It took one year to construct a new office and then old works on the Parramatta River was dismantled. Mr J Finlayson was in charge of Australian Gas Light Company (Parramatta Office) in 1890.

Located in the Queens Wharf Reserve, which occupies the former gaswoorks site, are a number of remnants fro the factory. These include a sandstone retaining wall along most of the river s edge, a number of wooden pier footings (sheathed in metal) remaining near the water s edge, to the east of the memorial wal, a number of service pits as well as outfall/stormwater pipes running to the river.

Little Manly Point

In 1885, the Manly Gas Light and Coke Company was established to bring gas street lighting and coke supplies to the peple of the Manly area. They operated a gas works at Little Manly Point in Carey Street. The gasworks took up all of the point and on the Spring Cove side, small coast colliers berthed at a wharf and unloaded their load of coal from the Illawarra or Newcastle coalfields. The gas storage unit at Little Manly Point built in Chicago and erected in 1931. Because of its shape, this gasometer was affectionately known as 'the golf ball', anf for many years was used to advertise Dunlop sporting equipment. In 1908 the company name was changed to the Manly Gas Company Limited. It was eventually taken over by the North Shore Gas Company in 1938.

During its operation, gas production was largely restricted to the southern portion of the site. Coal was delivered to the coal jetty and stored in the coal store from where it was delivered to the vertical retorts by overhead converyor. Coal was also sometimes landed at the eastern extension of the coal wharf and then immediately transferred by conveyor to the retorts. A small reserve coal store was located adjacent to the working coal store and the coal wharf in the event of disruption to supply.

Gas was produced in vertical retorts before being piped to the scrubbers and purifiers to remove any impurities. It then passed through a meter room before being stored in gasholders under pressure. Water gas was also produced in a separate plant on the site and stored in another gas holder. There are believed to have been at least two water gas plants on the site. A number of ancillary structures associated with maintenance of the works were also located on the site. Underground tanks were located next to the purifiers for storage of coal-tar, a by product of gas manufacture. Two tar plants were possibly located on the upper north east portion of the site. Administration of the works was largely maintained from Carey Street along which the gas mains were also laid.

Modern technologies and rationalisation within the company saw the closure of the gasworks in 1964 followed by demolition of the site in 1970. During its operation, gas production was largely restricted to the southern portion of the site. Brick and concrete footings of the gasworks buildings remain, indicating the location of the former retort house, gas holder and wharves associated with the operation of the gasworks. Today have been incorporated into the foreshore park which now occupies the site. Little Manly Point is today a popular place for scuba diving. Divers often find lumps of coal on the sea bed.

Neutral Bay

The former HMAS Platypus waterfront property is located on the modified sandstone cliffline defining the western side of Neutral Bay. The industrial history of the Platypus Site at Neutral Bay began in 1876 with the establishment of a small gasworks at the northern end of the site. The North Shore Gas Company began operations on the site in 1884, suppling coal gas to residences and businesses on the north side of the harbour. A bank of horizontal retorts and a small gasholder were installed first, followed by a Retort House in 1886-88 along with new a Gas Holder, Exhauster house, boiler House, and Coke Plant. The plant was upgraded again in the 1890s.

The North Shore Gas Company s gasworks at Neutral Bay operated for over 50 years. In 1913 site works commenced for new gas works at Oyster Cove (Oyster Bay), Waverton and began operations from 1917, gradually increasing output until superceding the Neutral Bay works in 1932. By 1937, the ageing gasworks infrastructure at Neutral Bay had become inefficient and costly to operate resulting in closure of the facility in favour of a new more efficient gasworks at Oyster Cove. When the plant was closed, the Neutral Bay gasworks office building was remodelled and let as flats.

By 1942 the commonwealth had resumed the lower levels of the site, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) occupying the lower levels. The facility developed as the main torpedo workshops for the South Pacific allied forces with former coal bunkers being remodelled as air raid shelters. From 1945 the facility remained in service as a support facility for submarines based at HMAS Penguin and for the RAN destroyer fleet. In 1964 the Australian submarine fleet was established with HMAS Platypus to be established at the former Torpedo Workshops. Between 1964-1967 the site was transformed into a submarine depot. By 1983 closure and removal of the Neutral Bay Works (upper level) and Oyster Cove Works had commenced. The upper level of Neutral Bay was sold for residential development completed by 1992. During the 1990 s the decision to re-equip the RAN with Collins class submarines led to the strategic decision to relocate the facility. In 2005 the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, a Federal Government Agency, assumed responsibility for the management of the Platypus Site.

Oyster Cove, Waverton

Robey s Sugar Works first operated on the site which was taken over by the Colonial Sugar Refinery Co. In the late 1860s the Australian Mineral Oil Co. established a kerosene works there, to treat kerosene shale and handle imported case oil. The adjacent part of Sydney Harbour was consequently known as Kerosene Bay. From approx. 1889-91, part of the site also used by the Neokratine Safety Explosive Co of N.S.W., in the old CSR buildings. The North Shore Gas Co, formed in 1875, took over the site in 1912, with construction of a new gasworks taking place between 1913 and 1917. The site remained operational (at least partly) until 1987. The Wondakiah residential development (1998) now occupies part of the old gasworks site and has incorporated numerous gasworks buildings into the complex.

The foreshore of Oyster Cove contains the remnants of the largest coal gas manufacturing works on the North Shore and one of the largest in Australia. The Coal Store is a massive structure, a local landmark and of interest technologically. The remaining structures on site are the Boiler House, the Exhauster House, the Carburetted Water Gas Plant and the Chimney. These have been included in the recent landscaping of a recreation area for the Wondakiah residential development now occupying the site. The gasworks' wharfage remains largely in place.

Brett Whiteley had a studio located in the the Coal Store called the Old Gas Works Studio during 1971-1973. The building has since been demolished for the development of the Wondakiah estate. The large internal space however, was suitable for the creation of large scaled and multi-panelled works such as 'Alchemy'.

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