Lighting the Darkness

Lighting The Darkness: The Gas Supply Industry in Nineteenth Century Cape Town, and its Role in the Formation of an Industrial Landscape

The following paper was presented at the Association for Industrial Archaeology Annual Conference, held in Newton Abbott, Devon, UK, from 4th to 5th September 1998.

General Introduction

This paper forms part of work on the “Industrial Archaeology of the Gas Supply Industry in Cape Town, from 1842 to 1910”. It focuses on the way in which the provision of public street lighting by gas was seen as a moral and political battleground; and how this particular aspect of Cape Town’s material culture was represented by commentators and graphic artists of the day as symbolising Cape Town’s emergence as a “modern” industrial city.

Cape Town’s industries

Cape Town is more usually thought of as a commercial, rather than an industrial centre. The more significant industrial concerns in the country were, and still are, located a thousand miles to the north-east. It is there that we find the extractive industries, predominantly diamonds, gold and coal, that continue to underpin South Africa’s industrial economy.

The Dutch East India Company recognised the potential of Table Bay to provide water, fresh supplies and shelter, and in 1652 established a permanent station in what was to become Cape Town.

Fresh water was the most significant factor in determining the location and layout of the early settlement, as mountain streams were canalised, and fresh produce gardens planted. Corn mills were among the first ‘industrial’ sites to be established, with the earliest ones being on the Platteklip Stream, flowing from the north face of Table Mountain.

By the earlier part of the nineteenth century, industrial activity in Cape Town was similar to what might be expected in any small market town of the same period. Brewers, tinsmiths, coopers, tanners, bakers, joiners and soap manufacturers are all represented in the Almanac of 1834.

However, by as late as the 1870s Cape Town’s economy was still dominated by a handful of merchants, and local industry was limited to satisfying immediate local needs. With no local source of cheap fuel, there were few factories, with little capital investment.

The discoveries of diamonds, in Kimberley, and gold, on the Witwatersrand, transformed the economy of South Africa during the latter part of the nineteenth century. As new industrial centres, including the city of Johannesburg, were created out of nothing, the domestic market for Cape Town’s commercial and industrial interests grew, while it continued to be the major port for the Cape Colony’s imports and exports.

The Supply of Coal Gas in Cape Town

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of two gas works in Cape Town. The first in Long Street, close to the city centre, and the second, nearly fifty years later, in the emerging suburb of Woodstock.

This plan, dated 1854, indexes many of the city’s important buildings of the time. The Long Street gas works is shown as number 23.

However, the first recorded use of gas in Cape Town was in June 1842, when the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew, in Somerset Road, had a small gas plant installed. “The Scotch Church”, as it was known, made its gas from whale oil, which not only gave a better light than coal gas, but was said not to need expensive purification processes. With a whale fishery very close by, whale oil would have been easy to obtain. It seems entirely appropriate that it was the church who were the first to bring Light to the Darkness that was nineteenth century Cape Town.

In 1843, initial proposals for a public Gas Works were described as “a ridiculous proposition” by the Cape Town Mail, who claimed that London was “becoming ashamed of gas” .

In 1844, however, the Cape of Good Hope Gas Light Company was established, under the chairmanship of Baron von Ludwig. The new works was located close to the seaward end of Long Street, and the foundation stone was laid with great ceremony by the Colonial Secretary, John Montagu, on the 6th October, 1845. A painting of the event by Thomas Baines is held in the collection at Cape Town Castle.

Von Ludwig, anxious to be remembered as a benefactor to the city, is reported as saying that the company was “not guided by mere sordid views of pecuniary gain, but that they aim at something higher; namely the contributing, in however small a degree, towards that general improvement in our religious, moral and social relations”. First the Scotch Church, and now Von Ludwig, saw the introduction of gas lighting not merely as utilitarian, but as a force for moral and social improvement.

One of Cape Town’s pre-eminent artists of the day was Thomas Bowler. In a view of the city from Table Bay, the smoke from the gas works is clearly visible.

Two years later, in 1847, six miles of supply pipe had been laid, and the gas works was in production. It is shown here in a contemporary drawing by George Duff.

The gas company contracted to supply gas for 100 public street lights, and the Cape Town Mail must by now have been convinced of the worthiness of the idea, because it described the first use of the gas in the following terms: “The primeval darkness that has brooded over South Africa was yesterday evening suddenly dispelled, and the streets of Cape Town were illuminated with the long promised brilliancy of gas. Crowds of the inhabitants of all classes perambulated the streets, to enjoy the novel spectacle”

This painting, by W Langschmidt, dates to about 1850, and shows St George’s Cathedral at sunset, with the last rays of sun streaming through a gap in the mountains. A gas lamp lights the evening shadow, and greatly emphasises the contrast between light and dark in doing so. Incidentally, the cathedral clock is not painted, but is an enamel watch face set into the painting.

The manager and engineer of the gas works, Alexander Wilson, was a man of many talents. In 1858 he drew what the Cape Argus described as a “superb topographical map of Cape Town and the whole of Table Valley.” This was a critical interaction between the gas company and the landscape of which it was part, as the city was not to be surveyed on behalf of the municipal authority until 1899. Wilson re-surveyed and updated his map twice, including on it the Railway Works, new Harbour improvements, telegraphs; and every new building in the town. In a “couple of instances”, it was reported, “the compiler has rather represented what should be than what is, and drawn upon the imagination of what the future is likely to be; but in these cases no harm is done to accuracy”. Both in reality, and figuratively, the gas company was remaking its physical world.

The Colonial Office Blue Book for 1862 reported that the gas works by now supplied 253 street lamps, nearly all public and mercantile buildings, and a considerable number of private residences. During 1861 it had manufactured 9 million cubic feet of gas, of which 6.5 million were supplied to private persons, and the remainder to the street lamps.

Artists, such as Bowler, with an eye to their markets back in Europe, chose to illustrate gas lamps as symbols of Cape Town’s modernity. St Andrews Church was the church that had originally installed its own whale oil plant. Shown here in 1864, a line of gas lamps extends away from the city to the developing Atlantic seaboard suburb of Sea Point, served by horse trams.

This painting by Varonne, dating to around 1865, is highly stylised in its “picturesque” approach to its subject. But, framed as it is by the classic picturesque trees, the artist nonetheless chooses to clearly indicate the smoke from the gas works in the picture.

There were many complaints about both the quality and price of gas supplied to the Municipality, and by 1866, the Municipality was inviting new tenders for lighting the streets. One was received from an English company, which intended to use oil instead of gas, and the other was from the local firm. Both tenders were rejected, and consideration was given to the idea of the Municipality establishing its own gas works.

The gas company claimed it was losing money on the municipal contract, and many column inches were taken up in the newspapers, arguing the various merits of the cases for and against the established company. The Cape Standard, in an editorial devoted to the “Gas Question”, thought that the issue was “about more than just street lighting”. It argued that whilst the Municipality could set up its own works, the required capital would be better used elsewhere, and that anyway, the Municipality had better things to do.

The result of all the wrangling was that the supply of gas for public street lighting was discontinued in 1866, and it was to be five years before supply was restored. In the meanwhile, the city had no public street lighting at all. In 1868, a council by-election was fought on “The Gas Question”, by what the Cape Standard called the representatives of “Light and Darkness”. Darkness, it said, was only an advantage to loafers and thieves; though it satirically added that crime created employment for judges, lawyers and jailers. The article concluded, “We have a beautiful city, with excellent natural advantages; we have plenty of water; and we have fine, wide, handsome streets; and yet with all this we have an amount of dirt, filth, aridity, and darkness that would put to shame the smallest and worst managed village in England.”

This row presaged a major division in Cape Town politics in the early 1880s, which saw the emergence of a reformist “Clean Party” intent on sanitary reform. Their opponents, first identified by the Cape Argus as the “Dirty Party” from as early as 1875, were opposed to reforms which would lead to the levying of higher municipal rates.

In 1888 the South African Suburban Gas Company was formed to supply the newly evolving southern suburbs of Cape Town. It started to build its works on reclaimed ground near Craig’s Battery, in Woodstock. However, in 1890 the two rival companies were both bought by a London based company, and combined to become the Cape Town and District Gas Light and Coke Company Ltd. It was to be 1895 before electricity eventually supplanted gas lighting in Cape Town’s streets, and the company was forced to look elsewhere for its markets.

It is clear that the gas supply industry was a totally male dominated industry, with the only female employees, if any in the nineteenth century, being in secretarial roles. Men it was who made the gas, who made the political and commercial decisions regarding its use, and who made the economic decisions regarding its use in the home.

However, at the turn of the century, as gas lost to electricity in the competition to light the city’s streets, it became necessary to reposition gas in the market place as a fuel for cooking and heating. Now it was the women who are the customers whose opinions had to be fought for. In 1902, an advertising pamphlet pointed out that “By the use of Gas Stoves, ladies and their daughters are enabled, in the absence of servants, to undertake their own cooking with the greatest of ease and pleasure, without fear of soiling their hands or dresses.” Losing one market, the industry was aggressive in striving for this new one.

The symbolism of “Light versus Darkness” was again called upon in 1902, new gas mains were being laid into Cape Town’s southern suburbs of Rosebank, Newlands, Kenilworth, Rondebosch, Claremont and Wynberg, while the while the city moved over to electric street lighting. A new retort house was built at the Woodstock works in 1907, and production was shut down at the now worn out Long Street site in the following year. From then on, the site was for a long time used as showrooms and offices.

In recent years a combination of economic factors, of which the most significant was the railage factor on coal, meant that the gas works in Woodstock was no longer viable, and at the end of February 1996, it ceased production. At that time, it is believed that it was the sole surviving Victorian gas works still in commercial production anywhere in the world. The original retort house still housed a working water gas plant at the time of closure.

Gas making at Woodstock

The most striking feature of the Woodstock gas works site was the retort house, actually two separate houses, built in 1907 and 1948. These structures were little more than a steel frame with a brick fill, erected to protect the retorts inside from the elements. The works contained a total of 46 refractory lined vertical retorts, in 7 beds.

Excess coke, coal tar and ash were all sold as residual products.

The gas was passed through a set of Livesey washers, Ammonia washers, and through dry purification beds before being stored in spirally guided gas holders. From the gas holders, the gas was distributed to customers by means of either low pressure or high pressure mains.

The Woodstock Gas Works was a wonderful example of a dirty, smelly, unsightly, and uneconomic industry. As an industrial complex it had played an important part in the development of industrial Cape Town. Yet not only was it not possible to motivate any support its conservation, there was not even sufficient support for adequate recording to be carried out.


It is useful to take a few steps back, and to re-engage the issues relating to the broader industrial and social landscapes, rather than simply to those relating to the individual sites and structures.

In purely physical terms, the gas works manifested itself in the landscape in various ways. The gas holders themselves would have been significant landmarks in the townscape, and the street lamps were a constant and visible reminder that Cape Town was improving itself. Less visible, but no less important, was the creation of a buried network of pipes, necessary for the distribution of gas to both public and private customers.

The symbolic impact of gas supply on the cultural and social, as well as industrial and commercial, landscapes of the day is best represented by the bitter divisions within the town during the period between 1866 and 1871. We see it again in 1895, when electricity finally supplanted gas as the lighting source for Cape Town’s streets. In that year, the Graaff Electric Lighting Works, were inaugurated next to the Molteno Reservoir. The building constructed to house the dynamos, which could be worked by steam or water power, was described as a “handsome structure” by the mayor at the opening ceremonies, and is now a National Monument. It conforms to an architectural aesthetic which the grubby gas works could never have laid claim to. Public street lighting had been a political battleground for years, and electricity was the “light of the future”. With more than an echo of Baron von Ludwig’s speech, half a century earlier, it was now said that the increased illumination “would bring about a very great improvement in the moral atmosphere of the city, and would also afford protection to property of the citizens which was so necessary”.


As was stated earlier, this paper forms part of work in progress on the “Industrial Archaeology of the Gas Supply Industry in Cape Town, from 1842 to 1910”. The larger work seeks to examine gas supply in Cape Town as part of the industrial landscape, and it is intended to map this using GIS as an interpretative tool. In this way it will be possible to examine the spatial relationships between the locations of the works themselves, street lighting, domestic users, and industrial users.

However, in this brief overview, we have seen how the supply of gas, and more particularly public street lighting, came to symbolise the modernity of Cape Town, and how that supply relates to much broader debates about crime, and public sanitation and health. We have also seen how late nineteenth city politics polarised around notions of Clean and Dirty, and Light and Dark, and that the issue of gas supply was fundamental to such debates.