Gas and gasfitters
Coal gas was first made in Dunedin in 1863, Christchurch in 1864, Auckland in 1868 and Wellington in 1871. Gasfitters installed street lights and lighting within houses, which transformed life after dark. The kitchen’s coal range – not gas – was still used for cooking and heating water.
By the late 1880s gas ovens were competing with coal ranges. Gasfitters took ranges out of kitchens and replaced them with gas ovens and burners. Swedish ‘primus’ cookers, which had three burners, were being installed by 1890. For householders who wanted to keep their coal range, there were small bench-top burners, ideal for boiling the kettle. Many people were suspicious of gas, fearing explosions or poisonous vapours.
By the late 1880s electricity was used to light some Wellington streets. Telegraph wires on poles, which had been erected in the early 1880s, were now joined by power lines strung up by electricians.
Yet it took decades for electricity generation to develop and for public supplies to arrive. Much of the work for early electricians was commercial work in the mines, or servicing tramways, public buildings and factories such as freezing works. It was only in the 1920s that electricity arrived in many New Zealand houses.
The first domestic electricians were often established gasfitters or plumbers who extended their range of services. In existing houses they ran the wires in iron conduit pipes up walls and along ceilings. In new houses electricians ran the conduit within the framing – only the shiny porcelain or brass switches and the lights were visible.
In 1952 one electrician recalled the old inspectors of the Council of Fire Underwriters: ‘I have been connected with electrical installation work for 40 years and more and when I started the Underwriters had wiring rules and registration of contractors. Unless contractors were listed by the Underwriters they might not be permitted to carry out wiring work in an area and their work was not necessarily accepted … and the powers of their inspectors (were) those of Mussolini in his prime.’1
Early electricians’ regulations
Electricians, known as ‘wiremen’, had a large increase in work as power boards extended their area of supply and demand for electricity grew. Early rules for electricians were laid out by the Council of Fire Underwriters of New Zealand. Electricity suppliers also licensed electricians working in their areas, but refused to accept licences issued by other authorities. It was clear that nationwide registration was needed. This occurred in 1926, and the following year the first set of mandatory government wiring regulations came into effect.
In 2009 all electricians had to be registered and hold a current practising licence, renewed annually. In 2001, 66% of all electricians were employed in the construction industry, with 15% in manufacturing and the remaining 19% scattered across a wide range of industries. A 2005 estimate put the number of electricians working in New Zealand at 13,867. Around one-third were self-employed.