This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Until recently, most people (including me) would not have known that much of the City of Westminster is lit not by electric street lights, but by Victorian gas lamps.
As you walk along the north side of The Mall, cross St. James’s Park, browse the shops in Cecil Court at dusk or wander up some of the alleyways off St. Martin’s Lane, your path is lit not by the bright, white light of electricity, but the softer, more numinous light of gas lamps which have been there since the nineteenth century and provide a sense of the old Victorian city, now so at risk from being turned into a poor man’s version of Dubai.
The idea of gas lighting and the lamplighters who lit them each evening are very much a feature of Dickensian London
The technology of lighting streets with gas was originally a late eighteenth-century invention. London’s first gas lamps were installed in Pall Mall on 28 January 1807 by Frederick Winsor, an ebullient German inventor.
Born Friedrich Albrecht Winzer in Braunschweig in 1763, he arrived in London in 1799, travelled to Paris in 1802 — the year of the Treaty of Amiens — and returned to London in 1803, patenting an apparatus for making gas lights the following year. In 1807, he established the so-called “New Patriotic Imperial and National Light and Heat Company”.
Winsor was a passionate advocate for gas lighting, giving enthusiastic public lectures at the Lyceum Theatre and publishing pamphlets in support of the invention. But he was ousted from the management of the Gas Light and Coke Company, which he helped establish, moved back to Paris in 1815, and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. He is now scarcely remembered, with only a commemorative monument marking his importance for the history of gas lighting in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Gas lighting was introduced not only in London, where some of the lamps by Carlton House Terrace and in Birdcage Walk still have the arms of George IV, but also internationally, in Newport, Rhode Island in 1805, in Baltimore in 1816 and Paris in 1820.
The idea of gas lighting and the lamplighters who lit them each evening are very much a feature of Dickensian London — the lone gas lamp lighting the way for travellers through thick London fog.
The profession of lamp lighter, who lit the lamps at dusk and turned them off in the morning, was already old enough in 1838 for Dickens to have written of them “clinging to old ceremonies and customs which have been handed down among them from father to son since the first public lamp was lighted out of doors”.
Gas lighting began to face the competition of electricity during the 1870s, with many cities preferring the cleaner, brighter and easier to maintain alternative.
But some, including London, preferred gas which was cheaper and thought to provide a better, more mellow light. Robert Louis Stevenson published an essay in 1881, “A Plea For Gas Lamps”, in which he lamented the “ugly blinding glare” of electric light.
When the statue of the Queen Mother was unveiled on The Mall, the Royal Family expressed a wish that it should be lit by gas, not electricity
In 1974, Westminster City Council decided to abandon its remaining gas lights, but was persuaded to retain them following a vigorous campaign involving the young Dan Cruickshank. This was in the early days of a conservation movement anxious to preserve relics of Victorian London after a decade when Euston Station had been demolished and St. Pancras nearly followed it. Victoriana was returning to fashion, and there was a belief that it was sensible to keep as much as possible of the history of the city, rather than wipe it out.
When the statue of the Queen Mother was unveiled on The Mall, the Royal Family expressed a wish that it should be lit by gas, not electricity. As recently as 2013, Westminster produced a pamphlet which showed where to find gas lights, including outside the Palace of Westminster and in Dean’s Yard, viewing them as historic attractions. Many of them have been listed.
But now, Westminster City Council, under the cloak of Covid and presumably hoping that no-one will notice, has embarked on a project to replace gas lamps with electric, starting in the courtyards off St. Martin’s Lane, stripping out the gas lamps in Martlett and Crown Courts in March 2020 and recently sending workmen into Cecil Court to investigate how to make the change.
Without public consultation or any democratic process — one wonders if the councillors themselves have been informed — the Council must have decided that gas lamps are past their sell-by date. It wants them removed and replaced with electric ones without investigating whether there are cheaper and better ways of managing them. Or, indeed, whether bright white light is necessarily more energy efficient than the soft, mellow light provided by gas.
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