3 minute read

Lighting up the streets of Sydney

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Aaron MacDonald
16 July 2020

The beginning of the 19th Century marked intense scientific and engineering change, with countless discoveries and creations of everyday things that we take for granted.

In 1837, telegraphy was patented by Samuel Morse, and the first photographic process was invented; Houston, Texas and Chicago, Illinois were both incorporated; Queen Victoria was crowned ruler of the British Empire; and, on 7 September 1837, a piece of legislation passed into law entitled An Act for lighting with Gas the Town of Sydney.

That legislation marked the birth of the Australian Gas Light Company – which today is AGL – and its beginnings would gradually evolve into the AGL of today: operator of Australia’s largest electricity generation portfolio and one of the largest ASX-listed investors in renewable energy.

Less than three years after the company was brought into being, the Australian Gas Light Company lit the first-ever gas streetlight in Sydney – on 24 May 1841, to coincide with the 22nd birthday of the newly crowned Queen Victoria.


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‘Whereas the Town of Sydney, in the Colony of New South Wales, is large and prosperous, and it would be a great advantage to all the Inhabitants thereof, if such Town were lighted with gas...’


Two years later, in 1843, there were 165 gas lamps around the city. Amusingly, almost all – 106, to be precise – were outside pubs; intended, according to the City of Sydney’s archives, to ‘deter riotous hordes of villains’.1

Ten years later, most streets across the rapidly growing metropolis were lit up after dark by gas lighting. This had the added effect of allowing stores to stay open later into the evening – you might say that this was the birth of late-night shopping.

The gas was stored in enormous holding tanks at the Millers Point Gasworks on Darling Harbour in Sydney, which were hewn out of solid sandstone.1 The gas was produced onsite by gasifying coal through destructive distillation: essentially heating (rather than burning) coal and steam, to produce coal gas – which is not literally a gaseous form of coal, but rather a collection of combustible gases, also known as ‘town gas’.2 In the 1850s, AGL would introduce purification of this gas collection, allowing it to be more safely used in private residences.


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The Millers Point Gasworks dominated Darling Harbour at the time. They were decommissioned almost a century ago, in 1921; in 1925, the above-ground structures were removed to build a rat-proof wall to stop rodents from moving from ships to wharves and into Sydney’s streets.1

While most visible signs of the gasworks are gone today, the location and its importance to the burgeoning colony are commemorated by Gas Lane, nestled between the Darling Harbour suburbs of Millers Point and Barangaroo – and a stone’s throw from AGL’s modern Sydney headquarters on George Street.

The AGL of today is almost unrecognisable compared to its 1837 forebear, but for the shared focus on lighting up the lives of our people and our communities. But that same juxtaposition highlights our drive to grow and transform – not just as a company, but for Australia. The 183 years between 1837 and 2020 have seen incredible advancement, innovation, and transformation – and we’re ready to continue shaping the future.




1 NSW Government (2017) Millers Point Gasworks, Barangaroo Delivery Authority. Accessed 10 July 2020; https://www.barangaroo.com/see-and-do/the-stories/millers-point-gasworks/
2 Yarrow, S (2019) Forgotten Sydney: Gasworks, Australia For Everyone. Accessed 13 July 2020; http://www.visitsydneyaustralia.com.au/gasworks.html