Whilst many people think that gas lighting went out with the ark, or at least finished in the Victorian period, this short article is intended to give the real story of the demise of gas street lighting in the UK as it is probably much later than is commonly believed.
Historically, gas was manufactured for street lighting and the industry had grown up with this as its solid area of income. The early lights were simple open flame lamps that had continued and improved on the previous lamps lit by oil. As demand for higher levels of light grew, multiple burners were developed requiring progressively larger lamps. By this stage in the last quarter of the 19thC electrical lighting was beginning to make inroads. Electric arc lamps had proved to be very unsatisfactory with their very bright but often unstable light whilst Count Auer von Welsbach had discovered that a mixture of chemicals including some rare earths would ‘incandesce’ when heated with a hot flame. His invention was to completely transform gaslighting by hugely increasing the amount of light available from the same amount of gas and by reducing the amount of heat rendering the enormous lamps redundant. The light was bright and steady and, with the addition of high-pressure gas lighting, probably extended the life of gas lighting by 50 years.
The second world war was perhaps the final turning point because of the number of lamps that were turned off for the duration of the war and the number of lights that were damaged during the blitz and other bombing throughout the country. Immediately after the war, William Sugg & Co received the largest order ever for the Rochester street lamps which had been extremely popular for some 50 years.
In 1952 at the Association of Public Lighting Engineers Conference at Harrogate a Mr N.Hudson read a paper entitled “Street Lighting – A Wise Compromise” in which he forecast the rate at which gas street lighting would be converted to electricity.
The Institution of Gas Engineers after consultation with the Gas Council convened a conference on 17th April 1956 where representatives from all the 12 Area Gas Boards discussed with the Joint Lighting Committee “the present unsatisfactory position in regard to Public Lighting by gas” and the suggestion that a single lantern should be produced to meet the requirements of both directional and non-directional conditions. A small panel was then appointed to obtain statistics on Public Lighting from the Area Boards and to collate such information for consideration at a further meeting of the conference.
The following information was to be obtained:
- An up-to-date figure of the number of gas lamps in use, subdivided into lamps situated in Traffic Routes and lamps situated in Other Roads.
- An indication of the rate at which gas street lighting has been converted to electricity over recent years and to what extent this differs from the estimate in Mr Hudson’s paper four years earlier.
- An estimate of the extent to which gas street lighting will be used in future years
- An indication of the general condition and standard of performance of gas street lighting.
Amongst the 4 members of this panel was Mr P.C.Sugg, B.Sc.(Eng.) who had spent many years on the development of modern gas street lighting as Technical Director of William Sugg & Co.
This article is taken largely from his copy of the final report of the panel which was at the time marked Strictly Confidential.
The first table shows the total number of lamps in use for the years 1953 through 1956.
This compares with the number of lamps from the earlier paper by Mr Hudson
It was pointed out by Mr Hudson that the increase during 1950 over the previous year was attributed in the main to the relighting of lamps which had been extinguished at the outbreak of the War. The figures for 1950 and 1951 only were taken to indicate the trend.
A concluding paragraph stated that:
“From the statistics available it was considered that a date midway between the extremes of 1963 and 1973, namely 1968 would be the ‘wisest compromise’.”
“For reasons such as the affection which is felt in certain parts of the country towards gas lighting and the possibility of electricity not being available in every country lane, it is possible that isolated pockets of gas street lighting will remain after the general disappearance from the streets. Like its elder sister domestic gas lighting, it may well never die but only fade away.”
This of course has turned out to be true more than 60 years later, not so much because of non-availability of electricity but certainly from the affection felt towards gas lighting and its particular suitability in many heritage situations.