Evening Standard - ES Magazine
London’s last remaining gas lamps are a part of our city’s fabric — and under threat. Tom Ellen meets the group fighting to save these beacons of history
With all the soup throwing, milk pouring and road blocking that’s been going on in the capital lately, you may have missed the actions of one slightly less bombastic protest movement. Namely: the fight to save gas lighting.
No, not the self-doubt-sowing form of psychological manipulation favoured by Donald Trump and your most toxic ex — but rather actual gas-fuelled lights. Once a staple of Victorian London, romanticised in novels by Charles Dickens, there are now just 275 functioning gas streetlamps left in Westminster, many dating as far back as the 1890s. If this is very much news to you, then don’t worry, you’re not alone.
‘We’re all so busy, aren’t we, rushing around, staring down at our phones?’ says writer, antiques specialist and gas lamp advocate Luke Honey. ‘But if we stopped for a second and looked up, we would see that there are these fantastic, working parts of London history right above us.’
Honey is the co-founder of The London Gasketeers, a protest group formed earlier this year in response to Westminster Council’s plans to tear out the borough’s remaining gas lamps and replace them with LED-powered streetlights. ‘I was born in London,’ he says, ‘and I care very deeply about its history. I find it sad that these council officials can just decide — with very little consultation — to rip out a really important part of London’s charm and heritage.’
Honey’s involvement in this fairly niche cause began almost exactly a year ago. ‘Last December I was Christmas shopping with my wife,’ he explains. ‘We were on the top deck of a bus going through Covent Garden,
where there are huge clusters of gas lamps. My wife asked if they really still ran on gas, so I googled it to prove it to her. And to my horror, I found that the council were planning to remove them.’
Honey promptly contacted Tim Bryars, a rare books expert who was already fighting the good fight on behalf of Westminster’s Victorian fixtures, and the two launched The London Gasketeers on social media earlier this year. ‘We’ve had massive support,’ Honey says. ‘Cabbies, trade union officials, people on the left and the right, Brexiteers and Remainers, as well as the likes of Simon Callow and Griff Rhys Jones. People from all walks of life are joining together, saying, “We love London, we care about this and we’re not having it.”’
Part of the reason Honey and so many others are ‘not having it’ is that there is arguably no place more historically entwined with gas lighting than the Big Smoke. In 1807, London became the first city to boast a gaslit street. As a birthday gift to King George III, engineer Fredrick Winsor hooked up 13 glass lanterns to gas pipes made from the barrels of muskets, illuminating Pall Mall at night. People were, for the most part, thrilled (although an 1809 cartoon by satirist Thomas Rowlandson finds a sex worker questioning whether the sudden lack of ‘dark corners’ in the city will harm her trade).
Over the next few decades, gas-powered streetlamps went up in their thousands throughout the country as well as the rest of Europe and North America. Whereas today the lamps are controlled by timers, then they would be lit at dusk and extinguished at dawn by a lamplighter — often a ruddy-cheeked gentleman with mutton-chop sideburns — who would use a long pole to spark the gas supply and illuminate the mantles. ‘Gas light is such a lovely, gentle light,’ Honey says. ‘When it was invented, the whole idea was to mimic sunlight, so it’s very natural — wonderful for moths and bats, and great for dark skies, too.’
Lovely as it may be, however, its gentleness was also ultimately its downfall. As the 20th century rolled around, gas lamps were soon being usurped by far more powerful electric lights (this was despite the best efforts of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who penned a scathing essay in 1881 lamenting the ‘ugly blinding glare’ of electric streetlights.)
Today, less than 300 of Westminster’s gas lamps remain, having survived not only the electrical revolution but also the Blitz and London’s near-constant urban renewal. ‘There are lots in Covent Garden,’ Honey says, ‘including Goodwin’s Court, which was the inspiration for Harry Potter ’s Diagon Alley. But you’ll also find them in many of these incredibly Dickensian passages around St James’s and The Mall.’
The council’s argument for offing the last of this endangered species centres largely on the environment (burning gas produces carbon) and maintenance (at more than a century old, the lamps’ parts are difficult to repair and costly to replace). But according to Honey, ‘We’ve done the maths and, based on the council’s own figures, the gas lamps represent 0.0088 per cent of Westminster’s overall carbon emissions. It’s tiny. As for it being difficult to get spare parts, we’ve been to the British Gas depot and the guys there showed us all the spares. They’ve got stacks up to the ceiling!’ (Incidentally, if Honey is correct and the council is exaggerating the lack of materials, it may be the first recorded incidence of gaslighting about gas lighting.)
The other major factor is safety. Even in the 19th century, there were doubts about a gas light’s ability to illuminate the streets properly — in A Christmas Carol, Dickens writes of Scrooge’s doorstep: ‘Half-a-dozen gas lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark.’ Urban lighting is there to help reduce crime and make people feel safe, and LEDs would do a better job of that. ‘We understand the public safety [argument],’ says Honey. ‘That’s why we’re saying, “Okay, if there is a [gas-lit] alleyway that’s too dark and people are scared to walk down, why not put some electric lights on the wall, too? But leave the gas lamp.’
Whether the Gasketeers will succeed remains to be seen. A ‘consultation period’ at Westminster Council ended on 20 November, and the decision on whether to spare the gas lamps should arrive imminently. ‘We haven’t won yet,’ says Honey. ‘But we’ll keep fighting either way.’
So, what would Honey say to the suggestion that there are arguably more important things to worry about in the world right now than gas lamps? ‘In 1975, there were plans to demolish Covent Garden piazza and put a great big f***ing ringroad through it,’ he says. ‘I’m sure people told those activists there were more important things happening, too. But they still saved Covent Garden — and my God, I’m glad they did.’
If the council’s decision doesn’t go the Gasketeers’ way, could they take a leaf out of Just Stop Oil’s book and glue themselves to the gaslights? ‘No, we’re sensible people,’ Honey laughs. ‘Although I suppose we could chain ourselves to the lampposts...’
“GAS LIGHT IS SUCH A LOVELY, GENTLE LIGHT. THE IDEA WAS TO MIMIC SUNLIGHT”