Sunday, July 31, 2022

William Smithson, and his Ship Inn

 Image: 4-415, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections [detail]

The Trafalgar Inn on Queen Street, 1860s, between Wyndham (left) and Swanson Streets. From 1908, this was part of the Milne & Choyce building. Before it was the Trafalgar, it was the Ship Inn, built by William Smithson in 1842 after the local pub keepers refused to buy Smithson's products from his first brewery set up in 1841 beside the Queen Street gaol.

With the Ship Inn Smithson, a former inhabitant of the Australian penal system, hoped to be able to break in to the market. It helped that his landlord, McGarvey, had his cooperage to the rear of the hotel. Smithson intended starting a theatre at the hotel, but that idea came to nought.

With tinsmith Archibald McPherson's help, Smithson was able to install a coal-burning system at the hotel which provided enough coal gas to make the light over his doorway (necessary for customers to navigate the footbridge over Ligar's Canal) bright enough that it not only served its purpose, it was blamed for blinding people so much with its dazzle that folks were falling into the ditch anyway. This has been held up to be Auckland's first gas light, with the coal coming from seams found in the Mahurangi area, some of which Smithson claimed as his.

However, his hotelier days were brief, ending by 1844. His land claim was disallowed, and led to numerous petitions that lasted beyond his death in 1853, and ceased only with the drowning of his widow in the harbour in 1861.

Whether his gas lamp remained in use is doubtful -- importing coal was expensive, and it would be another 20 years before the Auckland Gas Company started up. By then, there was a proper footpath in that part of Queen Street, forever burying Ligar's Canal, while the natural bed of the watercourse in behind was filled in and converted to becoming just more basement space for Auckland's rising infrastructure.

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