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, 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.