Competing for the Limelight: The St. John's Gas Light Company, 1844 to 1896


Melvin Baker and Janet Miller Pitt (c)1991

Originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly, vol. LXXXVI, no. 2 (Winter 1991), 22-6

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 profitable innovation.

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 consumer amenity.

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 undertaking." (5)

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 introduced. (6)

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 rural politicians.

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. John's.

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 retorts.

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 obnoxious."

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 street repairs.

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.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

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.

15. Ibid.

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.