gas light photoA ladder here is chained to the lamp as this was at one stage lit every night. There are just 1,500 gas lamps left in London, each one hand lit by a member of a five man team. This team is in fact British Gas Engineers and the fact that so many gas lamps survive is down mainly to English Heritage which has protected and restored them. Once there were hundreds of them pacing the City at dusk with long lighted poles to spark the gas running up the iron posts.

Before they existed you were home by dusk, took your chance or had servants lead the way with a lamp in one hand and a cudgel in the other. Without servants you would pay a few coins to a “link boy” named after their “links or torch wicks. These wild street urchins, the sons of harlots and theives, would walk ahead carrying a stick covered with a rag and dipped in tar and set alight. Some were cutpurses, leading their customers into courts and alleyways and stealing what they could in the darkness. Yet they were prayed on in turn. The linkboys were vunerable in their turn to unscrupulous men who would have their way with the boys for a few farthings more.

gas light 1Then in 1807 in Pall Mall to celebrate the birthday of George 111 Frederick Winsor lit the place up with gas lamps. Each one was fed with gas pipes made from the barrells of of old musket guns and Winsor applied a single spark to light up the whole street. The Mall was almost impassable with people till midnight.

Over the next few decades thousands of gas lamps went up all over London. There were initially quite a few explosions but it made London a lot safer to walk at night comparatively speaking. The Westminster Review wrote that gas lamps had done more to eliminate criminality and morality on the streets than any number of church sermons.

Each lamp is marked with the crest of the monarch in the year they were errected. Outside the Savoy is a rare example of a “sewer” lamp. Its post is hollow and extends beneath the pavement to the great sewer below. The Webb Sewer lamp drew up gases from the sewers down below and burnt it off. As late as the 1970s, many gas lamps in London were still lit by hand each evening and extinguished every morning. Now they all have a permanent pilot light burning and the mains gas flows on a timer, heating up the “mantles” — small ceramic meshes resembling bulbs, that become white hot and give off a glowing light. They lend a magical quality to the streets and in St James’ Park, near Buckingham Palace, are the only source of light, offering a rare glimpse into what it might have looked like in Dickensian times.

Since the 19th century all the lamps have been extended to raise their lanterns above the height of traffic. Modern delivery vans are above the level of sedan chairs and carriages. Lorries do hit lamps quite often and the lamp is recast and put back as it was before.



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