Henry Webb Courtis

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Henry Webb Courtis (1829-1883) was a gas engineer who was a principal character in establishing major gas works in Victoria, Western Australia and New Zealand between 1854 and 1883.



Henry Webb Courtis was born 8 August 1829 in Swansea (a major town in the shire of Glamorgan in Wales) to William Courtis (a farmer from Llwynon, Wales) and Elizabeth Courtis (nee Webb). Little is known about his parents. He had two older brothers – William Crago Courtis (born in 1825) and John Courtis (born in 1827) – and a younger brother named James Webb Courtis (born in 1832) and a younger sister named Elizabeth Mary Courtis (born in 1835). These births all appear in the Non-Conformist Record Indexes, indicating that the Courtis family were not members of the Anglican Church. Although the 1828 repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts had led to a re-integration of Anglican and Non-Conformists in public life, including education and government, it is probable that by the 1850s some degree of discrimination still occurred within the lives of the Courtis family members.

As a lad, Henry was apprenticed to a local coal merchant.

Henry Webb Courtis married Sarah Ann Burall and they had two children in Wales – Florence Mary Courtis (born 1853) and Henry Burall Courtis (born 1851).

Although the first newspaper entry for Henry Webb Courtis appears in a Melbourne edition[1] the earliest available Australian records to place Henry Webb Courtis’ location place him in the vicinity of Castlemaine, where a “public meeting of the parties interested in obtaining the improvement of the town, was held at Mr. Courtis’s rooms”[2]. As he had been “sent to Melbourne” it may be inferred that he was living at Castlemaine at the time. The newspaper report of the meeting indicates that Henry Webb Courtis was a knowledgeable and well-educated engineer.

A year or so before [July 1858] ... there was gas made by Mr Courtis of gum leaves, or gum leaves and oil or fat mixed. Courtis lit Christ Church, Bath's hotel, and other places - his works being at the rear of Lydiard street buildings on the slope between Albert street and Lydiard street.[3]

By 1857 Henry Webb Courtis had moved to Ballarat, where he was carrying out experiments to use gum leaves for the industrial production of gas for lighting. In that year he supplied this gas to Bath’s Hotel.[4] During his pursuit of this enterprise he was responsible for the laying of a considerable length of gas mains in the township[5] and in April 1858 offered to light the entire municipality of Ballarat West for only £25 per annum – a sum which was considerably lower than the £28 5s offered by the Ballarat Gas Company in September of that same year.[6] (He later sold his 'pipes and customers' to the Ballarat Gas Company.[7]) In August of that same year he embarked on a short-lived attempt to become a major figure in the newly-burgeoning brass and iron founding industry of Ballarat, when he purchased William Croll’s Vulcan Foundry – a well-equipped and, apparently, profitable business situated in the heart of Ballarat’s mining area on Creswick Road. Initially Henry advertised that they could supply “castings of any size , in brass or iron … at Melbourne prices”[8]; but only days later was advertising “pumps and pipes of any required size … at 20 per cent. less than any other factory”.[9] Despite the large sums of money that Henry Webb Courtis had obviously spent in purchasing and starting up the Vulcan Foundry, on 13 November 1858 he was officially declared insolvent.[10]

Gas was first produced in Talbot late in 1859, one of only five Victorian gas works operating in the 1850s and the old gas holder is probably the earliest surviving relic of the industry in the State.[11]

His lack of success in Ballarat led Henry to move himself and his family once again. By February 1862 they were living in Talbot and Henry was the Chairman of the Municipal Council of Amherst.[12] The Clunes Gas Co. built their works in that same year – and Henry Webb Courtis was a shareholder and the company’s engineer.[13] Henry had become an established public figure within the Central Goldfields region and his life was intimately entwined with those of other public figures. On 5 September 1863 Henry received a large loan from a trio consisting of the Talbot hotel-keeper Thomas Dale Wrigley, the Talbot ironmonger Henry Thompson and the manager of Richard Parkers’s ironmongery in Talbot, Joseph Bray. The notice in the Victoria Government Gazette indicates the great personal wealth that Henry Webb Courtis had accumulated since leaving Ballarat.[14] No indication has yet been found as to what purpose this loan was raised. However, Henry’s accounts appear to have become somewhat unmanageable as he tried to maintain a busy schedule of travelling to all the locations where he was contracted as the establishing engineer of gas works and running businesses of his own. In April 1864 John A. Jenner brought a suit against Henry requiring the sale of his share in the Clunes Gas Co. – presumably for non-payment of a call.[15] In September of that same year Henry was busy promoting the excellent prospects of the brick clay that had been dug up at his Back Creek Gas Works (about 1 kilometre outside of Talbot) site.[16]

Despite small signs of mismanagement, Henry never again experienced the financial hardships that accompanied his time in Ballarat. Law suits proliferated in the 1860s and 1870s as evolving commercial laws and national fiscal pressures gave rise to an increasing branch of the Law; so it would not be unexpected that Henry Webb Courtis, as a successful public figure with interest in many concerns, should have been both plaintiff and defendant in a number of such suits.

At the beginning of 1867 Henry sold the Hobson’s Bay Coal Depot.[17] Later that year, on 26 July, he placed an application for a patent (Victorian Patent No. 1028) for an “Hydraulic safety apparatus for raising wash dirt, quartz, coals, &c. from mines.”[18] In April Henry was part of a firm called Courtis, Loukes, and Co. that applied for a lease of the spring at Hepburn Springs – but the firm was unsuccessful in their application.[19] Then, in August, Henry applied for a patent “an improved method for collecting, preserving, and storing the waters and gases emitted from the mineral springs of the colony, and apparatus for effecting the same”[20] - and this application showed Henry as a resident of Daylesford. At the same time that he had been perfecting his designs for his patents he had become an instrumental figure in establishing the Daylesford Gas Co.; and was able to offer the people of Daylesford a world-class supply of gas despite their lack of coal supplies. His new method of production used gum wood to produce a gas that was adequate for cooking and heating – and to this was added benzole to create a brilliant glow for lighting. Dispensing with the need for coal meant that the price of gas in Daylesford dropped from 30s per 1,000 feet to 20s per 1,000 feet.[21] In 1870 another patent was registered, this time in London. Henry’s brother, John Courtis, registered a patent for “an improved means of attaching handles to scoops and other articles.”[22] And in December 1870 Henry (now living in Emerald Hill, near Melbourne) was acknowledged by the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society in Melbourne for his donation of two Maori hens.[23]

To this point, Henry’s career had ranged from Wales to a large expanse of Victoria. In 1873 his career, and renown as a gas engineer, entered a truly international arena – when Henry was contracted by the Hokitika Gas Company of New Zealand to oversee the erection of the new gas works.[24] This was an enterprise that made use of Henry’s inventions, including his improved gas purifiers. At the same time that Henry was building his career in New Zealand, he was pushing his growing business interests into the established gas market of Melbourne. The South Melbourne Gas Co. had built extensive gas mains in Sandridge and Emerald Hill and then proposed to build into Melbourne city – offering a select section of businesses there the advantage of the savings made through Henry’s much cheaper gas. Growing the business of the South Melbourne Gas Co. was an uphill battle and, reading between the lines, a high level of ‘bastardry’ existed between the older companies and the Corporation of the City of Melbourne; and such relationships tended to unjustly place Henry outside of the decision-making processes.[25] If Henry was disheartened by the politics it was a sentiment that he kept to himself – although by 1874 he was no longer engineer to the South Melbourne Gas Co.[26] In March 1874 letters patent were granted for his unique gas purifiers – with four purifiers housed in a single case and a method of disengaging one whilst the other three still operated, which allowed for uninterrupted production.[27] (This was the system that Henry had installed at the Hokitika Gas Works.) When employed by the Dunedin Council to survey the existing gas works of the city, Henry recommended the production plant be replaced – a suggestion the Council ignored.[28] The Oamaru Council contracted Henry Webb Courtis as their Gas Engineer – to oversee the erection of their gas works. These gas works, complete in early 1876, included one of Henry’s purifiers – purchased from Courtis and Co. and imported for a cost of £38 8s 0d.[29] [30]

Henry was also the engineer for the Timaru Gas Co., from which position he resigned in July 1876 due to ill health.[31] Back on Australian soil he turned his attention first to the needs of Brighton in Victoria and then to the growing settlement of Perth in Western Australia. Considered by the locals to be a satisfactory professional[32], Henry surveyed the area and then reported his proposed plans for a gas works and street lighting at a public meeting.[33] Based upon these plans the City of Perth Gas Co. (Ltd.) was formed and advertised for shareholders.[34] Shares in the Brighton Gas Co. were floated in 1877, with Henry serving double-duty as the company engineer and one of seven directors.[35] When the announcement was made that the Brighton Gas Co. lights would be illuminated for the first time it was said to be the eleventh such establishment that Henry had erected.[36] His success had become so assured that the Footscray Gas Co. engaged Henry’s services as the company engineer – to tackle the difficult task of supplying gas across a scattered area.[37]

The borough of Footscray will be lighted with gas for the first time next Monday evening. The works are now complete with the exceptionof one or two finishing touches, which will be administered this week. They have been erected near the river, adjacent to the old powder magazine, for a local company having a capital of £8,000, by Mr. H. Courtis, who superintended the construction of the Brighton Gas Company's works, to which they are similar. The gas-holder, which has a capacity of 20,000ft., was put up by the Fulton Foundry Company. It is said to be the intention of the company to charge 11s. per thousand for gas, with a reduction of 1s. per thousand for monthly payments.[38]

In February 1878 a law suit was wrongfully brought against Henry Webb Courtis by a day labourer of the gas works[39]; suggesting, perhaps, that Henry’s public character as a successful and wealthy entrepreneur mad e him a target for a certain amount of ‘tall poppy’ treatment. It remains unclear at this point if this public persona was the result of his own careful public relations campaign (due to the early lessons of his experiences at Ballarat) or simply that the type of business he was in was a firm favourite of the colonial newspapers. Certainly, the Williamstown Chronicle wrote about his inventions and achievements and seemed to avoid mentioning his relationship with the former Williamstown Mayor John Courtis who, as a partner in a major local auction company was newsworthy himself. (John Courtis sometimes received some very negative press coverage.) Henry’s involvement with the Footscray Gas Co. was capped by the Chronicle’s coverage of his February report to the directors of the company – with an article that made much of his economical efficiency and the use of his own inventions (purifiers, lid-lifting apparatus and apparatus for retort-charging) in the erection of the gas works.[40] In March Henry Webb Courtis resigned his position with the Footscray Gas Co. and was reported to be heading to Queensland to supervise the erection of some gas works in that colony.[41]

By 1879 Henry was again in Victoria and involved with the Albury Gas Works.[42]

On 13 July 1882, at the age of 65, Henry’s beloved wife Sarah Ann died from complications of bronchitis at their home in Emerald Hill.[43]

A little over one year later, on 29 August 1883 (after he had suffered a protracted battle with pain from a head injury received a few years prior) Henry Webb Courtis died from an “effusion of blood on the brain.”[44]


See also: Family Tree of Henry Webb Courtis

Dunedin Gas Works, Valuation and Report to the City Council of Dunedin. Dunedin, New Zealand: Mills, Dick, 1875.


John Courtis (1766-1854)[45] married[46] Joan Crago (1769-1847)[47]

--1 Dinah Courtis (1795-?)[48]

--1 William Courtis (1800-1883)[49] married[50] Elizabeth Webb (c1800-?)[51]

--.--2 William Crago Courtis (1825-1866)[52]

--.--2 John Courtis (1827-1905)[53] married[54] Jane Agnes Burall (?-1904)[55]

--.--.--3 John Wesley Courtis (1859-1939)[56]

--.--2 Henry Webb Courtis (1829-1883)[57] married[58] Sarah Ann Burall (1817-1882)[59]

--.--.--3 Florence Mary Courtis (1853-?)[60] married[61] George Henry Kirk (1849-?)[62]

--.--.--.--4 E. M. C Kirk

--.--.--.--4 P. M. Kirk

--.--.--.--4 Eva Gwenda Kirk married William Leslie Dale

--.--.--.--.--5 Gwenda Marian Dale[63] married Reginald John Malcolm Eastman

--.--.--.--.--5 Alan William Dale married ‘Lorrie’

--.--.--.--.--5 Jeffrey Victor Dale (1918-1997)[64] married Valerie May Halsted

--.--.--.--.--.--6 R. W. Dale

--.--.--.--.--.--6 David Jeffery Dale

--.--.--.--.--.--6 A. R. Dale

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 David Anthony Dale

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 R. L. Dale

.................6 A. R. Dale married V. S. Kicinski

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 Beth Daniele Kicinski

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 J. L. Kicinski

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 L. B. Kicinski

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 J. S. Kicinski

--.--.--.--.--.--.--7 P. K. Kicinski

--.--.--.--4 C. S. Kirk

--.--.--.--4 Leslie G. Kirk

--.--.--.--4 R. G. Kirk

--.--.--3 Henry Burall Courtis (1851-?)[65]

--.--.--3 William Arthur Courtis married[66] Gertrude Denithorne Burall[67]

--.--2 James Webb Courtis (c1832-1911)[68]

--.--2 Elizabeth Mary Courtis (1835-?)[69] married[70] William Curtis

--.--.--3 William John Cragoe Curtis (c1866-?)[71]

--.--.--3 William Henry Cragoe Curtis (c1868-?)[72]

--.--.--3 Mabel Ellen Elizabeth Curtis (c1870-?)[73]

--.--2 Ellen Courtis (1839-?)[74]

See also

Back Creek Gas Works

Clunes Gas Co.

Courtis, Loukes, and Co.

Daylesford Gas Co.

Theodore J. Loukes

Victorian Patent No. 1028

Vulcan Foundry



  1. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1954) Wednesday 11 June 1853, page 1.
  2. South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA " 1839 - 1900), Saturday 24 June 1854, page 2.
  3. William Bramwell Withers. History of Ballarat and Some Ballarat Reminiscences. Ballarat: Ballarat Heritage Services, 1999, page 173.
  4. Hatheway, Allen W. 'Geological-remedial observations on the former manufactured gas plants and other coal-tar sites of Australia.' In Geologically Active, edited by Williams et al. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010, page 4160.
  5. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Friday 20 August 1858, page 2. - also appears in Huxtables Ballarat Directory for the Year 1858," page 40, 'LYDIARD STREET - Curtis, Henry, gas engineer'
  6. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Thursday 7 October 1858, page 2.
  7. Withers, William Bramwell. History of Ballarat and Some Ballarat Reminiscences. Ballarat: Ballarat Heritage Services, 1999, page 173.
  8. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Tuesday 17 August 1858, page 1. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Tuesday 26 August 1858, page 3;.
  9. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Thursday 26 August 1858, page 3; The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Tuesday 28 August 1858, page 1; The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Tuesday 30 August 1858, page 1; The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 - 1864), Tuesday 31 August 1858, page 1.
  10. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Saturday 13 November 1858, page 2.
  11. http://australianplaces.com.au/drivetown/town-talbot.html
  12. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Tuesday 4 March 1862, page 8.
  13. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 – 1864), Saturday 26 April 1862, page 1.
  14. Victoria Government Gazette, No. 95, Tuesday 15 September 1863, page 2056.
  15. The Star (Ballarat, Vic. : 1855 – 1864), Saturday 30 April 1864, page 3.
  16. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Thursday 12 September 1864, page 2.
  17. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Wednesday 13 February 1867, page 1.
  18. A Section of this patent may be viewed at http://www.sbs.com.au/gold/technology/patent_1028.swf
  19. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Tuesday 21 April 1868, page 5.
  20. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic, : 1848 – 1956), Saturday 8 August 1868, page 6.
  21. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Monday 7 December 1868, page 4.
  22. The London Gazette, 7 October 1870, page 4338.
  23. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Wednesday 6 December 1870, page [?].
  24. Grey River Argus, Rōrahi XIII, Putanga 1625, 20 Whiringa-ā-nuku 1873, page 2.
  25. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Monday 21 July 1873, page 6.
  26. West Coast Times, Putanga 2709, 1 Pipiri 1874, page 2.
  27. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Friday 20 March 1874, page 4.
  28. Petchey, Peter G. History of the Dunedin Gasworks: Dunedin Gasworks Museum Trust. Southern Archaeology Ltd.: 2009, page 4.
  29. North Otago Times, Volume XXIII, Issue 1151, 2 December 1875, page 2.
  30. As of yet, no information has been found about this company that was making the purifiers.
  31. Timaru Herald, Volume XXV, Issue 1464, 7 July 1876, page 3.
  32. The Western Australian (Perth, WA : 1874 – 1879), Tuesday 31 October 1876, page 2.
  33. The Western Australian (Perth, WA : 1874 – 1879), Tuesday 31 October 1876, page 2; The Inquirer & Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), Wednesday 1 November 1876, page 1 and page 3.
  34. The Western Australian Times (Perth, WA : 1874 - 1879), Friday 3 November 1876, page 3; The Western Australian Times (Perth, WA : 1874 - 1879), Tuesday 14 November 1876, page 3.
  35. http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/360.htm
  36. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), Friday 29 June 1877, page 7.
  37. Williamstown Chronicle (Vic. : 1856 - 1954), Saturday 26 January 1878, page 3.
  38. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957) Friady 1 March 1878, page 5. Digital copy accessed via Trove.
  39. Williamstown Chronicle (Vic. : 1856 - 1964), Saturday 2 February 1878, page 3.
  40. Williamstown Chronicle (Vic. : 1856 - 1954), Saturday 23 February 1878, page 4.
  41. Williamstown Chronicle (Vic. : 1856 - 1954), Saturday 23 March 1878, page 3.
  42. Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW : 1870 – 1907), Saturday 22 March 1879, page 38.
  43. The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne, Vic. : 1873 - 1889), Saturday 29 July 1882, page 238; Timaru Herald, 28 January 1883. (No page number.)
  44. Timaru Herald. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nzlscant/bdm1883.htm
  45. born 1766 in Breage, Cornwall; died in 1854 in Swansea, Wales (farmer and inn keeper)
  46. Kea, Cornwall in 1787
  47. born 1769; died 1847
  48. born 1795
  49. born 1800 in Kenwyn, Cornwall; died 1883 in Gower, Wales (farmer at Llwynon, Ilston, Wales)
  50. Saint Mary in Swansea, Wales on 30 January 1824
  51. born about 1800 in Wales
  52. born 7 August 1825 in Swansea, Wales; buried in 1866 in Ilston, Wales
  53. born 26 November 1827 in Swansea, Wales; died on 18 January 1905 in Williamstown, Victoria (a township of which he was mayor in the 1860s)
  54. in St James in Swansea, Wales on 29 March 1850
  55. (daughter of William Burall of Gower OR fifth daughter of J. D. Burall of Norton, Mumbles); died in 1904
  56. (who was High Sheriff of Glamorganshire in 1916, Lord May of Cardiff 1911-, and later in life Knighted); born 19 February 1859 in Wiliamstown, Victoria; died 19 December 1939 in Cardiff, Wales
  57. born 8 August 1829 in Swansea, Wales; died 29 August 1883 in Emerald Hill, Melbourne, Victoria (Welsh grocer and later gas engineer)
  58. Newport, Wales in 1850
  59. born 1817; died 13 July 1882 in Emerald Hill, Melbourne, Victoria
  60. born March 1853 in Swansea, Wales
  61. in Christ Church in South Yarra, Victoria on 26 July 1876
  62. born 21 October 1849 in Nether Haugh, UK
  63. born 12 December in Windsor, Victoria
  64. born 12 November 1918; died 4 June 1997 in Ballarat
  65. born 1851 in Newport, England
  66. Christ Church in Warrnambool on 10 November 1893
  67. (daughter of R. D. Burall of Warrnambool)
  68. christened 28 November 1832 in Swansea, Wales; died 16 April 1911 in London, Canada
  69. born 23 August 1835 in Swansea, Wales
  70. in St James in Swansea, Wales on 11 September 1856
  71. christened 12 July 1866 in Saint Mary in Swansea, Wales
  72. christened 26 July 1868 in Ilston, Wales
  73. christened 5 June 1870 in Saint Mary in Swansea, Wales
  74. born 1839

Further Reading

External links

--Beth Kicinski 10:51, 25 January 2013 (EST)

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