In my best setting-the-scene voice, imagine this ; a street in London just a hop, skip and a jump from Westminster Abbey. Beautiful brickwork and historic buildings all around. Gas lamps cast a warm and enchanting glow onto the street below…
No, I’m not off in a daydream in which I’ve cast myself in the central role of some historic drama. I do that, but not this time. Modern day London is home to hundreds of historic gas lamps. Still working, but under threat. I mentioned in a previous post that I had something coming up I wanted to muster a bit of support for. This is the one. Let’s talk about gas lamps.
London is a big place. Let’s narrow it down a bit and talk about the historic gas lamps of Westminster. Why? Because they are beautiful, they are part of the identity of London herself and most importantly, because they are under threat. With minimal consultation, Westminster Council has hatched a plan to replace working gas lamps with LED powered reproductions.
The conversion is brutal, the cost of it is eyewatering and the result is deeply sad. And when those gas lamps are lost, they are lost forever. Some have already been
destroyed converted. Plenty more are at risk. They need us to protect them.
Especially the ones that aren’t listed as unlisted street furniture can be removed or replaced without planning permission.
The obvious question is why? Why would anyone want to legitimately vandalise these glowing beauties? Westminster Council puts forward three reasons: the eco-argument of carbon footprint and emissions, cost and maintenance and street safety.
However, gas light is better environmentally than LED. Particularly for insect life and specifically for certain species of moth. You can read more about that here and here. The emissions issue had been countered by London based campaign group The London Gasketeers who, having consulted a gas expert estimate that, ” a restaurant patio heater emits at least ten times the amount of emissions as a working London gas lamp. And that’s a conservative figure…”
Maintenance of the gas lamps is currently carried out by none other than British Gas. Maintenance seems a cold word for it, they team that manage the lamps seem to deeply care for them. Based in Battersea, they work from a gas lamp depot that is well stocked with all things needed in terms of spares & repairs. Interesting, given that one of the reasons given by Westminster Council for removal of the lamps is difficulty with spare parts. Hmm.
The depot is also home to gas lamps that can be used for training, and this got me thinking. It’s not just about the lamps themselves , important as they are. They are our industrial heritage and they bring with them heritage of skill. For an insight into how a small team cares for the gas lamps, I’ve included a You Tube video below that is well worth a watch.
As for the safety side of things? Well, I’m not buying it. These gas lamps have been doing a grand job for hundreds of years, I don’t see that there should be any issue with them now. And if a little more light is required, they can be fitted with reflectors, a far more cost effective solution. Far better than committing sanctioned vandalism in order to create far more light than is needed.
Travelling round Europe, I’ve seen gas lamps working beautifully in other places. In Prague and in my beloved Berlin. In Wroclaw, Poland you can follow the lamp lighter at dusk. He is a tourist draw in his cape and top hat. A bit of research tells me gas lamps can be used beautifully on home soil. Looking at you, Malvern.
I’m not a historian, an antiques expert nor an authority on London history. I found out about the gas lamps of Westminster and the threat they are under quite by accident. All started with me looking at some old windows in Goodwins Court. I’m just a girl who believes that letting these gas lamps go would be wrong. They are a tourist draw, part of our social and industrial heritage. They possess both form and function. Why on earth would we want to be without them?
As we walk through some dark days, I think anything that brings a little light into our lives- literally or figuratively- is worth fighting for. There is still time to change the outcome for the gas lamps of Westminster. Plans to convert all remaining gas lamps are paused, but the future is not yet secure. If you’d like to lend your voice to the campaign then find The London Gasketeers on Instagram , Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you to Luke Honey of The London Gasketeers for his help in making this post happen, and for kindly allowing me to use images from the TLG Instagram page when my own photography skills failed me.