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The history of gas streetlights

The first well-recorded public street lighting with gas was demonstrated in Pall Mall, London, on January 28, 1807. Engineer Frederick Winsor illuminated a line of gas streetlights to celebrate King George III’s birthday. These streetlights used gas pipes crafted from old musket guns and a single spark ignited the entire street.

The rise of gas companies

In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, establishing the world’s first gas company. Less than two years later, on December 31, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas streetlights. By 1823, numerous towns and cities throughout Britain embraced gas lighting. Gaslight cost up to 75% less than oil lamps or candles, which helped to accelerate its development and deployment. By 1859, gas lighting was prevalent across Britain, with approximately a thousand gas works catering to the increasing demand for the new fuel. The affordability and brighter lighting provided by gas contributed to increased literacy and learning.

Competition from electric street lighting

Electric street lighting was first introduced in 1878 along the Thames Embankment and near Holborn Viaduct, quickly becoming more popular and leading to the demise of most gas street lighting. The first street to be lit with electricity as we know it was – obvious really – Electric Avenue in Brixton, 1880! However, London still retains 1,500 functional gas streetlights today.

Preservation of gas streetlights

London currently has only five lamplighters entrusted with maintaining the 1.300 gas lamps stretching from Richmond Bridge in the West to Bromley-by-Bow in the East. The long avenue of Kensington Palace Gardens is exclusively illuminated by gas lamps. Each lamp is visited on a fortnightly rotation. Their mechanisms have to be wound and checked, the glass polished (‘We use Mr Muscle,’ confesses lamplighter John), and the ‘mantles’ replaced. Whereas Kensington Palace is happy to let the lamplighters shimmy up its lampposts, our politicians are more precious. The Houses of Parliament look after their lamps. Hyde Park, too, has its own lamplighters. Each gas lamp bears the crest of the monarch in the year it was erected. The oldest gas lamps, displaying George IV’s insignia, can be found on Birdcage Walk.

The technical bits

Gas lanterns vary in type, size, number of mantles, clock operation, materials and age. Mantles are teardrop-shaped elements which look, from the ground, like bulbs. But up close, they are revealed to be tiny, bell-shaped, silk casings coated in lime oxide, which becomes white-hot to give the lamps their glow.

There are two types of mantles in use; the original No. 1 Mantles and No. 2 Mantles. Clusters of two, four, six, or even as many as ten or twelve in larger lanterns.

Each unit is fitted with a regulator to control the gas pressure. The optimum light output is achieved at a pressure of 21mbar. Incorrect pressure, either too high or too low, significantly affects the mantle’s efficacy and lifespan. Modern gas lanterns generally retain the same lantern shape, size and materials as the existing lamps but offer enhancements such as stainless steel or white-painted chimneys and reflector plates to improve light distribution and efficiency. Additionally, the use of superheated No.2 mantles and ceramic nozzles enhances incandescence. To eliminate the need for bi-weekly maintenance visits, gas lanterns now incorporate a programmable time clock with a photocell that automatically activates the gas when required.

Did you know?

1. Some of the original lanterns still hang in Westminster Abbey and the same technology is still used to this day. Westminster Abbey cloisters are lit by gas. The oldest lamp is in Dean’s Yard, near the group entrance, fixed to the wall. This has been there for 200 years as a gas lamp, and before that, as an oil lamp.

2. There are modern gas lamps near the statue of the Queen Mother by St. James’ Park statue, which was dedicated in 2009, as the Royal family refused to have electric ones. “The Royal family is very pro gas”.

3. Carting Lane besides the Savoy hotel has a sewer gas lamp which burns 24 hours a day. It draws up sewer gas with the heat of the gas flame. Sewer gas is then burned as it reaches the flame. It was erected to keep sewer smells away from the hotel bedrooms!

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