London History Bulletin – January 28

The lights of London – its gaslamps – first went on on January 28th, 1807. Or so it’s claimed. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

And here’s gallimaufry number 2.

I’m 6000 miles away but it’s occurred to that I could be looking out at Shakespeare’s River Thames. 

It’s actually the Royal River in Bangkok in 2023 but there are certain similarities. For one thing, the Royal River is just so busy. There are so many boats, barges, tugs and floatable whatnots moving up and down and back and forth across this river. Mary’s commented a couple of times – and I concur – you’d think it’d be demolition derby on water, you’d think they’d constantly be running into each other. 

And suddenly I thought “Shakespeare’s Thames” because from our room on the 21st floor of this riverside hotel we can see, thanks to the big bend in the river, probably a mile or more of Bangkok’s main waterway. And along that great stretch of The Royal there’s only one bridge we can see. Voila! Shakespeare’s Thames. There was only one bridge in Shakespeare’s London. The famous London Bridge. Which is why there were so many boats, so many vessels. Why Shakespeare’s Thames was so much busier than our Thames 420 years later. And that of course is the very reason Bangkok’s main river is so boat busy. 

You want to see what Shakespeare’s Thames looked like in, say, 1605 go to Bangkok in 2023. Ok, Shakespeare’s London didn’t have modern skyscrapers but the Globe and its fellow Bankside Theatres must have been as striking to early 17th-century Londoners and London visitors as the high rises are to Bangkok’s visitors in the 21st century.

Moving on. What happened on this day in London history. Well, it’s claimed that gas lamps were first lit in London on January 28th, 1807. In Pall Mall and on the walls of Carlton House. The man who made it happen was a German entrepreneur and gas engineer named Frederick Albert Winsor. 

Is it a stone-cold certainty that the lights first went on on January 28th?

Well, it’s in a book I’ve got so it must be so, right? And the author cites the Times as his source. The only hitch is I went to the Times to double check the reference and – what do you know, I couldn’t find it. Maybe I just missed it. Maybe it wasn’t there. A bit of popular history embellishing the truth.

I don’t know. But we do have it on good, reliable authority that Herr Winsor was doing gas lamp demonstrations on Pall Mall right around that time in 1807.

The Times did a bit of a retrospective fifteen years later.

Gas-lamp lighting was still new enough and remarkable enough that the Times could hardly contain its excitement. The piece begins: “The knowledge of the properties of carbaretted hydrogen or common coal gas, and its very general and useful application, may be ranked amongst the most important discoveries of modern times. If some of the most learned of our ancestors were now to revisit London, there are few discoveries of their enterprising descendants (except perhaps the application of steam) which would more excite their astonishment than that of gas lights. It would strangely confound their preconceived notions of fire, to learn that the lamps of the metropolis were supplied with a brilliant light from large reservoirs filled with fetid vapour collected from burning coal, and conveyed a distance of two or three miles through tubes underground. Perhaps it would be nearly as great a surprise to them to perceive the state barge of the city, with the whole corporation on board, impelled up or down the river, against wind and tide, by the agency of a large cauldron of boiling water; but we think they would be more astonished at the gas works.”

Piece goes on to say “its advantages in cheapness and brilliancy of light over oil or candles were so evident, that it only required to be proved that it might be used with safety, to ensure its adoption to a very great extent.” And it added, “its value as an instrument of police, by the increased facility it afforded of detecting nightly offenders, could not long escape the notice of the local authorities.”

So, yes, gas lamp lighting. Before it came along London streets had been very crime-ridden, very dangerous at night. Gas lamp lighting was a game changer. It’s interesting that 200 years ago they spoke of its brilliance. Today – and London’s few hundred surviving much loved old gas lamps are under threat – one fears they’ll be made extinct any time now – we see the light they give as gentle and romantic and anything but brilliant. That eight generations ago they regarded gas lamp lighting as brilliant – well, that’s a sure measure of just how dark and murky pre-gas-lit London must have been.

And to make this one a proper gallimaufry, howzabout another tidbit about how Thai – the language – does its thing. In yesterday’s bulletin I spoke about how they combine two words to create a new word. Forest and dog equals forest dog. Or as we would say, Wolf.

Well, charmingly, a fortune teller is Doctor See. 

And a fair weather or fake friend is Friend Eat. Anybody will be your friend if you’re buying dinner. A good friend is Friend tight. Your closest friend is Friend die. They’d die for you, you’d die for them.

Mind you, in English we go down that linguistic path as well from time to time.

On my Kensington Walk I often make the point that the block T.S. Eliot lived and died in had one of those new-fangled contraptions called “a rising room.” What Americans today would call an elevator, Brits a lift. But the first name for it was “a rising room” – something new, unprecedented, the language catches up with it by relating it to something already in existence. A lift is like a small room. And it ascends, it rises. Which makes it a rising room. The first time he set eyes on one, would our esteemed Thai friend Doctor See have been able to divine that that was what that little room was capable of. To rise or not to rise, that is the question.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 28th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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