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130 years ago Launceston gave coal gas the flick!

While the world today struggles with the challenges of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the residents of Launceston voted overwhelmingly to make the change nearly 130 years ago.

From 1860 to 1896 the streets of the town, and many homes and businesses, were lit by lanterns fueled by coal gas. It was, in its time, an innovative scheme created and run by local investors who established the Launceston Gas Company.

When the Launceston City Council proposed to build a hydro-electric power scheme on the South Esk River in the late 1880s many feared it would bankrupt the gas company and ruin its shareholders.

And there could be terrible dangers to residents in the use of electricity.

However, a poll conducted on June 30, 1892, in accordance with the Launceston Electric Light Act of 1887, showed that 2173 ratepayers were in favour of a hydro-electric scheme and 690 were against.

Construction of the Duck Reach Power Station was able to commence and in 1896 the gas supply to the street lighting system was turned off and Launceston was lit by electricity.

The Launceston Examiner was a great supporter of the Duck Reach Power Scheme but 40 years earlier it had also campaigned for gas street lighting.

In its edition of June 15, 1854, the Examiner urged its readers to consider the formation of a gas company to provide much-needed street lighting in Launceston.

In weighing up the relative costs of wax, tallow and whale oil, the Examiner pointed out that coal gas was much cheaper and had other benefits.

Gas, it explained, was the spirit obtained when coal was distilled (in a retort) and had been in commercial use in England for several decades.

While street lighting was a priority the potential for business and private customers was also promoted.

A prospectus for the Launceston Gas Company appeared in January 1858 seeking initial capital of £30,000, comprised of 3000 shares at £10 each, and the company was formed on May 20, 1858, at the Cornwall Hotel.

In October 1858 nearly an acre of land in Cimitiere Street, fronting the North Esk River, was bought for £750, and construction began in January 1859.

By the end of the year the company's brick and stone retort house, gasometer, offices and storerooms had taken shape and Launceston's gas street lamps were lit for the first time in April 1860.

Most of the coal for the gas works came by sea from Newcastle.

After the Launceston City Council’s hydro-electric power scheme was commissioned in 1896 the demand for electricity increased dramatically and the need for gas declined.

Electricity from the Duck Reach Power Scheme gradually replaced gas in the majority of Launceston homes and businesses as the city became the first in the Southern Hemisphere to be lit by renewable energy.

The Launceston Gas Company, however, remained in business until 1977.

Images -- TOP: Launceston Gas Works in 1889 from Invermay. QVMAG image, QVM 1983 P1218. MIDDLE: The original Horizontal Retort House at Launceston Gas Company c1870. QVVMAG image, QVM 1983 P2214. BOTTOM: The Launceston Gas Company’s Gasometers c1980. QVMAG image by Clyde V. Coombe, QVM 1997 P4183.

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, on 14 January 2024.


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