Georgian and Victorian Street Lighting

Jonathan Taylor

 

Iron arch and lamp with Georgian stone facade and entrance door beyond  
A late 18th century oil lamp supported on a wrought iron arch in Great Pulteney Street, Bath  

Prior to the Georgian period the streets of British towns and cities were largely unlit. Some light filtered from windows, but inside the homes candles and oil lamps tended to be used only where light was necessary. Outside, those that could afford them carried lanterns or ‘links’, flaming torches.

The first statutory requirements for lighting streets did not occur until the late 17th century when, in the reign of William and Mary, eligible householders in the City of London were required to hang a lantern outside their homes or pay a rate towards municipal lighting. Streets were to be lit from the end of September (Michaelmas) to the end of March (Lady Day), from dusk to midnight.

Many other towns and cities followed suit during the early 18th century. Bath, for example, introduced a similar requirement by Act of Parliament in 1707, and in 1739 a fresh act introduced a night watch and penalties for extinguishing or damaging the lights.

Led by London, successive legislative measures defined responsibilities for municipal lighting as the century progressed. Street lighting was seen as an essential measure for deterring crime.

These early street lights usually consisted of a simple oil lamp suspended from the rim of a glass bowl and covered by a ventilated metal cowl. Surviving examples can still be seen in many parts of Britain where they form part of the elaborate ironwork in front of fine Georgian townhouses.

The oil lamps effectively illuminated the pavements but not the roadways as the small flame and the lack of a reflector resulted in very limited spread of light. Furthermore, lighting was concentrated around shops and in fashionable streets where there were the most rate-payers. Poorer areas and streets with few houses remained sparsely lit, if at all. Refuelling the lamps, trimming and replacing the wicks and lighting them was time-consuming and expensive.

Minor improvements in lighting occurred with successive developments in the design of oil lamps in the late 18th century, including some with convex reflectors to cast more light downwards. The Argand oil lamp was the most significant of these, becoming the lighting of choice for the homes of the wealthy at the end of the century, but it was expensive, little used for street lighting. Here the major breakthroughs were the introduction of gas lighting at the start of the 19th century, the development of the gas mantle late in the century, and the introduction of electric arc lighting at its end.

  Historic cast iron street lamp with crown finial
  An 1830s lamp in the Pavilion Gardens, Brighton, the chimney capped with a royal crown

The first exterior gas lighting was in Birmingham in 1802. The larger flame produced far more light than oil lamps and was almost maintenance-free. In London an experimental scheme to light Pall Mall was completed in 1807. By 1814 the City of London Gas-Light and Coke Company was supplying coal gas for lighting streets and houses, and by the 1820s larger towns across Britain had their own operations. In Bristol the main streets were lit by gas by 1818, and by 1850 there were nearly 2,000 street lamps, mostly supported on tall cast iron posts set into the edge of the kerb where they illuminated both the roadway and the footpath.

The development of urban gas works coincided with the expansion of the railway network in the 1840s and ’50s which enabled the proliferation of cast iron lamp posts. The material provided the ideal medium for the Victorians, combining new technology with cheap, mass-produced ornament. An early example survives in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Chesterfield. Dating from 1824, its post is an elegant fluted column with a slightly bulbous base clasped by leaf mouldings.

Most Victorian lamp posts are in a similar vein, simply ornamented with fluting and baluster mouldings, often including a plaque bearing the name of the founder. However, the larger foundries offered a wide variety of designs which could be selected from a catalogue, including some highly elaborate ones, richly ornamented with classical embellishments reflecting the fashion of the day.

The post usually supported a plain four-sided glass lantern made of metal, open at the bottom for ventilation. Its roof rises to a central hole which forms the chimney, covered by a cowl to keep out the rain. A finial on top was often embellished to provide further decoration.

The first burners were single- or multiple-holed jets, but narrow slots were found to produce more light. These were known as bat-wing and fish-tail burners according to the shape of the flame and were in common use by the mid-19th century.

A variety of refinements occurred in the late 19th century, such as William Sugg’s Christina burner of 1874, which produced a horizontal jet. However, it was the development of the mantle in 1885 by Carl Auer von Welsbach which resulted in the greatest improvement in efficiency. Light was produced by a non-combustible mantle of mineral fabric suspended in the flame. The heat caused the mantle to incandesce, producing more light than ever. Furthermore, the gas mantle could be located below the gas outlet. This enabled curved brackets to emerge from the top of the cast iron post with the mantle below, directing light downwards where it was most needed.

Gas lamp with ornate crossbar  
One of several original Victorian lamps still lit by gas in Canynge Square, Bristol: the lantern was renewed by Sugg Lighting to a design that has been in continuous production since 1897, and its illumination is controlled by photo-cell. The cast iron post dates from the mid-19th century.  
Slender, elegant arc street light with shopfronts behind  
One of two electric arc street lights in the Mall, Bristol. A public electricity supply was available in 1893 and these lamp posts were installed in 1898.  

Although invented in the early 19th century, electric arc lamps did not come into widespread use until the end of the century when electricity generation became more common. These produced an extremely harsh light, far brighter than the incandescent bulb invented by Edison in 1879, and were ideal for lighting huge areas, such as factory floors and streets, but they needed regular maintenance to replenish their carbon rods. With each increase in brilliance, lamp posts could grow taller, casting the light further, and arc lights were the tallest of the surviving Victorian cast iron street lamps. As with the gas mantle, the light source could be suspended from the fitting.

CONSERVATION

Victorian cast iron lamp posts were once so common that the need for protection was easily overlooked. As a result, in many urban areas few survive. Standing on the edge of the pavement, the principal threat is from traffic, including delivery lorries and refuse-vehicles backing into them. Although brittle, the cast iron might not break, but the post could be left leaning at a drunken angle. Lamp posts may also lean as a result of ground movement, often caused by broken drains.

Rather than fixing the post in situ, it is common for local authorities to take the opportunity to replace the unit with a modern one which requires less maintenance and is taller, providing better light coverage over a far wider area. While this makes the street safer at night, there is a cost to the character of the street.

Cast iron lamp posts may also be removed because they are damaged. Often this is repairable – some posts include an inspection hatch at the bottom which is more vulnerable to damage than the post itself. Fractures and breakages which do not affect the structural performance of the post itself can usually be repaired by specialist conservation engineers using plating, stitching or welding.

Structural reinforcement may also be possible if the hollow core is straight and free from obstruction, allowing a metal tube to be inserted. This can then be then fixed and sealed in resin.

Where replacement is unavoidable, many local authorities still retain old cast iron lamp posts which could be reused. New castings can also be made by companies listed in the metalwork section of this directory (see page 128), using the surviving components as a pattern. Modern castings can also use ductile iron (spheroidal graphite iron) which is less likely to fracture on impact.

Lanterns are rarely original as they are easy to replace with a new unit purpose-made to suit whatever lamp is currently being used. Sometimes the result is bizarrely incongruous, with modern light fittings fixed to classical columns, but several companies supply reproduction lanterns complete with replica chimney finials and modern lamp fittings, including low energy LEDs with an extremely long service life.

Corrosion can also pose a problem, particularly at low-level where the post is exposed to de-icing salts during frosty periods. Cast iron needs to be protected from water and from salty water in particular. Paintwork can be damaged by impact from bicycles, car doors, signage fixings, and countless other causes, and small areas of damage lead to extensive paint loss. Unfortunately, few councils can afford to paint lamp posts with sufficient regularity.

In view of competing requirements for funding and the need to keep streets safe at night, local authorities are not naturally inclined to conserve traditional cast iron street lights unless they are listed, or unless specific requirements are made in council policy for its conservation areas.

PROTECTION

Listing varies radically across the UK. A quick search for ‘lamp post’ in the National Heritage List for England reveals 400 entries for lamp posts, 88 of which are in or around Bristol. In Wales there are 29 list entries of which over half are in Llandudno. In Scotland, on the other hand, there are 800 list entries for lamp standards and holders. Many of our great Victorian cities have none.

In Bristol the high priority given to the historic streetscape is due to the tireless commitment of a community group, the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society. Initially consulted on a conservation area appraisal, CHIS developed a system for recording the different types of lamp post found locally, enabling a comprehensive audit of surviving examples in the conservation area. As a result, their protection was enshrined in conservation area policy in 2010, and the system has been adopted in neighbouring Redland.

CHIS now works closely with the local authority to ensure surviving examples are at least retained in situ, and salvaged examples in the yard of the lighting department are being reinstated in key locations where possible.

While Georgian light fittings are generally well protected by listing, and are usually in private ownership, Victorian street lights remain at risk and their numbers are dwindling, particularly in England and Wales. Urgent action is required to secure their future.

 

Recommended Reading

D Cruikshank and N Burton, Life in the Georgian City, Penguin Group, London 1990

English Heritage, Practical Building Conservation: Metals, Ashgate, Farnham, 2012

T Fawcett, Paving, Lighting, Cleansing: Street improvement and maintenance in 18th-century Bath, Building of Bath Museum, Bath

 

 

The Building Conservation Directory, 2015

Author

JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.

This article was prepared with the help of The Building of Bath Museum, Maggie Shapland of the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society, Geoff Wallis and Sugg Lighting.

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