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Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Victorian Lamplighter

Reading about Victorian England through other people’s memories is always a nice way to soak up information about the period. Much as I like the factual books such as Liza Picard’s excellent and seminal book “Victorian London” I think the devil is in the detail, and reading pieces by people who were actually there gives a different perspective of the time.
The book “A London Child of the 1870’s” by M.V Hughes is a good example, but this week I have been thumbing through the H.V Morton book “Ghosts of London”, which is not a book of ghost stories set in London, but a book of memories of people and events that no longer take place in the capital. These people and events are the “Ghosts” in the book.

There’s plenty of interesting little chapters in this little book about things the author used to see, but for today I have chosen the chapter on the Lamplighter purely for the fact that only a few weeks ago I was reading about them and acquired a nice little bit of trivia on the subject of lamps which is probably common knowledge, but intrigued me, and I shall repeat it here;

A lot of street lamps still have a horizontal bar protruding from the top just below the actual lamp. This bar was for the lamplighter to rest his ladder against as he climbed up to light the gas lamp with his light.

Onto the article:

The Lamplighter:

The lamplighter, with his pole on his shoulder, is already among the ghosts of London. Sometimes, when I look from my window in the evening, I see him emerge from a side street and disappear beneath an old archway.
He is more than ever like a ghost, because there is not a lamp in sight that he could reach with his pole, were it ten times as long. Those lamps are all tall, modern lamps that are lit up by time-clocks or from a main. Still, the lamplighter crosses this street in the evening on some mysterious mission.

I wonder how many people feel, as I do, an affection for lamplighters that dates from the earliest years of childhood. I remember what it felt like to wait, pressing my face against the window-pane, for the moment he would come with a leisurely stride, leaving little stars and pools of yellow behind him; and what a lovely moment it was when he would pause opposite and life his pole to bring the lamp to life.
In bed at night in a silent house, the memory of that little pool of gold was somehow infinitely consoling before one fell asleep, and, in the stillness of a night of ugly dreams, what could be more comforting than to hop out of bed and see the lamp burning there, so still and calm, so brave in the dark.

Robert Louis Stephenson is the only poet who has remembered how romantic a lamplighter could be to a child watching for him at the window; and every time I read his Child’s Garden of Verse I am a small boy again, with my eyes on the window.

For we are very lucky with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, se a child and nod to him to-night.

As I was walking the other evening in a street not far from Westminster Abbey, I saw twelve men approach a shed, and draw from it, one after the other, lamplighter’s poles. I watched them with some curiosity for I had not seen such a sight for years. They took my mind back to a time when every street had its lamplighter. Twelve Leeries with their poles across their shoulders setting out to light the lamps of London!
‘There’s not many of us stick lighters left,’ one of them told me. ‘Most of the lamps nowadays are turned on automatically. But, here and there, a few of us still muster of an evening. Yes, “muster’s” the name we give it. They’ve changed the lamps, the torches we carry, the standards, the system of booking, and pretty well everything, but the old-fashioned muster still goes on. We’re the last of the old brigade.’
‘How long have you been lighting lamps?’ I asked him.
‘I’m one of the few left who used to light the old flat-flamed burners, and they were done away with about thirty-five years ago. I can remember Fulham being lit with flat flames. I remember too, what it was like to light them. You tipped your lever up and your by-pass touched the gas, but-what a rotten light it was, although we thought it wonderful in those days!
‘Thieves could knock you down and get away between this lamp and the next. Terrible rough times they were, those old days! I remember Tufton Street, Westminster, when it was a regular bear garden and you never liked to go down it of a Friday with your pay in your pocket. Lumme, the fights I’ve seen down there! There was one Sunday called “Bloody Sunday”; and it was, too.
‘But I must be getting along, it gets dark so quickly this time of year. I light my lamps about four o’clock, and I’m up at about six to put them out in the morning. Of course, it gets later and earlier, if you know what I mean.’
‘How many lamps do you light?’
‘A hundred and twenty. Great George Street, Petty France, Queen Anne’s Gate, and all round there. It’s about a five mile walk night and morning…’
And ‘Mr Leerie’ shouldered his torch and set off into the February dusk.

He interested me so much that I went to the offices of the Gas Light and Coke Company in the Horseferry Road, and asked some questions about lamplighters. This company has been supplying gas to London since 1812, when the gas was regarded by many as an invention of the devil.
Londoners may be surprised to know that a number of the most famous streets in the city are lit, not by electricity, but gas. Whitehall, Pall Mall, Parliament Square, Regent Street, Piccadilly (from the Circus to Albemarle Street) Victoria Street, are all gas-lit. Chelsea is a stronghold of gas. The company supplies gas to six counties and deals with eighty-four municipal authorities. The official who greeted me in the Horseferry Road pointed to a map of his area and told me that his first lamp was at Windsor and his last within half a mile of the sea at Shoeburyness.
I wish all businesses contained men with his sense of history and romance.
In ten minutes we were talking about the history of gas, discussing Rowlandson’s skits on the first gas-lamps, laughing at the sermons which parsons preached against gas, and then, by leaps and bounds, we approached modern gas, at which point my friend showered publicity handbooks on me, told me how much better gas was than electricity, edging his chair nearer and nearer, his eyes blazing with such fervid conviction that, at the end of it, I was almost willing to ask for a corps of men to tear down my wretched electric lights and install gas instead.

At this point, I think, we fortunately went out to lunch. After lunch I amassed an enormous and variegated mass of information about gas. I began to feel mentally gassed. My head was within the oven of his enthusiasm, but, by a supreme effort of will, I managed to take a breath of air and shout: ‘I want to know about lamplighters!’
‘Lamplighters?’ he cried. ‘Whatever do you want to know about lamplighters for? Never mind, I’ll tell you about them.’
He consulted some papers from a drawer of his desk; ‘There are,’ he said, ‘four hundred and twelve stick lamplighters left, but not all of them in London. Of this number, thirty-one are men who used to light the old fish-tail, flat-flame burners. They work hard and they are very good fellows. They have to clean the lamps as well as light them. There are stick lighters who light lamps with torches, and there are clock lighters who set the automatic clocks that regulate the lamps. The stick lighters think the clock men have the better job; but it’s a matter of opinion.
‘Now, the old-fashioned stick lighter is being gradually superseded by the clock lighter, and you are quite right when you call the stick lighter a ghost of London. He is a vanishing type. He was always a popular character in the old days; and still is so, when anybody notices him. One old lamplighter told me that he always gets a pound of pork sausages at Chistmas-time from a butcher on his beat, and another one told me that certain houses never forget him on boxing day. That is a relic of the old times. That’s all I can tell you about lamplighters.’

I was about to thank him, but he wagged a finger at me and went on:
‘Now if you really want to see some queer ghosts of London, come with me. I guarantee to show you some things that few people know anything about. Did you know, for instance, that the base of one lamp post in London is an old ship’s cannon? No. I thought you didn’t! are you ready?’
I had some vague intention of putting him off, but, catching the crusading fire in his eye, I meekly followed him.



19 comments:

  1. This is a really interesting article for me as a 2x great grandfather was a lamplighter in Clerkenwell. I am actually relatively young but I know the RL Stevenson poem too - an old lady taught it to me when I was teeny. Thanks!

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  2. You're welcome, glad I'm posting things that people like reading!

    ood to hear that your great, great Grandfather was a bringer of comfort and light to the children of Clerkenwell!

    The next chapter in the book is about vaious lamps in London, if you can find the book, its an interesting little read.

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  3. I must find the HV Morton book! I own and have read several times his Traveller in Rome from the 1950s which I prefer to any Baedecker or Blue Guide.

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  4. Look on Ebay, there's one on there for sale currently for around eleven pounds, I looked this morning.

    I've never read any of his other stuff, but I much prefer reading the work of people who are or were actual Victorians as opposed to people who have researched the period.

    That's one of the great shames about time, it moves! there's no Victorians' left who we can ask "What was it like?" anymore. Soon there will be nobody left who witnessed WW2 either, but that's the melancholy sadness of enjoying history, you can never visit or feel the thing you enjoy, and if its the distant past, prior to photography, you cant see it either.

    Since I became interested in Victoriana, I have also understood the antiquing hobby!

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  5. Hello Amateur Casual!

    I found your blog from a comment you've made on my article on 19thcentury.wordpress.com (Called Victorian Lampposts).

    Firstly thank you for commenting, secondly WOW! The detail and the depth of research in your article above is highly commendable.

    From spending the last 30 years dedicated to the art of restoring and reproducing Victorian Lamp Posts, this is definitely one of the most insightful and interesting articles I've had the opportunity to read.

    If I can ever be of any assistance in contributing, please do not hesitate to let me know, I'll definitely be adding a link so our customers can enjoy your blog.

    Please keep up the great work, on what is becoming an outstanding online resource for all things Victorian.

    Best,
    Ben
    EnglishLampPosts.co.uk

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  6. Hi Ben,
    Thanks so much for your kind comments, I remember posting my comment in regards to your article.

    Glad you enjoy the blog! My post about the Victorian Lamplighter has been the most popular I have done, and has had over 350 views at the time of writing, so I hope people reading it look at your comment and find a way to your site, some of your lamps are fantastic.

    Thanks again, and all the best!

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  7. Lamplighters walking the streets of Prague and lighting gaslantern in early 70ies are my deepest memory which I preserve like a tresure. I am 1968 born.

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  8. I wish I could have been around when the lamplighters were doing their rounds, such a shame these things die out.

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  9. Hi what a thoroughly interesting article!! very enlightening. Would it be possible to use one of your images in a university project I am completing about urban lighting design, you will be fully referenced and credited.

    thank you

    Martin

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  10. Martin,

    Of course, feel free to use what you like!

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  11. Hi there,

    I am currently working on a film where we have a few characters that are oil lamp engineers. Would you have any advice of what tools they would have used, e.g. a ladder etc!?

    Many thanks,

    Krysia

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  12. Certainly a ladder. If you look some at old street-lamps these days hey still have a horizontal bar sticking out of the top against which the lamplighter would rest his ladder.

    He would climb the ladder, open the gas valve and, using his little lamp, light the gas.

    You may find this text interesting, from "London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties" by Alfred Rosling Bennett:

    "The lamplighter calls for notice, too. He was often an elderly man, furnished with a short ladder and a hand-lamp. The former he placed against the projecting iron [-58-] arm provided for the purpose, ran up, turned the gas cock, applied his lamp, down again, and away with shouldered ladder to the next beacon. In the morning he went his round again, this time to extinguish. This system endured for many years. London was gas-illuminated from the dawn of my recollection and I do not remember anything but the ladder device until the 1870s. The gas jet was only a feeble fish-tail burner, but at all events it did not daze and dazzle as some of the modern bright lights do."

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  13. At last! I so well remember the lamp lighter coming down our road in Nunhead, South East London in the 50s and have been hoping to learn more about he and his job. I still prefer gaslight and always will and you've brought the sights, sounds and yes, even the smell of that period back for me. I can't begin to thank you enough but thanks anyway.

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  14. Thank you David, I'm glad you enjoyed this post and took the time to comment. In preferring gas light to electric you're definitely not alone, and you're in good company, the actress Ellen Terry said she far preferred the soft effect of gas lighting in theatres, and that when they changed to electric the light was just too harsh and unforgiving.

    Such a shame we will never go back to that method of lighting the streets.

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  15. Just found this site my Grandfather was a Lamplighter somewhere in West London how i wished i knew more about where he worked etc

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    Replies
    1. John, quite a few people have left comments saying the same as you - that their not-too-distant relatives were London lamplighters.

      We've now got the West End covered, Nunhead and Clerkenwell!

      Where did your grandfather live, John? I'm guessing it isn't a job you'd travel a great distance to.

      Delete
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  17. My 2 x Gt Grandfather was Lamplighter in the Fulham/Chelsea area, eventually reaching the dizzy height up his ladder of "Lamplighter Foreman". This article is a little gem which I am delighted to have found! It puts some meat on the bones of the info I have about him. Thanks for posting :-)

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  18. Came across this while searching for lamplighters. I would like to photograph them for a competition I am entering in Australia - I am here on holiday. Could you advise who I should contact to seek permission? Thanks. Tamojuch

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