A Short History of Lighting

Throughout the Victorian era and times before the lack of natural light during night time was always a problem, people couldn’t see where they were going with the greater chance of being attacked or mugged during the night.

One method to brighten the streets at nights was “link-boys”, children servants that wealthy citizens of London paid to carry torches while accompanying them through the city streets (a practice that could be dangerous because sometimes they lead their customers into dark alleys to be mugged by footpads).

The first organised method of public lighting was done in 1417 when the Mayor of London, Sir Henry Barton passed a law that ordered citizens must hang lanterns with light outside when night falls during winter months and leave them there until the morning.

That kind of light was not sufficient – being weak and irregular. The solution was hiding in the ground.

A paper by Thomas Shirley written in 1667 details about flammability of a coal gas that is found in coal mines. Stephen Hales was the first person who procured a flammable fluid from the actual distillation of coal in 1726. William Murdoch experimented with flammable gases to see which would be the best to use as a fuel for Lamps. From this he used coal gas to light his own house in 1792. This case is considered a first commercial use of gas for purpose of lighting in history.

A humorous caricature of reactions to the installation of  gas lamps at Pall Mall, London

A humorous caricature of reactions to the installation of gas lamps at Pall Mall, London

A few years later on January 28, 1807 the first public street lighting with gas was demonstrated in Pall Mall, London. Gas was transported through pipes to the gas lamps and lanterns/lamps were placed on the lamp posts.

Lamp lighters were workers who cared for them lighting the gas in the evening and putting out in the morning. The lamp lighters would carry their ladders and use these to rest on the lamp post ladder arm(s) so they could climb up to access the lantern tops. This was done until the invention of the mechanism that lit the lamps when gas was released in the lamp/lantern. (However there are examples of Victorian lighting still working and maintained by lamp lighters that exist today in parts of London keeping lighting history alive).

In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company and the first gas company in the world came into being. Less than two years later, on December 31st 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lit by gas. Victorian Lighting had started to shine.

Following this success gas lighting spread to other countries and by the beginning of the 20th century most of the cities in Europe and America had street lighting illuminated by gas lamps.

It remained like that until the advent of electricity.

During the 19th century two types of electric lamps were developed; the incandescent lamp (light created by passing the current through a filament) and the arc lamp (where the light is created by electricity leaping the gap between electrodes).

Humphrey Davy first demonstrated an arc lamp in 1806 but the blinding light was impractical and could not be powered for more than a few minutes. For years others sought to improve and create better longer lasting light.

Incandescence Lamp Price List

Incandescence Lamp Price List

The first electrified lamp post also called a street lamp used arc lamps, namely Yablochkov candle developed by the Russian Pavel Yablochkov in 1875.

The first streets lit in the UK with the electrical arc lamp were the Holborn Viaduct and the Thames Embankment in London in 1878. More than 4,000 were in use by 1881 replacing a lot of gas lanterns on the lamp post /poles.

It was Sir Joseph Swan, a British inventor from Sunderland who developed the first practical incandescent light bulb and led the way in early electrical lighting receiving in 1878 a British patent for his light bulb and opening in 1881 Benwell Lamps, the worlds first light bulb factory.

It was incidentally around this time 1879 that Thomas Edison first demonstrated his own lamp/bulb in the USA and in 1880 successfully registered patents and tried, but failed to sue Swan, so then took him as a business partner instead. In 1883 Edison and Swan were formed and it was Edisons vision of centralised electricity power stations that was paramount for making electric lighting available.

Wombourne Victorian Lamppost with Large Square Copper Lantern

An example of a British-made Victorian lantern and lamp post.

With the development of cheaper more reliable bright incandescent light bulbs at the end of the 19th century arc lights passed out of use for street lighting but remained in industrial use longer.

The late Victorian Age was certainly a period of great change and development with electric light spread across the world, and still here today in a wide spectrum of uses in many parts of our lives from home, gardens and street lighting. True to say there is still original Victorian Lighting in Britain keeping the authenticity and history alight and it is because of this and their beauty that there is demand for British-made Victorian Lighting to provide character and longevity still to this day.