When I first moved to London from electrically-lit Leeds I had no idea there were 1,500 gas lamps still burning every night across the capital, and when I first noticed one in Covent Garden - and then realised that the whole street was lit by gas - I actually stood and stared at them, mouth hanging gormlessly open, in a state of quite some surprise.
I now work close to one of the strongholds of gas lighting in Westminster, in the quiet and pretty back streets somewhere between Parliament Square and Pimlico, and I'm lucky enough to pass by them most days. This is a gallery I've been meaning to make for a while because they're a remarkable sight, and a remarkable thing still to exist, and well worth sharing with a wider audience.
The remaining gas street lights are, apparently, maintained by a specialist team of five people who work for British Gas. A couple of months ago I passed through Smith Square and saw one of them. He was seemingly working his way around every lamp in the area, climbing to the top with a wooden ladder and tinkering with the control box. I asked him if he'd mind telling me what he was doing.
He did seem to mind, as it happened, and he gruffly informed me he was winding up the clockwork timer mechanism. Well, of course, that brought another dozen questions to mind: how often do they need winding up? Do you have to adjust them every time the clocks go back? How often during the year do you have to change the timings to match sunrise and sunset? Is winding them up a full time job? Unfortunately, all those questions remain unanswered, at least for me, because he stomped off across the road while I was thanking him, and I took that to mean our short conversation was at an end.
Never mind. I can understand that a day spent going up and down ladders and winding up erratic century-old clockwork mechanisms is bad enough without inquisitive members of the public assailing you every few minutes to ask what you're playing at. And in any case, he was nowhere to be seen when I came back with my camera to take some pictures of what are remarkably handsome lights.
They prove, better than any others, that the design of street furniture and the choice of lighting level and colour make a huge difference to the appearance and the feel of a street or even a whole area - something we often overlook today as we favour ever cheaper and ever brighter lighting over all other concerns.
New photo gallery: Alley by gaslight
There's a square in Leeds, Queen Square, that was sporting working gas lamps a couple of years ago. There must be more elsewhere?
Gas lights give a completely different feel from electric lights. My mother's house had a few gas lights still working until about 5 years ago when they were disconnected due to leaks in a lead pipe.
My paternal grandparents house in Putney was gas lit until the mid-50s, the house dating from the 1850s. Cooking and heating was gas too, although they did have a coke fire down in the basement dining room.That too, was startd with a gas poker. Lighting the lamps was a particular event in the day. One could read under a gas lamp, and there was always a slight hiss from them. I distinctly remember my grandmother replacing the mantle. These were bought in a pack of about 6. The mantle was made of cotton, and one fixed it in place, lit the gas, and the cotton burned off leaving a fragile mantle of the metal oxides used to make the lamp glow from the flame. Modern mantles use cerium and thorium oxides.
Of course it was all "town gas" then, not natural gas
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
T.S. Eliot - Preludes
I highly recommend a walk down Kensington Palace Gardens after dark (the Embassy and Billionaires road behind the Palace) as its entirely lit by Gas Lights which gives it a really eerie feeling, especially at the bottom where being next to the park, there are few other lights on that side to light the pavement!
Many of the lamps in the central London parks (Hyde, Green, St James’s) are gas lights. Walking down Green Park at night by gaslight really brings home how much dimmer they are than electric lights, and makes one think about how different London would have looked when all its lights were gas.