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Artillery Row

London’s lamps live on

Thanks to the dedication of the Gasketeers, a beautiful tradition has been saved

Last Friday evening, in the twilight lull between the matinées and evening performances of the West End, I arranged to meet a group of people under a street lamp opposite the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. They were a mixed group, of all ages. Among their number were the actor Simon Callow, The Critic’s own Fr. Marcus Walker, and the local Member of Parliament, Nickie Aiken.

Most important were the London Gasketeers the grassroots campaign established to preserve Westminster’s historic gas lamps — and London’s remaining lamplighters, who daily carry out with pride a role which has helped to shape our capital city for more than two centuries.

We were meeting to celebrate the listing of four gas lamps on Russell Street, which have been given Grade II designation following the advice of Historic England. These lights part of a collection installed around Covent Garden in 1910 to mark the beginning of the reign of King George V — have been listed as a result of a pilot project by Historic England to help inform ongoing discussions about the management of gas lamps in Westminster and more widely. Further listings could follow.

London’s gas lamps have been an integral part of the city’s identity for more than two hundred years. From the novels of Charles Dickens and John Buchan to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Mary Poppins and The Muppet Christmas Carol, they have provided an evocative backdrop to many of our capital’s most cherished scenes and locations.

Like so much else, they are an example of how London pioneered new technology which went on to change the world. The first recorded demonstration of gas-powered street lamps was on Pall Mall in 1807. Within a few years, public spaces across the country were lit by gas, improving the safety of our towns and cities, and transforming the night-time economy. Cities across the globe followed suit.

Since the 1950s, most have been replaced by electric alternatives. But there remain around 1,300 working gas lamps in London, some 270 of them in Westminster. Of these 270, about half are currently listed. As Charles Saumarez Smith and Tim Bryars have detailed for The Critic, the campaign to save the rest gained an urgency in 2021, when Mr Bryars who runs an antiquarian bookshop in Cecil Court found contractors digging a hole in that charming thoroughfare to see how easy it would be to convert the pendant lamp which stands outside his door to an LED alternative. With a fellow antique dealer, Luke Honey who “hurled himself into the campaign after reading about the lamps; he was so incensed that it cost him a night’s sleep” he formed the London Gasketeers. The Instagram account Honey set up gathered 3,000 supporters in its first ten days, and has grown steadily since. People from across the world have expressed their support a reminder of the global reach of London’s heritage, and its magnetic effect for our visitor economy. The campaign gained prominent support from the Victorian Society, its president Griff Rhys Jones, and the GMB trade union.

The latter provides an important reminder that there are jobs at stake here too. Where there were once 25,000 lamplighters across London, there are now just five employed by British Gas, the company which grew out of the Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, incorporated by royal charter in 1812. Chatting to them on Friday evening, it was clear what pride they take in their work, and in being the latest in a long line of skilled professionals who have brought light and cheer to countless generations.

As Charles Saumarez Smith has noted, the profession 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”. Now, they wear jackets proudly emblazoned: “London Lamplighters established 1812” and work around the clock to look after the historic lamps on London’s streets and in the Royal Parks. I heard how the latter are particularly important for the city’s wildlife – the warmer, gentler light of gas lamps being better for bats and other urban creatures as well as for minimising light pollution.

I was particularly delighted to hear that the recent campaign has sparked love as well as light

I was also pleased to hear that the regal connections of London’s lamplights live on. Pall Mall was illuminated in 1807 to mark the birthday of George III; the lamps which have been listed on Russell Street were erected to mark the accession of George V. Last year, to mark the Coronation of King Charles III, a gas lamp in St James’s Park was decorated in gold leaf and topped by a specially-made crown. And I was particularly delighted to hear that the recent campaign has sparked love as well as light: two of the Gasketeers are engaged to be married later this year.

Westminster City Council has committed to preserve any gas lamps which are given listed status. Thanks to the dedication of the Gasketeers, and the expert advice of Historic England, their inimitable glow can continue to brighten the lives of Londoners and the millions of tourists the city welcomes for generations to come.

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