Lamplighters in British Newspapers – Blog #11 by Edmund King

Posted on April 10th, 2013 by Amy

As towns in Britain continued to grow, especially from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, street lighting at night became important. In the days before the invention of electricity and all of the systems that support street lighting today, it can be hard for us to imagine how much effort was needed to create lights in streets. Once installed, street lights had to be turned on at dusk and off again at dawn. There are numerous reports of lamplighters in British newspapers.

In an age of sinecures, awarded to allies of the monarch, the sinecure of chief lamplighter to his Majesty (George II) was worth 500 pounds per annum.

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Stamford Mercury – Thursday 22 February 1739 page 2 col. 2

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000254/17390222/003/0002

Lamplighters were not immune from risk, as the story in the Derby Mercury of the 25 May 1744 reported. “ Last Monday evening a melancholy accident happened t the Door of Colonel Hodges, in Bloomsbury-Square, where a Lamp-Lighter belong to that place, had the Misfortune to fall from the top of his Ladder, on the Iron-Rails before the house, and several of the spikes run into his Body; he was immediately carried to his Lodgings, where he lies in great Torment, and very small Hopes of his Life.”

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Derby Mercury – Friday 25 May 1744 page 1 col. 3

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000189/17440525/007/0001

A female lamplighter, Mrs. Read, a printer, and  Mrs Darvell, a lamplighter got caught up in the work of extortionists/ arsonists, who wished to secure money by threats.

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Derby Mercury – Thursday 03 March 1748 page 2 col. 1

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000189/17480303/003/0002

A longer report appeared in the Ipswich Journal a couple of days later. It is a fuller account, as more information may have been available from the authorities, about the first letter to  Mrs. Read, a printer in Whitefriars, is printed in full.

“We, knowing you are a rich woman, desire you will lay a guinea under an Oyster-shell, behind the Watch House in the Alley, that side next Fleet-Street, on Wednesday Night without fili, or by God we will burn your House, murder your daughter Mrs. Nunnely, when she is going home to Islington, for all she has the Devil [i.e. printer’s errand boys] to guard her. Set no watch, nor show the Letter to Nobody; for by God, damn our souls to the lowest Pit of Hell, if you do, you know what you are to expect.”

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Ipswich Journal – Saturday 04 March 1749 page 3 col.1

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000191/17490304/013/0003

In the same issue of the Ipswich Journal, on page 1, the second letter was printed of the extortionists to Mrs Darvell, a lamplighter of Red Lion Court.

“The copy of a Letter …before the House of the Widow Darvell…

You are desired, by Order of our Committee, to lay one Guinea, on Friday Night, in the Place on the Right Hand Side of Red-Lion Court going down (it joins to the Steps, for if you don’t, you and all your family will will murder, and burn down your House by G-d, d-n my Blood if I don’t; but if you do, it shall be returned to you very soon by the Penny Post: But if not, you know what to expect; and by G-d it shall be done. It is but one Guinea. Yours &c J.Q. Note. There’s Witchcraft in the Case; Show this letter to Nobody.”

 

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Ipswich Journal – Saturday 04 March 1749 page 1 col. 3

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000191/17490304/005/0001

Then, as now, low pay caused problems, and the lamplighters of Westminster went on strike in February 1777 in an attempt to secure higher wages. The streets of Westminster remained dark, and other watchmen were put on duty to keep the streets safe. (It would appear, that the lamplighters had a role in public safety, as they could see if people were being mistreated, and take action,) A strike breaker was encountered by some of those lamplighters on strike, and beaten up. Those unlucky lamplighters on strike, who went to a pub in King Street, were unaware that a naval press gang would waylay them and press them into service in the navy.

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The Ipswich Journal – Saturday 22 February 1777 page 2 col. 3.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000071/17770222/007/0002

The work of lamplighters may have become more organised towards the end of the 18th century. In a notice dated the 27th July 1793, the Commissioners of Northampton placed a notice in the Northampton Mercury asking for proposal to light the street lamps. “The number of lamps to be lighted are 324, which are to continue burning, on an Average, six hours each Evening, for 120 Nights, between the 23rd of September next and the 6th of April following; for which Purpose it is expected the Contractor provides three Lamplighters.”

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Northampton Mercury – Saturday 10 August 1793  page 1 col. 2

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000317/17930810/014/0001

Lamp oil was a valuable commodity, for those many who could not afford the oil to light their own rooms at home. It is perhaps unsurprising to find lamplighters stealing oil intended for the illumination of street lights. Two reports of 1806 in the Northampton Mercury and in the Norfolk Chronicle  report what happened when lamplighters were caught stealing, with harsh sentences being given. George Bowker was “…sentenced to be confined for six months in the house of correction.”

 

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Northampton Mercury – Saturday 25 January 1806 page 3 col. 5.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000317/18060125/010/0003

No less than seven lamplighters were tried for stealing lamp oil. Perhaps the three found guilty, who were sentenced to three months imprisonment, had the better sentence than those who were “…sent on board the tender”. Those sent on board the tender may well have been pressed into the navy, and could have spent years at sea, without seeing home or family.

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Norfolk Chronicle - Saturday 02 August 1806 page 2 col. 2.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000246/18060802/003/0002

In an echo of events today, with local authority finances being restricted and reduced, a plea by a Captain Leech on behalf of the inhabitants, that two lamps be set up to illuminate Chandos-street, was rejected by the Town Clerk of on behalf of the Bedford Improvement Commissioners, on the grounds that “…their means were so circumscribed that they were hardly able to pay the lamplighters at present”.

 

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Northampton Mercury – Saturday 19 December 1840 page 3 col. 5

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000317/18401219/018/0003

We can gather from a report in the Cork Examiner of 6th July 1846 that gas lighting was quite extensive for the Dyke in Cork. A Mr. Gould proposed that some of the 13 gas lamps used to illuminate the Dyke could be re-distributed to other parts of the city. The decision whether to do this was deferred (in time honoured fashion) to a new committee which would look further into the matter. Complaints about the gas lamps being unlit in the evening elicited a response about the routine that lamplighters were expected to adhere to.  “The lamplighters were sent out each evening a quarter of an hour before sunset, and they were obliged to have all their lamps lit within forty-five minutes time. On the representation of the most humble person in the community, the lamp-lighters would be fined for a neglect of duty.”

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Cork Examiner – Monday 06 July 1846 page 1 col. 4.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000425/18460706/005/0001

It is fascinating to learn that an English company (unspecified in the article) supplied gas to light the streets of Vienna, and that the lamplighters were dis-satisfied with their pay.

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Nottingham Evening Post – Wednesday 11 October 1893 page 2 col. 6.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000321/18931011/006/0002

The matter of employing women as lamplighters was discuss at a meeting of the Pollokshaws Town Council. Mr. Baillie Munro, the Convenor of the Lighting Committee, assured his audience: “…he had a good word to say for the ladies,. It might be an improvement to introduce female labour into the different public departments, and he was prepared to take the subject into serious consideration”.

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Dundee Evening Telegraph – Saturday 12 August 1899 page 2 col. 1.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000453/18990812/006/0002

The use of electricity came but gradually for street lighting. Timers were being introduced to gas lamps, to automatically turn on and off the lamp, giving “…an enormous saving in time and labour”.

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Portsmouth Evening News – Saturday 25 June 1904 page 5 col.2.

Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000290/19040625/016/0005

Over twenty-five years later, but in a similar fashion, the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette reported that: “Upper Weston’s lamplighter has done his last round, for in future the village is to have the lamps clock controlled”. The inference is that gas lamps were still being used in Upper Weston in 1931.

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Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette – Saturday 08 August 1931 page 11 col. 4.

Image © Northcliffe Media Limited. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000514/19310808/079/0011

The gradual spread of electric lights in towns and villages is  typified by a report in the Tamworth Herald in 1927. The Amington and Stoneydelph Council was not charged for the conversion from gas to electric lighting by the Pooley Hall Colliery Company, which carried out the work. The benefits of electric lighting: “… had enabled the rates to be lowered or for more extended lighting to be done for the same money. Special reference was also made to the benefit which colliers receive from the electric street lighting lamps in the early morning.”

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Tamworth Herald – Saturday 01 October 1927 page 5 col. 3.

Image © Northcliffe Media Limited. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000484/19271001/051/0005

The ascendency of electricity for street lighting appears complete by the late 1940s. The photograph in the Hull Mail of 6th March 1948 shows the staff and guests at the ball organised by the Insular Electric Lamp Works Ltd. In acknowledgement of their origins “Lamplighters Ball” remains the title of the event.

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Hull Daily Mail – Saturday 06 March 1948 page 3

Image © Northcliffe Media Limited. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000324/19480306/040/0003

 

Ed King

April 2013

 

Further reading:

Gas Lighting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_lighting

Street lights: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_light

History of lighting and lamps: http://inventors.about.com/od/lstartinventions/a/lighting.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Responses to “Lamplighters in British Newspapers – Blog #11 by Edmund King”

MartinMay 16th, 2013 at 5:56 pm

My Grandfather was a Lamplighter in Torquay Devon during the Second Wold War. It used to amaze us as he could walk past each post and without looking up could raise his pole and hook the little ring dangling down on a chain and light the gas light straight away. It was quite a tallent he acquired. He was also a Night Watchmean and if walking the streets he saw any light shining through the house Blackout curtains he would rap sharply with his pole and shout out “Put that light out”. He did it to my bedroom window when there wasn’t even a light on, it used to frighten his young Grandson half to death. I don’t know which noise was worse, his rapping or the sound of the German aircraft flying on down the ciast to bomb poor old Plymouth.

Krishnamurthy NatarajanMay 18th, 2013 at 11:39 am

When I read this I am reminded of the lamplighter in my village in Palghat (Kerala, India) in the ’50s : It was a one-track road connecting the main thoroughfare with the village proper. There were hurricane lamp posts, perhaps a British legacy left still in its virgin form, some nine in number, each set apart by about thirty feet, , on this gully. The lamplighter, an old Municipal servant, will turn up exactly at the appointed hour, every evening on his rickety bicycle, with a lader balancing on his one shoulder, park the two-wheeled contraption nearby, lean the lader against the lamp-post, climb up, pour just enough oil for it to burn and last till dawn the next day, and light the wick. This he did for each lamp, to provide light for the entire length. It is a ‘ritual’ the lamplighter did very religiously, whether it was raining or shining. Very often, on rainy evenings the slush will cause slips and add to his woes. The light he provided, though a glimmer, nevertheless helped people pass through the street without bumping into one another. And, one day I had to pass through the alleyway in the dark, set me think what had happened to the lamplighter. I learnt later, he retired on superannuation and the place had not been filled due to paucity of funds with the Municipality. It took quite some years for the path to be electrically lit and lamplighter’s absence was felt for as long by the whole village. I wonder if this lamplighter is alive now to read this!

BNAMay 19th, 2013 at 9:13 am

Dear Krishnamurthy, thank you for posting such a wonderful, wee story and memory! If this most conscientious of lamplighters is still alive, we’d love to hear from him. After all, there can’t be many lamplighters left in this modern age of electricity. Best regards, Grant.

BNAMay 19th, 2013 at 9:16 am

Hi Martin, what a terrific story and memory of your grandfather! Do you know if he’s mentioned anywhere in the BNA website? Regards, Grant.

Scilla AitchisonJuly 15th, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Both my husband and myself were post-war babies and can remember the lamplighters turning the gas lamps on and off, in London and Scotland respectively.

The British Newspaper ArchiveJuly 15th, 2013 at 11:41 pm

We’re glad that this article brought back these memories for you. Regards, Grant.

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