Think of Victorian London and what do you see in your mind’s eye? ‘Pea soup’ fogs, the yellow glow of gaslights, hansom cabs, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Three of those five things are consigned to history and another one is fictional. But one of them stubbornly refuses to go forth into that dark night. And so long as it keeps refusing, the night will never be so dark…
Gaslights. Apparently, they never went away.
Gas Lamps of London
More than Just a Few
To my utter amazement, I learned this week that there are still about 1,500 gas lamps in London. Of those, 200 or so are on private property but the rest still serve as municipal lighting.
British Gas maintains a small team of four lamp attendants, plus a skilled craftsman back at base, to act as its one and only Public Lighting Division.
Going in Search…
Armed with this new-found knowledge and a growing sense of disbelief, I thus headed into Central London (most of the lamps are in Westminster) to see if I could find some for myself.
Now, I know I’m not the most observant person on earth and my previous encounter with the Kingsway Tramway Subway should probably have prepared me but I am shamefaced to say I’ve walked past the blasted things on countless occasions and never once noticed what they were.
Webb Patent Gas Sewer Lamp
My first port of call in my quest for a proper Victorian gas lamp was Carting Lane, a narrow lane connecting the Strand to the Embankment. For that street contains a gas lamp that is unique amongst its thousand-plus brethren:
The lamp in question is a Webb Patent Gas Sewer Lamp, installed in 1870 along with numerous others when Joseph Bazalgette — chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works — built the Victoria Embankment primarily as somewhere to house a massive sewer.
The sewer served its purpose admirably, which was to intercept the effluent before it flowed into the Thames, but Joseph was concerned about noxious odours — which his sewer system was all about preventing — and dangerous build-ups of flammable methane.
This lamp and its kin, also known by the wonderful name of ‘sewer gas destructor lamps’ were the answer. All the others are long gone but this sole example remains, burning night and day, fed by the fuel of London’s flatulence.
One Down, Many to Go
So far so good. Now I just needed to find some of the 1,299 (more or less) other gas lamps that are powered by connection to a gas main rather than a sewer main. As it turns out, I didn’t have far to go, you can just about see one in that first photo…
In addition to four gas mantles and a supply pipe, the lantern of this gas lamp also houses a circular apparatus just visible in the photo at the bottom of the left pane. What is it, you ask? I’ll tell you. In fact I’ll tell you even if you didn’t ask…
Regular as Clockwork
Early gaslights required a lamplighter to come around every night and every morning to turn them on and off. This was clearly an affront to the problem-solving mind of any proper Victorian engineer and a solution was soon arrived at. It’s clockwork.
Many of the lamps contain clockwork timers to tell them when to light up or turn off. A major part of the lamp attendants’ job — apart from cleaning and maintenance — is winding up the timers once a fortnight. Plus, of course, when the clocks change from Greenwich Meantime to British Summer Time (or vice versa) each and every timer has to be adjusted too.
St James’s Park
Horse Guards Road
Okay, I thought, that’s two that I’ve found. I don’t plan to seek all thirteen hundred of them but I do want to go and find some others. Turns out that that’s not exactly hard: the Royal Parks, Buckingham Palace’s exterior and most of Covent Garden are lit by gaslight.
‘Surely not?’ I thought.
And so, I wandered down the Strand and past Trafalgar Square, passing through Admiralty Arch to St James’s Park. Now, the streetlamps either side of the Mall are quite ornate and have frosted glass and so look like they could be either electric or gas but the lamps along Horse Guards Road, well…
This leads on nicely to the question of just how old-fashioned they are. The answer may be surprising. Most of London’s gaslights bear the Royal Cypher of the reigning monarch at the time of their installation. The lamps next to Horse Guards in the photo above show this cypher for instance:
At this point it becomes apparent that while gas lamps seem like a Victorian idea, their timeline is quite a lot broader. And while the Horse Guards lamps are later than Victorian, some lamps were quite a bit earlier.
London’s First Gas Lamps
London’s first street to be gas-lit was Pall Mall in 1807, when George III was on the throne and had yet to slip into his final bout of madness.
In 1812, while George was still king but had gone completely fruitloop (requiring his son to act as regent) the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company was chartered as the world’s first gas company. By the end of 1813, Westminster Bridge was lit by gaslight.
There are no public gas lamps quite that old on London’s streets but just round the corner from Horse Guards are some that get pretty close. For standing on Birdcage Walk are some gas lamps — still in nightly use as streetlamps, remember — that bear this cypher on their posts:
Although 1,300 is rather more gas lamps than I expected to still be serving the streets of London (about 1,300 more if I’m honest), it’s still a tiny drop in an electrically illuminated ocean. Well a small drop, anyway. There are about fourteen thousand electric streetlamps in Westminster, so that’s about 9% of the total. And night after night they do their duty, glowing softly, largely unnoticed and unremarked.
I think that’s wonderful.