The Australian Gas Light Company (AGL) was formed in Sydney in 1837 to produce town gas for street lighting. The original works at Darling Harbour with its outstations at Woolloomooloo and Haymarket were supplemented with smaller works at Balmain and Five Dock. As Sydney expanded, the use of gas for domestic and industrial purposes became more widespread, and demand began to outstrip available supply.

AGL decided to meet this demand by building a much larger works that could supply the whole of the metropolitan area through a network of pipes, supported by outlying pumping stations to boost mains supply.

A survey team of engineers sent to investigate a possible site settled on Mortlake, which had a central location, a broad expanse of cheap available land and, importantly, offered easy access for the transport of coal from Newcastle via the Parramatta River. The proposed construction of a rail bridge at Ryde (completed in 1891) offered further opportunity to supply gas to the northern suburbs.

A 32-hectare site was purchased in 1883 and the works opened in May 1886. At the same time the village of Mortlake began to take shape with the release of a number of subdivisions offering allotments adjacent to or close to the gasworks. These were made more attractive to prospective buyers by the developers’ offer of delayed payment and fixed interest rates as well as the security of Torrens title.

AGL Locomotives transporting coal

In 1901 a tramway between Enfield and Mortlake was completed to serve this growing community. The line ran via Burwood station to its terminus in Tennyson Road (formerly part of Burwood Road). In 1907 this was extended with the construction of a branch line along Cabarita Road to Correy’s Gardens and Cabarita Park.

Coal was delivered to the works by colliers dubbed “sixty milers” on account of the distance in nautical miles that the ships travelled from their loading port of Newcastle. The coal was unloaded using a grab-equipped steam crane and transported via an elevated narrow-gauge railway to batteries of electric crushers. From there it was delivered to bunkers above the huge retorts. Waste and other materials were also moved about the site using the same rail system. In total there was about 11 km of track.

Operating on these lines were up to six 8½ ton 0-4-0 saddle tank cabless steam locomotives manufactured by the Hudwell-Clark works of Leeds between 1885 and 1910. A seventh locomotive was purchased from the Davenport Locomotive and Machine Coy of Davenport, Iowa in 1916. In order of construction the locomotives were: No. 71 Ivanhoe, No. 72 Concord, No. 73 Kangaroo, No. 74 (otherwise unnamed), No. 75 Darling, No. 76 Phoenix. Little is known of the Davenport locomotive, which also appears not to have been given a name.

The rail network operated until 1949 when steam power was replaced by electric conveyor belts and road transport. The locomotives were sent to a wreckers yard in St Peters to be broken up for scrap. (Andrew West)

Source Mortlake Gasworks Railway drawing: J.L.Buckland,  “Light Railways” Mortlake Gasworks Railway, Sydney NSW No.97, Vol. XXV, 1987 p 5


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