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.
If you enjoy all things history & heritage, you might also enjoy The Disappearing Rabbits of Berlin and Thatched Cottages.
Helen, these lamps should be treasured not converted
Absolutely agree. I’m hoping it’s not too late for those that remain untouched. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Sheree.
My pleasure Helen
Such an interesting post – but upsetting too. Of course these gas lights should be retained. One of my memories of my London childhood was watching the lamplighter at dusk cycle round, his lighting pole to the ready, setting each lamp to its night’s work. I always think this makes me sound positively Victorian, but it was the 1950s.
I think they are very special and absolutely should be retained. The idea of the lamplighter pedalling around is a lovely image. I guess the British Gas team whizzing around on their scooters are the modern day version!
That would be an odd job title to have on your passport!
Those gas lamps are part of our heritage and should be treasured as they are so special. Incidentally, a small claim to fame for where we live is that it was the last British Rail station to have its gas lights extinguished in 1988!
That must have felt quite sad to whoever had the job of ending their service! Actually now you come to mention it, I think a lot of stations lend themselves to gas lamps, especially the historic Northern stations. It’s a shame more weren’t preserved.
Sounds like a good cause to me, Helen.
Well years around the military has taught me much about annoying people to get things done. Might as well put that ‘skill’ to good use for a good cause!
100 percent with you. Where do we man the barricades?
There is a website in the works with all the details about who to lobby and so on. I’m hoping lots of people in London and beyond will get on board. Wouldn’t it be awful if any more were lost?
Goodness yes. Totally shortsighted.
Thanks for drawing our attention to this. I’ll definitely follow and support the campaign.
They are beautiful. I shall follow on Instagram etc.
Thank you, I think the more people who appreciate them, the harder it will be to make a good case to convert them all. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment, appreciate it!
I had no idea gas lamps still existed! They do look rather fine.
I knew there was the odd one here and there, but had no idea there was still a part of London with so many. Makes them something special and certainly special to Westminster. I fell down the rabbit hole a bit reading up on gas lamps and found an article about Gas lighting in Glasgow that paints a very evocative picture . https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/when-glasgows-gas-lamps-went-out-last-time-599108
Thanks for that! I recognised the street in the picture immediately- it looks much the same today. I remember when I first knew John his brother was a student in Dundee and his close still had gas lighting which I thought was very primitive. This would be about 1980/81.
Oh wow, I didn’t realise they were ‘converting’ them all; thank you for highlighting!
My pleasure, I went off to look at a few when I was in London earlier in the month and then couldn’t not write about it. I hope the council will proceed with caution, it’s almost impossible to put heritage back once you’ve removed it.
Oh no what a shame. We’ve seen a few in our walks around London and they give places a real sense of character and history. Seems tragic that they are being replaced with modern fakes. Not sure it will actually save anything at all.
They really are part of London’s DNA aren’t they? And I think they are synonymous with traditional London for so many, especially tourists from abroad. Hopefully those remaining can be saved.
As someone who loves London, lived there and visit often, I was shocked to read your post but really pleased that you bought this to my attention. I’m now off to find out more about The London Gasketeers and how I can support the campaign.
Thanks June. I think this is part of the problem, Westminster council seems to have initially only carried out minimal consultation before commencing. Brilliant that local residents have spoken up and temporarily halted the process. The lovely old lamps would be such a loss.
I like old gas lamps
Great post Helen, whenever I’m in the UK often visit London and I didn’t realise gas lamps were still being used. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
Also thanks for visiting my site and following 🙂