Recently I was lucky enough to interview Norm Lamb. Norm was born in City Rd, South Melbourne over 90 years ago.
Norm’s parents died when he was a boy and he went to live with his grandparents and two uncles in Thistlethwaite St in Montague. His grandfather worked for the Metropolitan Gas Company. Every morning he rode his bike from Montague down to the South Melbourne Gasworks carrying a fork so heavy that young Norm could barely lift it. There he shoveled coal all morning before returning home for lunch. After lunch he would take the ferry across the River and continue work at the West Melbourne Gasworks.
Norm’s father also worked for the Metropolitan Gas Company. He was a tin smith making meters. Later, Norm worked for Metropolitan Gas Company too – three generations of one family working in the gas industry. Norm became particularly animated when talking about his work when Melbourne was preparing for the conversion to natural gas in 1968. Every appliance had to be turned over to connect with the new gas supply. Norm was a storeman supervising a team who prepared kits for particular appliances. A program to convert almost 1.3 million gas appliances in over 500,000 homes began in Carrum in April and was completed in Altona 20 months later.
Today I enter Gasworks Park through the tree gate created by resident artist Ben Storch and recall the frequently told stories of the children of the Depression who gathered the coke that ‘fell’ off as the drays left Gasworks as well as the harsh working conditions experienced by Mr Lamb.
In early August, an area of Gasworks Park was fenced off for investigations. Investigations of the site’s legacy contamination from its former use as a Gasworks have been ongoing since 2010. A clear way forward has still not been resolved in spite of the extensive investigations. The expense of remediation is a concern.
The Jubilee History of the Metropolitan Gas Company published in 1928 includes this diagram. Each branch and branchlet of the tree, in case you find it hard to read, is named with some by product of gas – creosote oils and napthalene, anthracene, benzol, aniline nitrate and many, many more.
In the year 1927, the Jubilee History records that the South Melbourne Gasworks processed 107,179 tons of coal which produced:—
- 1,501,344,000 cubic feet of gas,
- 56,376 tons of coke for sale,
- 1,286,107 gallons of tar,
- 1,431 tons of sulphate of ammonia.
And that was in one year! A legacy of contamination lies beneath the thin grassy cover. The complexities of dealing with it are challenging.
The role that gas will play in the transition to a low emissions future is debated. The Grattan Institute rejects the notion of a gas led recovery, arguing that as Australia’s coal-fired power stations retire over coming decades, it will be more expensive to replace them with gas than to switch to more renewable energy such as wind and solar. Whereas gas has been a cheap source of energy, that will no longer be the case as the low cost sources of gas have been used and renewable energy sources become ever cheaper. However, gas will still have a role to play in the short term until there is sufficient storage capacity available for those times when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow.
The challenge is on to electrify everything as soon as possible from renewable energy sources.
The concerted effort that went into the transition to natural gas recounted by Norm Lamb is instructive about what can be done when there is a will to do it.
Thanks to Norm Lamb for the conversation that prompted this piece.
1 The Metropolitan Gas Company, Melbourne, Victoria: Jubilee, 1878-1928: a historical sketch
Tony Wood & Guy Dundas Flame out: the future of natural gas The Grattan Institute November 2020