Today (June 4) in London History – London’s Gaslamps

Gaslamp lighting debuted in London on May 4, 1807. This Today in London History podcast sheds light on the matter.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ok, so here we are, standing in front of the May 4th jukebox. What record are we going to play.

Ah, here we go – here’s one of my all-time favourites.

It’s a hit from 1807. Gaslights.

Let’s listen. 

We’re on Pall Mall. Frederic Winsor, whose business premises are just round the corner, at 93-95 Pall Mall, has created a special arrangement for a birthday celebration. Whose birthday, you ask? None other than the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Frederick Winsor’s of German extraction. But after all, so’s the Prince of Wales. And – well, Winsor spelt W I N S O R – that’s just one letter shy of the famous Windsor – so we’re in our comfort zone with Herr Winsor. What’s he got for us? He’s strung lights along the Garden Wall of Carlton House – Carlton House is the Prince of Wale’s central London residence – Winsor’s strung lights along the Garden Wall of Carlton House to St James’s Park. They’re connected to an iron pipe that runs back to Winsor’s house at 93-95 Pall Mall. There are two close carbonizing iron furnaces in the house. Those carbonizing iron furnaces are producing gas that goes into the iron pipes and makes its way along to Carlton House and that string of lights.

Yes, what we’re seeing is the first public demonstration of gaslights in this country. 

Now, for some sleeve notes, here’s the Monthly Magazine. It reads, “the light produced by these gas lamps was clear, bright, and colourless, and from the success of this considerable experiment, in point of the number of lights, the distance and length of pipe, hopes may now be entertained, that this long-talked of mode of lighting our streets may at length be realised.”

It was steady as she goes. Didn’t happen overnight. At the end of the year Winsor was allowed to erect 13 lamp-posts, each with three gas jets, on the south side of Pall Mall. Not so long after that some more lamps were installed near Cockspur Street. But for five years it was all still very much in the way of a novelty.

The big breakthrough came in 1812 when Winsor was instrumental in the incorporation of the Gas Light and Coke Company. It was the workhorse. The premier supplier of gas in the London area for years to come.

And let’s bound forward over 200 years. To our time. Happily, there are still several hundred gas lamps in London. They’re a joy. I love the light – it’s soft, it’s romantic, it’s old London. Where are they to be found. There are some in Covent Garden. Some in the Inns of Court. Some in that hidden, secret neighbourhood – that Georgian enclave just a stone’s throw away from Westminster Abbey.

Personal story now. Astonishingly, there was still one gaslamp lighter operating in London in the 1980s. Let that sink in – a gaslamp lighter in the penultimate decade of the 20th century. He plied his trade in the Temple area – lighting and extinguishing the gaslamps in Legal London – the Inner Temple and Middle Temple districts. He made his rounds every evening at dusk. He carried a long pole. I always thought of it as his harpoon. He’d thrust it up to the lamp, hook a little latch up there, give it a little turn – that would release the gas. There was also a lighted taper at the business end of the tool of his trade. A deft turn of his wrist would apply the lighted taper to the newly released gas and the thing would blossom into flame. Brilliant moment. Then he’d be around again, first thing in the morning to reverse the process. He’d reach up with his lighting stick, extinguish the flame and switch off the gas.

As I said, it was the 1980s and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I used to follow him around like a puppy dog. He was very funny. Foul-mouthed. Extremely vitriolic about the royal family. Especially the ancient Queen Mother. In particular her prodigious consumption – or so he averred – of gin. 

Purely by chance I was there the day the work crews were going through there and fitting each of those gaslamps out with clocks. Which would do the job automatically. I was very moved. I was well aware that my man was the last gaslamp lighter in England. That he was the last of the Mohicans. That a century and more before there’d been thousands of these men, earning their livelihood by lighting London’s gaslamps. And that here we were in, as I said, the penultimate decade of the 20th century – and he was the last of that breed. And he was about to be made extinct.

But this city never fails to astonish one. There’s a follow-up chapter to this tale. It took me twenty years to make that subsequent discover. It. happened about mid-day on a Friday in May of 2006. It was my great London discovery of that year. Maybe of that decade. But this is just to whet your appetite. I’ll tell that tale another time.

And now we’re at the 2022 jukebox. The Today in London Recommendation jukebox. And the record I’m going to play here – well, you’ve guessed – is join me, David, one Thursday afternoon – I guide it every other Thursday – on my Old Westminster Walk. We take a good look at those wonderful old gas lamps in that neighbourhood. And hey you won’t have to wait for the follow-up podcast about the 2006 discovery. On that walk I focus on one gas lamp in particular – and a unique feature it and only it has – and at that point I reveal all. Shed light – that’s really the way to put it, isn’t it – on that magical 2006 discovery. 

You’ve been listening – on this day of days – to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The small, time-honoured, family-owned, fiercely independent London walking tour company that is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative and that famously – and uniquely – fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that journalist 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: Guides who 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. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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