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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 3, November 1983

Nelson City

Nelson City

page 14

Nelson was constituted a city by Royal Letters Patent in 1858 when it became a Bishop's See. Administration of the town affairs continued to be handled by the Nelson Provincial Council through a Board of Works which first took office in 1856. Under this system a great deal of development work was carried out, bringing some semblance of order to the locality, by improving the streets, and providing adequate drainage to the swampy and low-lying areas.

One of the bigger undertakings in Provincial Council days was the provision of a good water supply from the Brook Stream.

Nelson City Water Works, Built 1868

With the present proposal to greatly extend the city water supply scheme it appears appropriate to record the humble beginnings of the municipal supply which was first in use well over a century ago. Alfred Saunders, who was elected as Superintendent of the Province in 1865, left the following short record.

"When the Provincial Council voted £20.000 for a water supply for the city of Nelson 1 sent Mr Blackett, Provincial Engineer, to Melbourne to see what he could learn from what had been done there. I then sent to Ransome and Simms for a complete supply of all that was necessary and we obtained a supply of excellent water for £300 less than the amount voted. The £20,000 was borrowed on debentures…"

The Reservoir. – Tyree Photo. Nelson Provincial Museum.

The Reservoir. – Tyree Photo. Nelson Provincial Museum.

page 15

John Blackett was the Provincial Engineer at the time while Henry Handiside was engaged at a salary of £250 per annum to assist with the work. In general the scheme was to build a concrete dam in the Brook stream, three miles from Nelson and at 300 feet above high water sea level, and run the water into a reservoir before being piped to the city. The reservoir was simply intended to ensure that dirty water, in time of floods, did not enter the town supply.

The Provincial Engineer reported on May 29, 1867 that two vessels had arrived bringing portions of the plant for the water works. Ransome and Simms (England) had been very prompt in executing the the order sent to them in May 1866. The first two shipments had arrived in March 1867 and he was awaiting the balance as it was not possible to lay the pipes until those shipments arrived. Work had been commenced on the dray road up Brook Street Valley to the site of the reservoir at the head of the valley. It was hoped to commence the dam shortly.

On April 13, 1868, Blackett reported that the whole of the cast iron piping had been laid from the dam to the town and that the dam had been filled with water several times. The full pressure had been laid on in the pipes. Bray and Lloyd had carried out the contract for the dam and retaining wall, the pipe bridges, and forming the road to the reservoir. John Scott was the contractor for the reservoir. The pipe laying contractor had failed to carry out the work and it was completed by day labour. The scheme was opened for use on April 16, 1867.

A. D. Dodson, in his reminscences, stated that the reservoir was shattered by earthquake soon after being built and that the water was piped direct from the dam.

The Provincial Engineer, Dodson' in his annual report, dated May 4, 1874, stated (quote) "As the mains are extended year by year the necessity for an increased supply becomes more apparent. A larger main should be laid from the dam to the reservoir as soon as possible. I propose laying a 10 inch main from the dam to the reservoir, which will cost about £1,500." (There are further comments about plans to complete the reticulation of the town, extending the mains, and similar work).

By then the first Nelson City Council had been formed and the water works became the responsibility of the new body which replaced the Board of Works under the Provincial Council.

The further developments do not come within the scope of this article as the Nelson City Council history has been well written.

View of the Water Dam. Brook Street Valley. Nelson.

View of the Water Dam. Brook Street Valley. Nelson.

page 16

Nelson City Gas Works

The suggeslion that Nelson should have gas-lighting would appear to be nearly as old as the city itself as in 1859 there was in the news reports that Dr. Tatton had his shop in town lit by coal gas. He gave lectures and advocated the advantages to be gained by his method of lighting. He was also using gas lights in his home and a news report stated that "A number of persons paid a visit to view the novel sight, and general satisfactions were expressed at the purity and brilliance of the flame. We hope to see this commencement extended to something of general utility before much lapse of time". The report pointed out the economy involved, its lower cost, and the fact that insurance companies lowered their annual rate of charges for buildings lit by gas. It was already in use in Australia and in European cities.

It would appear that Dr. Tatton and other gas enthusiasts must have done a great deal of talking before they convinced the people of Nelson that a city gas supply was warranted.

A city gasworks was eventually built and now, after more than a century of use, gas is phased out… Here is the story of its beginnings.

In 1871 John Blackett, who had been Provincial Engineer, was appointed Chief Engineer by the General Government and A. D. Dobson took over the Nelson position, also becoming Chief Surveyor when Henry Lewis resigned shortly afterwards.

The building of the Nelson City gas works was one of the biggest undertakings of the time and this became the responsibility of Dobson as engineer. To facilitate this work William Craven Mirfin, who had been a road overseer in the south-west of the Nelson Province, took charge of the Nelson project. He had already had some experience with gas works in Greymouth as revealed in his diary records. He apparently prepared the plans for the gas chimney there. Among his papers which have been preserved, there is a letter from the Greymouth Gas Company dated October 24, 1871. Written in perfect handwriting it reads:– "Sir, I beg to inform you that you have been elected a Director of this Company in place of E. Masters, Esq., resigned. The regular meeting of directors is held on Monday morning each week at 8 o'clock. I am, sir, your obedient servant. (signature indecipherable)…To W. C. Mirfin, Cobden.

No date has been found to indicate just when Mirfin moved back to Nelson but it is reasonable to assume that he undertook supervision of the work in 1872 as plans were then well underway. A letter from Langlands Foundry Company Ltd., Melbourne, dated August 22, 1872, was in connection with plans and specifications stating that the bill for the preparations of plans was £50. The specifications (now in poor order) were written in excellent handwriting, and covered:–

The iron works required in the construction of the gas works.

Building in stone and brick for gas works. (Stone to come from Adele Island).

Workshops and retort house which included a brick chimney.

Further correspondence in 1873 shows something of progress of the work. A letter from Langlands Foundry dated April 18, 1873 was a detailed account for gas meters, pipes bends, and fittings for lights, while on July 10 a Bill of Loading for the balance of the gas plant was sent. More pipes were to be shipped.

page 17

A letter dated July 22, 1873 stated that they had been sent the station meter, gas tools, and balance of plant. They also refered to a complaint about the 7 inch pipes stating that they had been unable to make sufficient quantity in the contract time and so had imported them from England. Langlands wrote on October 28 stating that they were sending the balance of the 3 inch pipes, to complete the order. This letter was addressed to Alfred Greenfield, Provincial Secretary, while other letters were addressed to A. D. Dobson. Provincial Engineer. Bright Bros and Co, Melbourne, sent various correspondence and accounts between April 1873 and January 1874 for meters and other equipment, and these accounts were passed by W. C. Mirfin, Manager. In the Nelson Evening Mail in October 1873 it was announced that the tender from Walton and Murray of Greymouth, for retort benches and chimney, for the sum of £228, had been accepted for the Nelson gas works by the Government. A further letter from Langlands that month stated that they were sending the balance of the 3 inch pipes to complete the order. It would appear that Langlands Foundry sub-let contracts for some of the plant. A news item in the Nelson Evening Mail in July 1873 stated that the first instalment of plant for the gasworks, consisting of the ironwork for the gasometer, arrived by the Taranaki from Auckland, where it had been purchased from the Thames Gas Company. Further letters from Langlands in April and May 1874 advised that 15 street taps and 191 iron socket pipes had been shipped.

Some lights must have been in use by 1874 as on March 30 George Garrett supplied a list to W. C. Mirfin, Manager, Nelson Gas and Water Works giving details of gas users with comment of either "burning" or "not burning".

82. Mr John Disher, Fleece Hotel, Waimea St. Not burning
83. Baptist Church, Bridge St. Burning
84. Mr Birch, Storekeeper, Collingwood St. Burning
85. New Zealand Bank, Trafalgar St. Not burning
86. Mr John McArtney, Private house Bridge St. Not burning
87. Mr Fred Brind, Provincial Hotel, Bridge St. Burning
88. Police Station Burning
89. Mr George Garrett, Hardy St. Burning
90. E. Buxton & Co. Trafalgar St. Burning
91. Mr Daly, Trafalgar St. Burning
92. Mr Grimes, Trafalgar St. Burning

The Provincial Engineer presented a lengthy report on May 4, 1874 when he stated:- The Gas Works were sufficiently completed on the 24th November for lighting up the Government buildings during the Exhibition.

The works have been designed with a view to future extension, and all buildings have been erected in a thoroughly substantial manner. The retort house is intended to contain six benches, with three retorts to a bench; three only of these have been built as yet. The condensers, scrubber, and purifiers are sufficiently large to require no further alterations when the full number of retorts are added, and the works are planned that upon the land already fenced, together with land recently purchased from Mr Beit, three more gasholders can be erected without entrenching upon the ground required for yard purposes, stacking plant, etc. Space has been left for engine house and exhauster, which will probably be required at some future date when the consumption of gas is large.

page 18

The contract for the plant comprised eight and a half miles of mains, of these five miles have been laid up to the present date. Services have been laid to 100 buildings, including the Government Buildings, but there are only about eighty burning gas. Since the fires were first lighted about 320,00 cubic feet of gas has been manufactured".

The calculations to this report show the cost of production for given quantities and the probable profits.

"It will be seen that the consumption requires to be over 3,000,000 cubic feet per annum to pay working expenses and interest at the rate of 6%, but that with a consumption of 5,000,000 a profit of £1,000 per annum remains after paying working expenses and interest, the profits rapidly increasing with the increased consumption".

"The gas manufactured up to the present has been from Grey coal, from which an average of 8,000 cubic feet per ton has been obtained. This coal also makes an excellent sample of coke, which has found a fair sale at £3 per ton; all the tar made has also sold at 1/- per gallon. The other residues are too small a quantity to be of any commercial value at present."

"A quantity of Newcastle and Pakawau coal has also been carbonised—the former gave an average of 7,400 cubic feet to the ton, and the latter (a sample supplied by Mr Webster from a new seam) gave 8,000 cubic feet.

The total cost of the works, including plant in hand, such as mains, service meters, etc has amounted to £16,934–6–8.".

On May 13. 1874, the Provincial Secretary, in reply to a question replied:- "Mr Beit's property, Haven Road, one acre and a quarter, with double frontage, 165 feet to Haven Road, and 330 feet to another public road, together with dwelling house and brick warehouse. At the time of the selection of the site for the Gasworks, Mr Beit's property was offered for sale at £1,500. The government had the property valued by the Superintendent of Public Works, who reported it worth £1,000, which was offered to Mr Beit's agent; the offer at the time was refused, but has recently been accepted. The property was assessed by the Board of Works at £1290. The land was required for future extension for the Gasworks, and for the purposes the Government would probably have had to pay a considerable sum for depreciation of the property, Mr Beit having protested against the works, and threatened legal proceedings. The Act provides that nothing shall prevent the Superintendent from being liable to an indictment for nuisance, or any other legal proceedings to which he may be liable in consequence of making or supplying gas".

A letter dated October 8, 1875 from R. Laidlaw & Son, Glasglow, gave gasholder specifications and other details for plant which they were apparently supplying, together with numbers for assembly. They also gave the prices for cast iron lamp posts. This was addressed to W. C. Mirfin as manager of the Government Gas and Water Works. However it was too late to be of any interest to Mirfin as will be shown later.

The Nelson City Council

There was a certain amount of feeling in the town of Nelson and many citizens believed that the time had arrived to form a Nelson City Council. In October 1873 a petition praying that it should become a municipality was circulated and signed in the town and forwarded to Mr Robert Burn who, as a member of both the Provincial Council and the Board of Works, forwarded it to his Honour the Superintendent for presentation to the Governor.

page 19

The first Nelson City Council was appointed on March 30, 1874, the members simply being the members of the old Board of Works, so taking advantage of the Municipal Corporation Act passed some years earlier. The City Council took over the works which the Board of Works had created and, with them, the officials of the Board. These included W. C. Mirfin, manager of the Gas and Water Works. The Council also had to incur the liability of £50,000 in connection with the transfer of the Gasworks and Waterworks from the Government to Council. Meanwhile the City Council had no income and faced a financial crisis. Following an election in September 1874 all the council employes, except the newly appointed Town Clerk, were given notice of termination of their services. This included the manager of the gasworks but there soon was some dissatisfaction when lights failed in the evenings and one City Council meeting in April 1875 was abandoned during discussion when lights failed.


George Mirfin

Late Ashton Mirfin

W. C. Mirfin Diaries and correspondence

Nelson Provincial Council Votes and Proceedings and Gazettes

Nelson Evening Mail

Alfred Saunders: Tales of a Pioneer

A. D. Dobson: Reminisences.