Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Lighting London's Street: A short history

What goes around comes around, or so the saying goes.  It seems this is true of street lighting. Walking home late one night I was struck by the inky blackness. Then it occurred to me that only 1 out of every 3 street lamps was alight. It appears this is the result of council cut backs, with many street lights being turned off altogether after midnight. A small taste perhaps, of what it was like to experience night in earlier centuries.

The need for street lighting was recognized as long ago at 1417 when the then Lord Major of London, Sir Henry Barton, ordered that:
"Lanterns with lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemass."
These lanterns were mainly cheap affairs made out of animal horn scraped until they were thin enough for a light to shine through. The fuel used was whatever came to hand and with choices including animal or vegetable fat, or fish oil; I imagine the lamps smelt stronger than the light they emitted.

Three hundred years later in 1716 things were formalized with "An Act (of 1716) for Lighting the Streets of the City of London, and Liberties Thereof".
This act decreed that all householders with a frontage out onto a public highway or path must show a light between 6-11pm, on threat of a penalty of one shilling (12p). There is not report of how stringently this fine was imposed – I have visions of lamps blowing out in the wind and humble folk being reduced to penury. The fine of a shilling also seems quite steep at a time when a maidservant's average wage for a year was £2 (or 24 shillings).
A simple lantern with horn instead of glass
Around about the same time as this act, in 1708, a new kind of lamp was patented.
"A new kind of light, composed of one entire glass of globular shape, with a lamp, which will give a cleaner and more certain light from all parts thereof."
This lamp was first demonstrated outside a coffee house in St James' – presumably to impress wealthy patrons.
This brighter light took off quickly with the benefits clear for all to see. In 1725 a visitor to London describes the wonderful illuminations.
"Most of the streets are wonderfully lighted, for in front of each house hangs a lantern or a large globe of glass, inside of which is placed a lamp which burns all night. Large houses have two …suspended outside their door by iron supports, and some houses even have four."
Cesar de Saussure
However, this needs to be put into some sense of proportions. Cesar's reference point was almost complete darkness. Testament to the lighting not being that good really, was the James Boswell was able to have "relations" with a prostitute at night in the public setting of Westminster Bridge – and remain undetected.
A lamplighter and his ladder
However, to some the lights remained bright and jolly, and one visitor mistook their reason
"…some German prince, who came to London for the first time…seriously believed it [the lights] to have been particularly ordered on account of his arrival."
Karl Philip Moritz – diary. 1795
 The superior light provided by coal gas had first been recognized by the ancient Chinese. However, it took until the early 19th century for it to be linked to public street lighting. Gas light was first demonstrated on 28th January, 1807, by Frederick Winsor in Pall Mall, London, but it took nearly another 50 years for it to fully catch on.

Perhaps one  of many sceptics was Dr. Johnson. From the window of his house he once watched as the parish lamp lighter climbed his ladder to light the gas lamp. The man was only halfway back down when the flame went out. The lamp-lighter ascended again and this time only had to touch his flame to the residual vapor in the globe. Johnson remarked:
"Ah! One of these days the streets of London will be lighted by smoke."

Another sceptic was Sir Humphrey Davy, who ridiculed the trend for gas light, asked archly:
"If it were intended to take the dome of St Paul's cathedral for a gasometer?"
Each gas lamp had a horizontal bar either side of the globe for the lamplighter to rest his ladder against. Wandering the streets during the night, these men also had a civic duty as patrol or watchmen.

Before I complain more about the street lights being turned off, it is salient to review the power (or lack) of Victorian lamps. The light given off was equivalent to a modern 25 Watt light bulb, and each lamp was placed 65 meters apart. The idea, it seems, was to give the night traveler a distant point of light to head towards, rather than to light the way. 

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