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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Beyond the Door; or “The Homes of the Victorians”: Interlude: Lighting:

We all use electricity now, and take for granted that when we press the switch on the wall a light will come on, or a television &c.

Experimental Exhibition of the Electric Light - Trafalgar Square
But it wasn’t always that easy, as anyone who has fumbled for the candles and matches during a power-cut will know, so, as an interlude to our exploration of the Victorian home, a very short - and hopefully comprehensive and accurate - history of lighting our homes over the last 150 years…

Ninety years ago, as the 1920’s approached, less than 10% of all homes in Britain had an electricity supply, and of these 10%, most were wired up only for electric lighting and nothing else. The most popular form of lighting at the time was gas, which is what our upper class Victorian ancestors would have used, but it wasn’t as widely used as some people think…

The drawbacks of using gas in the home were plenty; it depleted the air supply, it was dirty, it didn’t smell great and it had a destructive and detrimental effect on certain items, such as certain types of wire, which meant pictures had to be hung on the wall using cord instead, as gas corroded wire. Also, silver, books and furniture would be damaged, and even clothing.
Gas made dyes in fabric fade, and over a period of time, even caused the fabric itself to weaken.

For these reasons, many households limited the use of gas to certain rooms where it would be most beneficial, such as hallways, where a draught from an opening door could blow out the flame on a lamp or candle, nurseries (see part one of these posts for nursery details) to prevent accidents in which lamps or candles could be knocked over, kitchens, where brightness and functionality was required where aesthetics were not, and on occasion, gas would be preferred in bedrooms so lights could be easily struck in the dark without fumbling around for matches or lamps. Reception rooms also relied more on gas.

So if not gas in all rooms, how else were these rooms lit?

Parafin was widely produced from the middle of the 1850’s, and, along with kerosene, became popular in the 1860’s. Parafin had a strong smell, but was very cheap.
Duplex lamps had double wicks and chimneys that allowed the light to be dimmed or brightened with the turn of a screw.

Gas lamps were attached to long rubber hoses so they could be placed on tables like oil lamps so that people could see to sew, read &c.

Oil lamps were a lot dirtier than gas lamps and if oil splashed out of the reservoir where it was held, the smell of hot oil would permeate the house. Also, dust and dirt clogged the little air holes around the wick, and this needed cleaning out every day. The glass chimney also needed washing after every use otherwise the dirt would deplete the effectiveness of the light.

A Peep at the Gas-Light - Pall Mall

The original demand for electricity was mainly for street lighting, museums and theatres &c, and for that a central, distributed supply was required. This supply came from a plant opened in 1882; The Holborn Viaduct plant.
By the 1920’s in London, electricity was supplied by a number of largely private companies. The two largest were the London Power Company, which supplied West London; and the County of London Electric Supply Co Limited, which supplied the East. Both were expanding and both were profitable. Between 1919 and 1924 the homes in the County of London that were being supplied with electricity doubled.

By the end of the 1920s, more households were wired up to the network as old houses which were difficult and expensive to supply with electricity were replaced with new homes with electricity already installed. The majority of the country was finally connected to electricity in the years following World War Two during extensive building programmes.

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