The Gas Works - Part 1

In 1907 the Levin Borough Council resolved to build a coal gas system and a rate-payers’ poll confirmed this action.

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 A loan of £10,000  ($20,000) was obtained at 4 ½% interest for 26 years. Security for the loan was a rate of 9/14 penny in the pound on value of all rateable land in the borough.

Mr Blackman was appointed the engineer for the project. The site of 2 acres (.8h) was bought from Prouse Bros. for £275 ($550) in Cambridge Street south near the Mako Mako Rd (now Liverpool St) crossing. The S. Kerr factory is now on part of the frontage of the site.

Work started on the scheme in early 1909.  The cost of the retort house was £775  ($1550) and was built by Mr Whitaker. The cost of the 30,000 cubic feet (about 9500 cubic metres) gasholder was £1195 ($2390). This was supplied by Coward and Son of Britain.

A sidelight to this purchase was that during World War I Coward and Son wrote to the borough council offering hospitality to any NZ soldiers who would be in England.

A house was built  at the front of the site for the gas manager for £356  ($712) by J. A. Williams. Also a showroom was built at the front.

Peter Arcus was the Clerk of Works. C.E. Shaw was appointed gas manager at £3  ($6) a week and Mrs Shaw received 15/- ($1.50) a week for attending to the showroom.

Five retorts were used at first. A retort consisted of a furnace, with an oven above. Coal was put into the oven and heated by the furnace, stoked with coke. Gas and vapourised tar was driven out of the coal. This passed through water where much of the tar dropped to the bottom and was piped away to an underground tank, where it was liquefied after filtering.

The gas passed through coke, filtering out more tar. Then a further cleaning of the gas was done by passing it through iron oxide. The gas then was pumped to the gasholder.

The gas holder was large, about 40 feet (14m) wide and about 22 feet (7m) high and built of steel. It was in two sections, with the bottom section being filled with water. The top section fitted into the bottom section forming a seal for the gas. The top section rose and fell with the quantity pumped into it according to demand.

The weight of the top section created the pressure to send the gas through the mains.

Seven miles (10km) of reticulation was done, with the mains pipes ranging from 6 inch (150mm) to 3 inch (8mm). Service pipes were ½ inch (12mm).

The coal gasworks was opened on July 21, 1909, on a very wet day. The Mayoress, Mrs Gardener, opened the gasworks. The Mayor, Mr Gardener, curtailed the speeches and all the official party adjourned to the Century Hall. Mr Gardener outlined the difficulties of building the scheme. John Kebbell spoke saying the borough was developing fast and that it would not be long before electric trams would be needed. John Davies (a very large landholder at Koputaroa) congratulated the borough on the achievement of the gas scheme. He had been an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor at the 1906 elections.

The guests then sat down to a sumptuous banquet supplied by host, Mrs Higgins, of the Weraroa Hotel. There were 100 consumers when the first gas flowed and another 65 joined the next week and more as reticulation was extended.

The gas was used for lighting, heating, stoves and water heating. For lighting the gas was fed through a material mantle about two inches long (30mm), which when first lit burnt to an ash and was very fragile. The light produced was very white and incandescent. The gas could be used as a fuel for internal combustion engines, and in time three were used in the borough, including one in the gasworks.

The price of gas to the consumers was 10/- ($1) per 1000 cubic feet and 7/6 (75c) for large consumers, discounted for prompt payment.

There were 40 street lamps, some being the central pedestal type in the middle of Oxford Street but most being on the footpath edges and corners. The lamps had to be lit by hand at night and turned off in the morning.


Progress brought automatic lamp lighting and the loss of one job!

In 1912 the council decided to install an automatic street lamp lighting and extinguishing system. An apparatus was fitted to each street lamp consisting of a cylindrical vessel about the size and shape of a jam tin. Inside was another vessel, shaped like a saucepan, with a lid having a deep flange which was immersed in mercury making it gas proof.

With a pump (water powered) at the gas works a surge of gas was sent through the mains, this lifted the lid like the steam from a cooking pot lifts the lid. A simple arrangement of a ratchet wheel and a wire loop turned on the gas in the evening.

In the morning or when desired a surge turned off the gas. A pilot jet was burning permanently which lit the mantles when the gas was turned on.

On very moonlight nights the street lamps were turned off after 10pm. The surge of gas, was very detrimental to the fragile mantles often breaking them in the street lamps and in homes, but the services of a lamplighter were eliminated, which had cost 45 pounds ($90) a year.

As demand for gas grew more retorts were built. Originally five retorts existed and this grew to 12 retorts in two banks of five and seven. From memory the retorts were 12 feet (3.6m) long and 2 feet 3in (.8m) wide and high. The furnaces below were about the same sizes.

Harvey and Co (where Oxford Pharmacy is now) installed a 16 horsepower Tangro gas engine for their furniture workshop in 1912. In the same year Mr Shaw resigned as manager being replaced by Mr A. Burrell.

Tar was a valuable by-product used for tarsealing footpaths in the borough and later for road sealing. It was used by private people for sealing paths and as a preservative for timber. Surplus coke was in demand too, for burning in open fires. This retailed at 2/6 (25c) at this time for up to a large chaff sack and 2 pounds ($4) a ton.

By 1917 production of gas had increased to 233,000 cubic feet a month. In 1917 two gaslight tournaments were held by the Levin Bowling Club for patriotic purposes. The borough council partly funded the installation of lighting for the greens. The Levin Brass Band and Mrs Boulds orchestra played items. A dancing doll with up-to-date accomplishments was another attraction.

In May 1917 the borough council decided but not unanimously to remove all the pedestal lamps mounted centrally in Oxford Street and install lamps at the kerb edges. This started much controversy. Many letters were written to the Chronicle. One said that the pedestals gave people refuge from attacks from cars and cycles. One letter said that the Queen Street lamp [shown in the picture at left] was erected in 1902 when the original acetylene gas lamps were installed and had been paid for by subscriptions.


A Chronicle editorial of one and a quarter columns was firmly against their removal. It said they gave an image to Levin compared to a citizen wearing a collar and tie.

Some people thought the Queen Street pedestal lamp was a memorial to the Boer War, but there is no evidence that it was.

These pedestals had wide concrete foundations with a column about 6 feet 6 inches (2m) high and several feet thick on top. The iron standard of about 10 feet (3m) was mounted on the column with a double light.

It is vague as to how many pedestals there were but one account said there were six from Mako Mako Road to north of Queen Street at about Devon Street. I think I can remember the Mako Mako Road one and definitely the Bath Street one.

Records are sparse from 1917 but apparently all the pedestals were removed except the Queen Street one, which survived until 1925. When the council decided to remove it, the motion was rescinded and passed again several times. At the last meeting a motion to remove it was carried. Mr Harry Channings, the overseer blasted it out at dawn the next morning before the council could change its mind again.

When electricity was reticulated through Levin in 1924, the street lights were changed to electricity. Most houses, about two thirds, had been wired for electricity by the time the power flowed through the lines from Mangahao Power Scheme in November 1924.

The street lights were lit with power one month before, with surplus power from the steam generator used for construction of the power scheme. Shops changed to electric lighting quickly and most houses were soon lit with electricity. Gas was still used by most people for heating, cooking and water heating.

The gas works was like a Dantes Inferno with the big furnaces blazing and the coal in the retorts glowing red hot, especially if all 12 retorts were working during winter. The heat in the furnaces could rise to 2000°F and at times small stalactites of silica could be seen hanging from the fire bricks. Except for loading and unloading the furnaces and retorts, doors covered them but when the hot coke was raked onto a barrow and floor by the cwt (50 k) it was quite spectacular and extremely hot for the stokers.

Mr Shaw resigned in 1928 and Mr Alf Kennerley became the manager.

A water gas method was installed in 1932. This had a separate upright retort with coke being heated by a furnace below. A steam boiler supplied steam which was forced through the heated coke releasing gas that the ordinary retorts had not been able to release.

From then on this method supplied 20% of the gas produced. This partly enabled the price of gas to be reduced by 1p (1c) a 100 cubic feet, though with the onset of the depression, reduced wages helped in the reduction too.

The retorts deteriorated with the tremendous heat in them and had to be rebuilt about every five years.

By 1939 the gas holder had deteriorated badly and was leaking gas. A loan of £5300 ($10,600) was arranged, with a government subsidy of £400 ($800)/

A new 30,000 cubic feet gas holder was built by 1942 by Slayton, Son and Co of Leeds, at a cost of £4500 ($9000). The width of this holder was 44 ½ feet (14m) and 22 feet (7m) high, holding 945 tons of water. The slowness of construction from 1939 was probably caused by war time shortages of material. A new gasholder was built in 1950 by the same firm of 500,000 cubic feet capacity costing £1400 ($2800). It had 90 tons of steel in it, with 55,709 rivets and 1152 bolts.


Though the gasworks were a dark looking place with all the black coal and coke stored, in 1933 a Chronicle reporter described the surrounds as very tidy with white washed stones lining the drive, which was bordered by beds of shrubs and flower plants.

Alf Kennerley retired in 1960 with Mr Reg Newson replacing him. The method of producing gas was changed in 1965. The gas was produced from a light distillate oil in a new type of retort, heated by the same oil. No more tar or coke was produced. About this time Mr Rex Burgess was appointed manager.

A long-time stoker in the 1920s was Mr Bill Collins, while Mr Rex Newport was a stoker from 1941 to 1961. A semi-automatic stoker of coal and coke into the retorts was used at some stage about the 1950s or 1960s. The fuel was shovelled onto the stoker and inserted into the retorts and furnaces and released.

A story that one meter reader Mr Bob Williams told, is that water heating califonts had 1 penny coin meters. In a rooming house with one bathroom the meter yielded 6 pounds ($12) worth of pennies (cents) … 1440 of them.

The coal gas system was never a financial success, always running at a loss. Coal gas was both explosive and poisonous.

Natural gas was available from 1970. Then there were 700 consumers. The gas works and the gas holders were demolished later, with the land being reserved for industrial purposes.

The only relics of the system remaining are some of the underground piping fast deteriorating and some of original street light standards. One is mounted at Thompson House, restored by the Horowhenua Historical Society and another at the Gas Department in Oxford Street south, both lit by natural gas.  These standards are an example of art combined with utility of days gone by.

There were four of these saved from 1924, often used as clothes lines post or mounted in gardens with electric lamps on them. I discovered three of them through information given to me. There were both ordinary meters which were read and accounted and coin in the slot meters taking 1 shilling (10c). The gas ran out when the coin’s worth was finished. Slow payers were soon out onto the coin meters.

In April 1945 gas production was 1,351,600 cubic feet from 71 tons coal and 35 tons of coke was sold.

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The Gas Works - Part 1

Creator:Corrie Swanwick
Creation date:17 and 24/1/1990
Publisher:The News