Today (March 18) in London History – A Decade of Darkness

After being out for a decade, the lights of London were switched back on on March 18, 1949. This Today in London podcast tells the story.


Homestretch. The finish line’s right in front of us.  Just three more days to go. Pretty sure you’ve all voted by now. But if you can rustle up any more votes for Team London Walks for the Tourism Superstar 2022 Award, please do. The link – on the home page – is eminently copy-able and paste-able – made to be emailed to friends and acquaintances. London Walks winning the thing, it’s not a matter of vanity, it’s a matter of a lifeline for this beleaguered little company. Many thanks.

Now as for Today in London – here’s a very special recommendation. A little place you won’t have heard of. The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. 

The Institute was founded on May 2nd, 1945. The true grit of the date. You’ll understand come the end of this podcast. The museum’s located at 20 Prince’s Gate, in Kensington, across from Hyde Park.

Ok, let’s turn the page. Today in London History. 

Here’s a thought. There are people alive today who can remember how dark the streets of London were in the 18th century. And in the 17th century. And indeed in mediaeval London.

And just like that you’re furrowing your brow in puzzlement.

Wondering what’s he on about? What’s he been smoking? 

I haven’t been smoking anything. And what I’m on about is the blackout in World War II and beyond.

They’ll be in their 80s and 90s now but there are people alive today who were alive then and can remember those pitch-black streets – 20th century London streets as dark as the streets of Dr Johnson’s Georgian London or Christopher Wren’s Restoration London or Geoffrey Chaucer’s mediaeval London. 

This won’t be a living memory for very much longer – so if you’re lucky enough to meet one of those people seize the opportunity, ask them about it. Ask them what London was like in, say, 1943. Or early 1949.

I say early 1949 because the lights of London – its illuminated signs and the display lights of shop windows and the exteriors of theatres and restaurants and pubs weren’t finally switched on until March 18th, 1949.

Ending a decade of darkness. 

Why four years after the end of the war? Well, economically the war hadn’t ended, that’s why. Rationing – Food rationing, fuel rationing, clothing rationing – it kept its iron grip on this country long after the shooting stopped. It wasn’t until 1954 that the last of the rationing restrictions were finally lifted, finally consigned to history.

The lights of London got off lighter – they were out for only ten years. Well, just under ten years – about 3,500 days. Ten years of darkness. Sobering thought, isn’t it. 

But I’m just the MC here. The story’s better told by someone who was there that night. Someone for whom it was lived experience. Who saw it with their own eyes. And then wrote it up. Filed the story with their newspaper. Yes, here’s a newspaper account of the night the lights of London were switched back on.

The story’s headlined: The Lights of London.

Subtitle is: Subdued Brilliance

Story reads as follows.

The night scene in London has won back much of its colour and animation through the return of display lights for the first time since 1939. The red, green, gold and white legends, staccato-flickering devices, and modest floodlights switched on after 10 years of darkness have gained in effect because their background still lacks its former brilliance. 

     Seen from the dark regions of the city and the parks or across the Thames bridges, the sky over the West End holds only a gentle glow. There is no dazzle. But sharp contrasts are everywhere. A theatre has its front steps and foyer as bright as the stage itself and its side entrances a few yards away are still but dimly lit. In the great dark bowl of Trafalgar Square there is only one illuminate sign on the upper rim, a blue name that steals the skyline. In Piccadilly Circus on Saturday night buildings on one side were aglow with well-remembered signs, and on the roof of a building that was still dark stood a white-clad chef admiring the display. 

    It is also by contrast that the shop windows make their appeal. The dimness of much of Cockspur Street, Lower Regent Street, and Haymarket is relieved by bright displays arranged by the shipping and airlines, with model liners and panoramic views of ports. Perhaps one in three of the shops near Piccadilly Circus is lit up, and one in six in Oxford Street and the Strand. In the side streets, particularly the narrow thoroughfares of Mayfair and Soho, the restaurants and public houses make a brave show of light.


Many thousands of people crowded into the West End on Saturday night and again last night to see the lights switched on. The crowd in Piccadilly last evening was the biggest seen there since the end of the war. On Saturday night traffic was almost at a standstill and buses and cars were diverted along side streets. When rain began to fall there was a mass movement to the stations while many people were still arriving.

Suburbs wore a cheerful appearance though few shops switched on their lights. At a cinema at Tooting, Mr Shinwell, formerly Minister of Fuel and Power, turned on the lights with the remark, ‘Let the lights of London remain for all time.’

      There were great crowds at Brighton sea-front to admire the illuminations of the promenades, piers, and the Valley Gardens.

     David Street, of Mayfield Road, Southampton, who was born on the day the lights went out, September 1, 1939, switched on one of Southampton’s illuminated signs.”

Me again, your MC. It’s a nice touch, that last paragraph. That little boy born on the day the lights went out – so his whole life in darkness – switching the lights back on. 

I looked up David Street. I’m pretty sure he’s still alive. He’ll be an octogenarian now. What fun it’d be to talk to him. Ask him about his childhood memories. Ask him about the night he turned the lights back on.

Final thought. Perspective, perspective, perspective. This wretched virus crashed the party of our lives two years ago. And beyond question, it’s been horrible. It’s killed thousands of people. Wrought havoc in so many ways. Not least, all the intermittent restrictions. What we’ve been able to do with our lives – that’s been a form of 21st-century rationing. But we haven’t been in darkness for ten years. Food, fuel, clothing’s not been rationed. We haven’t been bombed. And that’s one step in the way of putting things into perspective – from London today back to London in the 1940s.

Another step, an almost unimaginably huge step – hideous even to think about – is to consider the citizens of Warsaw and their city. In the words of historian Ben Wilson, “the fate meted out to Warsaw was beyond anything that any city had experienced in modern war. It lay entombed under 700 million cubic metres of rubble. Over 80 per cent of its buildings were completely eradicated.” I remember making the point in the opening chapter of the London Walks book that London has 3.6 million houses. Eighty per cent of them completely eradicated would be nearly 3 million houses apocalypsed, dustified. 

That was then; this is now. Lot to be said for seconding, 73 years on, Mr Shinwell’s clarion call, Let the lights of London – and Warsaw – and Kiev – remain for all time. 

Good night from London. See you tomorrow.

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