Port Elizabeth of Yore: A Futile Foray into Gas

By now, the winning technology is well known. Even though gas for lighting and many other uses was introduced a half century prior to its competitor, electricity’s versatility ensured that it would be the ultimate winner in the lighting stakes. Gas would never completely disappear as it filled certain niche markets. Even in those countries in which natural gas is abundant, it is still chiefly used to generate electricity.

Main picture: The North End Gas Works as it was in the 1900s.

Lighting

Gas was first to make an appearance as a way to produce light amongst its multitude of uses. On the 1st September 1862, The Port Elizabeth Gas Company was formed. At a meeting of shareholders, the Trust Deed was read and adopted. The first Chairman and Directors were Joseph Simpson, John Miller, John Dickson, J.S. Kirkwood, A.J. MacDonald, R.D. Buchanan and F.S. Fairbridge. The manager of the Cape Town gasworks was asked to advise on what would be required to commence operations. The Company’s premises were in Slater Street and the huge cylindrical container can be seen in early photographs.

Port Elizabeth Club 1884. Trinder reservoir in foreground now walled in showing a typical gas-lamp of the period
The Town Hall in the late 1880s with a gas lamp. Also shown are Fleming House, passenger carriages for hire (hooded ‘spider’ type), horse drawn tram, government building and the obelisk.
Assembly room in Town Hall, c. 1875 with gasoliers attached to iron pillars supporting surrounding gallery. A gasolier is a chandelier with gas burners rather than light bulbs or candles
Gas Works in 1938

There are two candidates for being the first to use gas for lighting purposes. In contention are the Town Hall which was first lit by gas on the 6th August 1865. As it was Prince Alfred’s 21st birthday, the front of the Town Hall was lit with 2 large stars and other decorations.

On the other hand, it could have been the “Alfred Club Room,” which was officially named the “Algoa House Hotel.” As was usual in those days, hotels were often referred to by the name of the licensee. If it was not the first to be lit by gas, it can still claim to be the first building on the Hill to be lit with gas. My best guess would be that the PE Gas Co. would have ensured that the Town Hall was the first to use gas, but that fact cannot be determined. Even a conservative institution like St. Mary’s Collegiate Church entered the world of lighting when in 1866 gas lighting was installed in the church.

Gasworks in the Papenkuils River Valley

The use of gas never gained traction amongst the residents of Port Elizabeth. On the 1st January 1945, the Port Elizabeth Municipality took over the running of the gas undertaking. A new site, in the Papenkuils River Valley, was chosen and on 11th May 1955 the new carbonising and ancillary plant was opened by Mayor Louis Dubb. Further extensions were added over time, and in 1988 Easigas purchased the gas works from the Council.

Why do gas street lights have a horizontal steel rod near the lamp?

No. It is not a vestigial cross. The horizontal steel bar is used by the lamp lighter to rest the ladder against it. In certain other jurisdictions long poles are used to light the lamp.

Source

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton (Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth, on behalf of the Historical Society of Port Elizabeth).

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