Ill met by moonlight

Rarely do I find myself in this illustrious road, which within it are the Russian and Israeli embassies, a palace and a house owned by the founder of London’s most famous up-market estate agents.

At night if you can ignore the police and, probably armed, embassy guards, what you notice is the soft glow emanating from the street lamps, for they are an example of the remaining 1,500 gas lamps left in London.

[T]here are not many places left in the capital where Dickensian London comes alive, but Kensington Palace Gardens is one of them. The lamps are a rare example of Victorian gas lamps maintained by just five lamplighters, a job so popular that a vacancy is rarely advertised by British Gas who provide their services.

Hardly imaginable now, but just over 150 years ago London at night was a very dark and menacing place. Link-boys named after their ‘links’ or torch wicks would lead the way through the darkened roads carrying a torch to get you home, unfortunately sometimes they would take you up an alleyway where accomplices would prey upon their victim.

The first experiment with gas lighting was William Murdoch, who worked for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at their Soho Foundry steam engine works in Birmingham, England. After messing about with various types of gas in the early 1790s, Murdoch discovered that coal gas was the most effective, and used it to light up his own house in Redruth, Cornwall in 1792 – the first house lit by gas. In 1798 he used gas to light the main building of the Soho Foundry and four years later, wowed the locals by lighting the outside of the building.

Deeply impressed with the show was a fellow employee, Samuel Clegg, who promptly set up his own gas lighting business, the Gas Lighting and Coke Company. On the 28th January, 1807, the gas lamps on Pall Mall were lit by the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, making it the first street in the world to be illuminated by the warm glow of gas light. The occasion was to celebrate the birthday of King George III, and thousands turned up to witness the illuminated street.

Today our precious lamps are visited fortnightly, cleaned, have the glass polished and their mechanisms wound. The clockwork device inside turns the main gas jet which is ignited by the very small pilot flame which is continually burning. The flame then heats a silk-casing coated in lime-oxide which becomes white hot and gives off a warm glow.

This week saw the anniversary of the start of the great smog in 1952 which lasted from 5th to 9th December. Unable to find their way around London people would use the gas lamp pillars to get name. Each has the crest of the monarch at the time of manufacture. The glow of the lamp and identifying the crest enabled one to negotiate the city in the fog.

Photo: Pasta Free Runner.

2 thoughts on “Ill met by moonlight”

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes I was surprised at just how many there were. I knew about the one that uses methane from the sewer behind the Savoy Hotel and seen a few in Smith Square as I had my sandwiches. It wasn’t until I read this article that I realised that we were so fortunate in retaining this little bit of Victoriana:


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