The German inventor Frederick Albert Winsor installed the world’s first gas street lamps at Pall Mall in 1807. By 1819 the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company had laid two hundred and ninety miles of gas lines in metropolitan London, feeding tens of thousands of burners. Two hundred years later there are still 1,480 gas street lamps in London, hidden among the far more numerous electric lamps that became standard in the twentieth century. The Royal Parks and Covent Garden are among the prominent parts of the city still lit by them.
Gas-light transformed the nightlife of nineteenth-century London, inside and out. Theaters that had previously been lit by candles rapidly transitioned to gas after Winsor successfully demonstrated the application of the technology to stage lighting at the Lyceum Theatre in 1804. Gas made possible brighter lighting, faster lighting changes, and more elaborate effects. In 1822, the ballet-master of the Paris Opéra wrote, “This light is perfect for the stage. One can obtain gradation of brightness that is really magical.” The effect on actors was noticeable, leading to a more naturalistic style of performance. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre notes that, “styles of acting, scenery, costumes, and make-up that had seemed acceptable under murky candle and oil lamp light now seemed overblown, vulgar, and garish.” There was an increased danger, of course. Open gas jets were often perilously close to flammable wood, curtain, and oil-painted scenery. Quite a few theaters burned down. But the benefits were judged to outweigh the inconvenience. Auditoriums installed increasingly ambitious systems.
Other businesses took advantage of the technology as well. A new type of tavern was designed around gas lighting. In these bright, gaudy “gin palaces” gas light was reflected through decorative glass, brass, and crystal. Dickens described the effect in Sketches by Boz, writing, “All is light and brilliancy…and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left.” Several of these establishments still exist with more or less original interiors, including the Princess Louise on High Holborn in the West End.
Of course it was the outdoor lamps which had the most practical and salubrious effect on London life, making the streets safer after dark. And it is these which can still be seen today. British Gas, which is the successor company to London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke, maintains and operates the nearly 1,500 remaining lamps. A team of five British Gas engineers are all that is left of the lamplighters of old. Their work consists of winding the timing mechanism in each lamp that turns the gas on and off, polishing the lanterns, and making any necessary repairs. The timers need to be wound every fourteen days.
Dickens described lamplighters as a band of outsiders with “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.” That was long before the industrial production of gas. Lamplighters lit oil lamps in the eighteenth century and candles in the Middle Ages. It is nice to know that there are still men today carrying the torch, so to speak.
Banham, Martin (ed). (1963) The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
British Gas. (February 23, 2016 ) “Lighting London—British Gas [Video File].” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2BjX1blK4I.
Dickens, Charles. (1836) Sketches By Boz. London: John Macrone.
Dickens, Charles. (1978) The Short Stories of Charles Dickens. Norwalk [CT]: Easton Press, 1978.