Incorporated in 1844 by a special act of Newfoundland's
legislature, the St. John's Gas Light Company thrived for over 50
years because of the marriage of mercantile and government
interests in the colony's largest and most prosperous town. For
it was not merely to light streets or to illuminate and heat
homes that the revolutionary technology of gas lighting was
introduced to Newfoundland. It was rather to light the St. John's
premises of one of Newfoundland's largest fish exporters, Bowring
Brothers of St. John's and Liverpool, founded 1811. To do this,
and coincidentally to light the town's commercial core, Bowring
and other merchants enlisted the political and financial support
of both government and residents, imported the technicians and
developed the new institutions needed to operate and profit from
the new technology.
In June 1841, Charles Bowring in St. John's wrote to his father
Benjamin in Liverpool asking how best to install gas lighting at
their St. John's premises. While acknowledging he knew little
about gas lighting, Benjamin informed his son that gas technology
was expensive and advised him that "there were some newly
invented lamps to burn common oil which I heard there is little
or no trouble with, and which give a most brilliant light, at
least equal to Gas, and which even here cost about one halfpenny
per hour in consumption." (1)
The younger Bowring sought innovation and courted risk; the elder
Bowring cautioned utility and preached profit. This dichotomy of
opinion was not surprising between generations in the early
1840s. Famous gas and water projects were being built in London,
Paris, Baltimore, New York, Toronto and Montreal at this time. As
Armstrong and Nelles note in Monopoly's Moment: The Organization
and Regulation of Canadian Utilities, 1830-1930, both water and
gaslight were seen as "symbols of progress, metaphors for life
and illumination ... clean water, protection against fire, the
safety of well-lit streets: these were the vaulting ambitions and
subsequently the hallmarks of bourgeois civilization. Obtaining
these amenities were as much a social and political
accomplishment as a technological triumph." (2)
Undeterred by his father's dour advice, the younger Bowring was
determined to transfer the new technology to British North
America's oldest colony and to place its control and profits
firmly in the hands of himself and his fellow merchants. Soon he
had recruited other prominent St. John's merchants such as Robert
Job, Walter Grieve and Robert Prowse to his proposed enterprise.
He also sought and secured the backing of newly appointed
Governor Sir John Harvey, who was transferred to Newfoundland
from New Brunswick in 1841. Cognizant of the balance of local
power, Harvey quickly made the general improvement of St. John's
- including gas lighting - a priority of his administration. (3)
Lacking responsible government until 1855 and municipal
government until 1888, the growth and prosperity of St. John's
(the centre of commerce and the seat of the legislature) were the
predominant concerns of the colony's government. (4) Capitalists,
notably the Water Street merchants of St. John's and their
English and Scottish partners, shaped political will and provided
the entrepreneurial drive to establish new technologies in a
largely pre-industrial society. St. John's, the most populous and
commercially important centre in the otherwise sparsely populated
colony, guaranteed a captive and lucrative market for any new and
As the merchants first proposed their scheme of gas lighting for
St. John's, the suggested uses of this new technology - the
lighting of commercial premises, city streets and homes -
appealed to a broad range of community interests. As the
merchants then instituted the new technology, their own private
interests profited most directly and immediately from this new
On September 6, 1843, some merchants formed a self-appointed committee to examine the lighting of St. John's with
gas. By November 16, this committee strongly recommended to a
public meeting of the town's residents that gas
"would not only supply its inhabitants
with a much cheaper, safer, and stronger
light, than that which tallow oil can
produce, but would, at the same time, afford
a sure and profitable investment for the
capital of those who may embark in the
Assuring the townsfolk that their findings were not "vague,
speculative, or theoretical," the merchants asserted that their
recommendations were instead founded on sound data, derived from practical
proofs, and confirmed and borne out by the
certain and uniform results which have
followed, wherever the use of gas has been
Committee members were aided in their deliberations by James Uniacke, the President of the Halifax Gas Company which was formed in the nearby colony of Nova Scotia earlier that year, and by Alexander McAuslan, a Scottish engineer experienced in gas works operations. Nova Scotia had benefited from the early experience of Boston and New York and the profitable north-south trade of the eastern seaboard had been expanded beyond goods to include valuable technological exchange. Nova Scotia gas interests would continue to play a role in the history of the utility of her near neighbour to the north. But Newfoundland merchants, with their continuing close commercial ties to British and Scottish firms, more naturally sought and found advice and technological expertise in Scotland and England.
Following the committee's report of November 16th, 44 prominent
citizens were persuaded to formed a joint stock company with a
paid-up capital of $48,000. The company's first concern was to
provide lighting for the commercial stores on Water Street, where
there were about 360 premises willing to take the service. These
consisted of approximately 290 stores, 29 houses, and 42 wharves.
(7) Water Street was the town's main thoroughfare which ran
parallel to the waterfront, a dense thicket of finger wharves,
warehouses and merchant premises.
In 1844 Governor Harvey favoured the stockholders with a generous
land grant (rented at an annual rate of two pounds on a 60-year
renewable lease) in the town's west end to serve as a site for
their proposed gas works. Later that year Andrew Thompson, a
former employee of the water works at Moffat, Scotland, was hired
to oversee construction and company management (a position he
retained until illness forced his retirement in 1871). Pipes were
laid on Water Street by the spring of 1845 and by the end of
summer the first store was ready to be lit - the honour going to
Bowring Brothers. (8)
The company's coal gas was made by heating bituminous coal to as
high as 1000 degrees centigrade in special furnaces. At these
temperatures the coal breaks down into a number of substances,
including a variety of gasses and solid coke. The raw gasses were
then condensed, purified and stored in large cylindrical tanks
called "gasometers". From the gas house, underground gas mains
distributed the fuel around the city and from more mains smaller
pipes delivered the fuel to each building served. The main laid
in Water Street varied from three to five inches in diameter,
while the one laid later in Duckworth Street was three inches in
diameter. (9) A by-product of the gas making process, coal tar,
was sold as manure to local farmers. (10) The company used coal
imported from Liverpool and Glasgow. (11) In 1883, for instance,
the company daily consumed approximately 10 tons of coal. (12)
From the 1840s until 1885, when electricity was first introduced
in St. John's for public and commercial use, the St. John's Gas
Light Company held a lighting monopoly in the town. The company
generally paid its shareholders an annual dividend of six percent
on their investment. (13) Consumers were charged by the volume of
gas used. Gas was also provided for street lighting, for which
the Company received an annual legislative grant from the
government. Before payment was made, the government had the
Inspector of Police certify that the lights had been lit during
the period payment was due. There were the inevitable public
criticisms of the quality of street lighting provided
particularly in the crowded east end of St. John's. The
relatively well-lit but sparsely populated west end was close to
the gas works. The east end, where most of the town's public and
religious buildings and the residences of merchants were located,
endured dim and fitful service.
This was ameliorated somewhat in the early 1880s by the laying of
larger gas mains in Water and Duckworth Streets and the extension
of service to new areas of the east end to the King's Bridge Road
area by 1883. (14) On Water Street a new gas main was laid, it
being now six inches in diameter, while on Duckworth Street the
new main laid was five inches in diameter. (15) The company
provided a lighting service to most of the city's public
buildings, including Government House and the Colonial Building,
which housed the legislature. It also began providing gas to
local industries to power their gas engines. John B. Ayre was the
first entrepreneur to tap this new source of power, installing a
15-horsepower engine in his Water Street bakery. (16) By 1894
there were 13 gas engines in regular service representing a total
generating capacity of 47 horsepower. (17)
The lack of municipal government in St. John's before 1888 also
contributed to poor service. The legislature provided some of the
cost of street lighting through an annual grant which proved to
be insufficient to meet the town's lighting requirements. (18)
Legislators from outside St. John's (who held the balance of
power) carefully watched public expenditures in St. John's from
general revenue. Hence any substantial improvement in civic
services required the creation of a municipal council and the
establishment of a municipal revenue base to pay for new or
improved services. This was not achieved until 1888 by which time
the St. John's Gas Light Company would experience a threat to its
monopoly more serious than grumbling customers and recalcitrant
Thomas Edison's improvements to his revolutionary incandescent
lighting system brought his invention into commercial use by
1878. St. John's residents avidly followed glowing foreign
reports in the local press about improved street lighting through
the use of electricity in other cities in Europe and North
America. By 1885 several local merchants led by Moses Monroe, a
new breed of entrepreneur-politician, (19) formed the St. John's
Electric Light Company with the goal of providing electricity for
both public and commercial uses.
The plant for the new electric company was a thermal plant
conveniently located in the centre of the town so that all areas
would receive the same standard of service. (20) Electricity,
although more expensive than gas, provided cleaner, brighter
light and in St. John's, as in the rest of North America,
electricity began to break the gas monopoly through street
lighting and later street railway contracts. In 1886 the St.
John's Electric Light Company secured from the government of
Robert Thorburn a contract for 25 electric street lamps at an
annual cost of $200 each to replace 35 gas lamps that previously
lit city streets. (21) This arrangement continued until St.
John's received its own municipal government in 1888.
Gas utilities in Canada in the late 19th century had met the
threat to their monopoly in a number of ways. First, they
belittled it by contending that the new technology was unproven,
too expensive or, with its jumble of poles and wires, too
unsightly. Second, they lowered rates, a move financed in part by
nearly four decades of rapid, unchallenged growth and better
service. Third, they bought the competition with many gas
companies purchasing the rights to electricity or buying new
electrical companies outright. (22) In St. John's, however, both
the gas and the electric companies existed side by side, and when
municipal government was introduced in 1888, articles in the
local press such as "electric vs. gas light, which should the
city have?" (23) reflected the competition between them. The
electric utility had a powerful ally in councillor Moses Monroe,
a prominent city merchant and one of the founders of the utility
in 1885. However, with strong financial support within the
business community (especially from its major investor, the firm
of Bowring Brothers), the gas company was prepared to defend its
interests in the provision of lighting and power services in St.
On October 11, 1888 the new municipal council appointed a
committee to consider additional street lighting; six days later
the committee recommended the installation of 18 new lamps - nine
gas and nine electric. The gas lamps, of the Bray three-burner
variety, were supplied at $40 each although the gas company had
initially asked for $71. The electric lamps were supplied at $130
per lamp annually. Critics of electricity observed that for the
price of a single electric light, citizens could have three gas
lamps and $10 to bank. Those favouring electric lights noted
that, being so much more powerful with a Candle lighting power
equivalent to ten ordinary gas lamps", electricity illuminated
not only the immediate area but "in many cases lights up places
and streets away from it". (24) In several public buildings such
as the Colonial Building and Government House, the electric
company's employees removed all gas-fittings and took up all gas
main connections and piping thereby making it more difficult and
expensive for the gas company to resume service to former
customers. (25) While it no longer retained responsibility for
lighting the town's principal streets after 1888, the gas company
did hang on to its service for the smaller streets and lanes.
The St. John's Gas Light Company had chosen to meet the challenge
to its monopoly by modernizing its physical plant, increasing gas
production and lowering its rates. In 1886 it added a new gas
reservoir that was about 60 feet in diameter (one third larger
than the old one) twice the capacity of its predecessor. (26) In
December 1888 the company secured the services of an engineer
from the Manchester, England gas manufacturers R. & J. Dempster,
to study the existing gas works and to make recommendations for
increasing gas production; by 1889 the recommended changes had
been made by the same Manchester firm. The changes involved the
installation of the latest equipment in the way of eight annular
condensers, one rotary exhauster, one tower washer, and a
purifier, all housed in an addition to the original plant.
A reporter's visit to the plant in 1896 has left us with the
following description of both the renovations made in 1889 and
the plant's physical operations. As George Ellis the company's
superintendent explained, the plant had seen many improvements
and additions and now possessed five gasometers and eleven
The condensing room, the reporter wrote, contained "eight large,
high circular condensers, through each of which the gas passes in
due order and thence into the "scrubber", which is a large
circular tank, ... where the gas, after leaving the condensers,
is actually scrubbed of all the grosser impurities such as tar,
aniline, etc. It is filled about 4 feet up with water, and above
that to the top there is some 5,400 feet of lumber arranged
crosswise, tier after tier, which is kept damp by the filtering
of water down through from an ingenious little automatic tank at
the top. The gas comes into this tank, or "scrubber", at the
bottom, and, gradually leaving behind its dross as it mounts up,
finds its way out by coming down a box attached to the inside,
and so on into other pipes and away through underground pipes
into the purifying house. This house contains four large square
iron tanks called "boxes", fitted with wooden gratings from
bottom to top, of a distance apart of about a foot. These
gratings, as well as the floor, are strewn with slacked and
sifted lime from the gas which absorb the sulphur which is so
For company workmen to determine when the gas was pure, the
reporter was told that on top of each box was a small pipe with a
tap. A small slip of white paper was dipped "into a solution of
Acetate of Lead, the tap is turned on and the paper, wet with
this solution, is held so that the gas can play on it as it
escapes. If the gas is pure the paper will remain white, but if
it is impure, the paper, where damped by the solution, will show
it at once by changing from white to brown or black." (27)
The changes in 1889 made to the physical plant allowed for
greater efficiency in the gas making process so that in June of
that year the gas company was able to substantially lower its
prices for lighting from $3.50 to $2.40 per 1,000 cubic feet.
(28) In 1892 this figure was further lowered to $2.00 per 1,000
cubic feet. (29) The company also had a storeroom at the plant
where appliances such as cooking and heating stoves were sold.
(30) Although no longer an absolute monopoly, the gas company's
strategy of modernization and retrenchment seemed to be working.
Then in July 1892 disaster struck St. John's. A great fire swept
through the city leaving hundreds homeless. With the massive
destruction of residential and commercial property - including
its own pipes and fittings - the gas company lost 60 percent of
its business. It also had carried no insurance. The east end, the
company's most profitable area, was not fully rebuilt for two
years. Domestic customers left the gas company in droves for the
Electric Light Company as the delivery of electricity to
residences did not depend upon the removal of debris and other
After 1893 the gas company persistently rebuilt its finances, its
services and its customer base. Although shareholders never
accepted any dividends from 1893 to 1895 because of the company's
precarious situation, the company returned to a sound financial
footing with new plant and service extensions. The gas company
benefited by new developments in gas lighting, especially the
Auer incandescent light which the company aggressively promoted
with over 250 lights being installed within a year of its
introduction in 1893. This bright new invention made gas lighting
an attractive alternative to electricity in many homes and in
public buildings. "For the same consumption of gas four or five
times the light is produced," company officials told the public
in 1894, and the "heat is reduced some 500 per cent and is only 3
1/2 times that given by the electric light in proportion to light
produced. The combustion is perfect, and practically no vitiation
of the atmosphere is caused by the Auer Light". (31)
The gas company also refocused its efforts, securing customers
for gas heating in homes and powering the gas engines of
industry. (32) The company also laid gas mains for the first time
to the growing housing areas beyond the slope of the hill on
which the original town was built. In 1896 the company completed
a gas main along Harvey Road to the intersection of Freshwater
and LeMarchant Roads and the following year laid a main on New
Gower Street from Queen Street to the foot of Church Hill. (33)
These improvements to the company's systems after the 1892 fire
were soon reflected in the company's improved financial position.
In 1896 gas sales increased by ten percent, the largest increase
for any one year to that time. The same year shareholders
received a dividend of five percent on their investments; after
1896 the annual dividend paid ranged between six and eight
percent. As one of its presidents later noted in the late 1920s,
the gas company was "the gilt edged security of the country, its
forty dollar stock selling for sixty two fifty . . . [and] its
directorate was the mecca of our business world". (34)
1. David Keir, The Bowring Story (London 1962), 78.
2. Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles, Monopoly's Moment: The Organization and Regulation of Public Utilities, 1830-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 11-34.
3. Melvin Baker, The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Ontario, 1980), 150-151.
4. Peter Neary, ed., The Political Economy of Newfoundland, 1929-1972 (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1973), 9-20.
5. Royal Gazette November 21, 1843.
8. Ibid. See also Newfoundlander May 8, September 8, 1845, Public Ledger September 23, 1845; and Keir, The Bowring Story, 79.
9. Evening Telegram October 9, 1883.
10. John Joy, "The growth and development of Trades and Manufacturing in St. John's, 1870-1914" (M.A. thesis, Memorial University, 1977) 141.
11. "Economist" to Daily Colonist December 21, 1888.
12. Evening Telegram October 9, 1883.
13. E.P. Morris in House of Assembly Debates, June 24, 1895, in Evening Telegram July 6, 1895.
14. Evening Telegram October 9, 1883.
16. On the establishment of the St. John's Municipal Council in the 1880s, see Baker, "The Government of St. John's", 226-244.
17. Evening Herald June 13, 1894.
18. Legislative Council debate March 7, 1884, in (St. John's) Times March 15, 1884.
19. For further biographical information on Monroe, see Melvin Baker, "Monopolist Monroe, the Wire Puller of the West End: The political and business career of Moses Monroe", Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXXIII, no. 4 (Spring, 1988), 2429.
20. Melvin Baker, Robert D. Pitt, and Janet Miller Pitt, The Illustrated History of Newfoundland Light & Power (St. John's: Creative Publishers, 1990) 23-37.
21. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, GN2/2, Herbert Burchell to Maurice Fenelon, November 6, 1886, and GN2/22/A, Burchell to Fenelon, August 28, 1886.
22. Armstrong and Nelles, Monopoly's Moment, see Chapter 2.
23. "Scaliger" to Evening Telegram December 10, 1888.
24. See letters from residents in Daily Colonist October 12, 13, 19, November 21, December 21, 1888, and Evening Telegram October 18, November 23, 24, December 10, 11, 21, 1888.
25. Daily Colonist January 9, 1889; Evening Telegram January 16, 1889; and E.P. Morris in House of Assembly Debates, June 24, 1895, in Evening Telegram July 6, 1895.
26. Daily Colonist October 29, 1886.
27. Evening Telegram February 5, 1896.
28. Ibid., June 4, 1889.
29. Daily Tribune November 5, 1892.
30 Daily Colonist July 6, 1892, and Evening Telegram February 5, 1896.
31. Evening Herald June 13, 1894.
32. Among those companies in 1895 taking gas for their engines were the following: the offices of the Telegram, Herald, Daily News, and Gazette newspapers, J.C. Oke's Factory, Bennett's Brewery, Bowden & Co., and John Eagan's Bakery. See E.P. Morris in House of Assembly Debates, June 24, 1895, in Evening Telegram July 6, 1895.
33. Evening Telegram June 5, 1897. In 1900 further price cutting attracted more customers and gas slot machines were placed in homes to enable customers to control the amount of gas consumed. In 1902 the company extended mains to provide power for the Ropewalk, a cordage factory established by Moses Monroe in the early 1880s. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Ropewalk was previously powered by its own thermal electric generator and was one of the city's largest employers of labour. By the end of 1906 the company supplied gas to industrial users whose gas engines represented a combined total of 700 horsepower. See Ibid., June 5, 1897, July 14, 1900, and Trade Review December 19, 1903, January 21, 1905, January 26, 1907, January 27, 1910.
34. Melvin Baker and Janet Miller Pitt, "The Unmaking of
Monopoly: The St. John's Gas Light Company, 1914 to 1931" (paper
presented to the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical
Association, Quebec City, June 2, 1989), 6.