Symons Memorial Explosion


The Symons memorial, depicted on this page in the 1880's, was an ornate structure at the junction of Hardy and Trafalgar Streets. It was a combined gas lamp and fountain, erected in 1880 at a cost of approximately 170 pounds by personal friends, as a memorial to Mr John Symons who had been a leading merchant in the city.  It stood 20 feet (6 metres) tall and was placed upon a massive cast iron base. The memorial was destroyed by a gas explosion in July 1906. 

Symon's memorialHardy Street, Nelson. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 182195
Click image to enlarge

The image, entitled Hardy St, Nelson NZ, depicts a street scene from Nelson in the 1880's. It was taken from Hardy St looking west with the ornate Symon's Memorial in the foreground.

On the 28th July 1906 a "sensational and serious explosion that was heard in many parts of the town, startled the residents shortly before 7 o'clock this morning" (Nelson Evening Mail 28th July 1906). The Symons Memorial, situated at the junction of Hardy and Trafalgar Streets, had been accidentally blown up and lay in ruins. The ₤170 lamp had been presented to the city 25 years earlier by friends of the late John Symons, a leading merchant in Nelson involved with the Anchor Shipping Company.

So how did this disaster happen? The Nelson Evening Mail on the day gave a detailed description of the event and reported the lamp was "blown to atoms", and the men were "hurled to the ground mid a deafening roar". It appeared that council workers engaged in the regular Saturday morning street sweeping operation nearby, noticed a strong smell of gas. One of the men, R. Kenning, lit a match to find the source of the leak which resulted in a catastrophic explosion.

The Colonist of the 30th July 1906 reported "the concussion from the explosion shook the buildings in the vicinity" and a window in the nearby Masonic Hotel had been shattered by a piece of flying debris.

There was an even more dire consequence from the explosion. One of the workers, William Vercoe, suffered severe head injuries, was taken to hospital in a serious condition and later died. At his inquest, several witnesses reported smelling gas in the vicinity of the lamp for several weeks prior to the incident but had failed to report it to the authorities.

The replica lamp now standing in Trafalgar Street was erected in 1992 as part of the city's 150th celebrations. It was sponsored by three of the oldest established businesses in Nelson;  Nelson Building Society, Nelson Evening Mail and Wilkins and Field; as a Nelson 150th celebration project. The intricate details of the design were drawn from using enlarged photographs of the original and plaster moulds of the gargoyles from Queens Gardens were used as they were almost identical to the originals.  The replica included a drinking fountain and electric lighting instead of gas lighting. 

 The replica lamp was damaged prior to the official ceremony on 27 January 1992 when it was hit by a car.  The cast iron lamp itself was not broken but electrical and water services attached were damaged.  Repairs were able to be made in time for the ceremony which was held on 3rd February 1992. 

This article originally appeared in the Nelson Provincial Museum e-news, April 2010.

Updated May 15,2021

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  • This obituary published in the "Nelson Evening Mail", 9 September, 1878, gives a comprehensive account of John Symons' life and business activities in Nelson.

    Posted by Anne , 26/06/2014 6:48pm (10 years ago)

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Further sources - Symons Memorial Explosion


  • Long, J. (2017). Shedding light on history. The Nelson Mail, p.17.

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