London’s 1,300 original gas lamps are under threat from LEDs – but they have a defence force who have just scored a significant win, writes Lucy Kenningham
One farthing – that was the cost of hiring a linkboy whose job was to carry a flaming torch guiding your way across the city, before the era of gas lighting began.
Cute though that might sound, these street urchins were not fully to be depended on – they could lead you to your death or indeed a nighttime robbery. Permanent lamps have the distinct advantage of being unable to manipulate you into becoming the victim of a mediaeval-style mugging. So, upon the development of gas lighting technology (no, not that sort of gaslighting) London got the world-first gas lamp in 1807. Location: Pall Mall.
Over the next two centuries, gas lamps started popping up in public spaces across the country. Londoners got used to strolling along illuminated boulevards and rejecting nighttime curfews.
In time, other forms of lighting began to appear to replace a gaslit flame in a charming glass structure: incandescent lighting, i.e. the electric lightbulb, first graced the streets of Britain in Newcastle towards the end of the 19th century. High intensity gas-discharge lamps came along later. All this lighting adds up: there are said to be 2.8m in London overall.
However, the original gas lamps – of which there are over 1,000 remaining – are under threat. From LEDs.
Exacerbated by spiralling energy costs and environmental concerns (admittedly mostly the former), Britain’s street lighting has been turning LED at a rapid rate. It uses around 67 per cent less energy and halve the carbon dioxide emitted. This is not insignificant.
Some councils are switching off the lights for longer and longer – introducing dark nights. Some object to this (it’s scary), but some advocate for it (stargazers – like former chair of the APPG for Dark Skies, Andrew Griffith MP).
By 2027, 70 per cent of lights along Britain’s national highways will be run on LEDs. Over the last seven years, half a billion has been spent by UK councils on LEDs (although none of it, weirdly, in Crawley).
In London, a gaggle of traditionalists have gathered under the name The London Gasketeers to lobby for the protection of the 1,300 remaining working gas lamps in the capital (you can see a map of their locations here). They tweet things like “here’s a handsome autumnal specimen with George IV cipher on the post, Carlton Gardens, London SW1”.
Yesterday campaigners scored a victory when four such lamps in the Soho area were granted Listed II status.
This is why I love our @LondonGasketeer campaign. At the drop of a hat our staunch supporter @SimonCallow joined Lamplighters, local residents, business owners, tour guides, photographers, members of community organisations and heritage bodies to celebrate in the drizzle with… pic.twitter.com/81HnsaRgHE— Tim Bryars (@TimBryars) February 12, 2024
“They will now rightly be protected so that their inimitable glow can continue to brighten the lives of Londoners and millions of tourists for generations to come, said Lord Parkinson, a 41-year old arts-and heritage minister and former Tory spad. Parkinson, the London Gasketeers and the actor Simon Callow have been pictured by one of the lamps, which date back a century, in celebration of their listing (see above).
Yet it won’t just be this motley crew of lamp lovers who celebrate the listed status of these street lights. The things are enchanting in a Narnia-like way, not only harking about to the days of old but casting a warm glow on the street below them – rather than the often harsh glare of LEDs.
As Will Self put it, typically brilliantly: “you don’t need to be some sort of Victoriana reenactment freak in order to appreciate the beauty of gas lamps”.