The first recorded public street lighting powered by gas was demonstrated in Pall Mall, London, on 28 January 1807. In June of that year, a line of gas street lights was illuminated by Frederick Winsor, an engineer, to celebrate the birthday of King George III. Each one was fed with gas pipes made from the up-cycled barrels of obsolete musket guns.
In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, the world's first gas company. Less than two years later, on 31 December 1813, Westminster Bridge was lit by gas-fuelled street lamps.
By 1823, numerous towns and cities throughout Britain were lit by gas. The cost of gaslight was up to 75% lower than oil lamps or candles, accelerating its development and deployment. By 1859, gas lighting was to be found all over Britain and close to a thousand gasworks had sprung up to meet the demand for the new fuel. Indoors, the brighter light that gas provided enabled people to read more easily and for longer. In turn, this helped to stimulate literacy and learning.
Electric street lighting was first introduced in 1878 along the Thames Embankment and near Holborn Viaduct, quickly becoming more popular and leading to the replacement of most gas street lighting. The first street to be lit with electricity - as we know it - was Electric Avenue in Brixton, in 1880...
Today, there are around 1,300 functioning gas fuelled street lamps in London, of which 270 or so are found in the borough of Westminster City.
The British Gas team of London Lamplighters maintain these 1,300 gas lamps, with great dedication, skill and love for their 200 year old traditions. Their territory ranges from Richmond Bridge in the West to Bromley-by-Bow in the East. The long avenue of Kensington Palace Gardens is lit only by gas lamps. Each lamp is visited on a fortnightly rotation. Their mechanisms need to be wound and adjusted to the season's sunrise and sunset. The glass is polished and the ‘mantles’ are replaced. Each lamp base is marked with the crest of the monarch in the year it was erected. The oldest gas lamps in London can be found on Birdcage Walk with King George IV’s insignia.
The technical specifications
Gas lanterns vary in type, size and shape: number of mantles, clock timers, pilot light or electric ignition, materials and age. Mantles are teardrop-shaped elements which look, from the ground, like small electric light bulbs. However on closer inspection, they are revealed to be bell-shaped, silk mesh casings coated in lime-oxide, that give the lamps their charming warm glow.
There are two types of mantles in use; the original No. 1 Mantles and the larger No. 2 Mantles that produce more light. Mantles are generally arranged in clusters of two, four or six - however some of the larger lanterns contain as many as 10 or 12.
Each lamp is fitted with a regulator to control the gas pressure; 21 mbar is understood to give the optimum light output. If the pressure is too high, the efficacy and life of the mantle is reduced and conversely, if the pressure is too low, the light output decreases.
Adapted from an article by Squire Energy first published on 15 March 2019 .
1. Some of the original gas lanterns remain within Westminster Abbey. The cloisters are lit by gas. The oldest lamp is in Dean’s Yard, near the entrance, fixed to the wall. This has been there for 200 years as a gas lamp, and before that, as an oil lamp.
2. A pair of magnificent gas lamps adorn the statue of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on The Mall near to St. James’ Park, dedicated in 2009. The electric lights that were initially proposed were rejected in favour of traditional gas lanterns– “The Royal family is very pro-gas”.
3. Carting Lane besides the Savoy hotel has a rare sewer gas lamp - it burns 24 hours a day. It draws up sewer fumes with the heat produced by the gas flame. Sewer gas is then burned as it reaches the flame. The lamp was designed & erected to protect the delicate noses of the guests in the hotel bedrooms!
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