Monthly Archives: February 2013

Lighting With A Bang

Dighton 2

Richard Dighton’s print of 1821 is sarcastically entitled “One of the Advantages of GAS over OIL” and, as it is from his “London Nuisances” series, demonstates that even thirteen years after the first demonstration of street lighting by gas, the new technology was treated with considerable wariness.

Throughout the eighteenth century scientists were aware of the light produced by both coal, wood and natural gases, but could see little practical use for it. Meanwhile streets contined to be dark, dangerous and crime-ridden, the only pools of light the lanterns put out by householders and the precarious illumination of the link-boys’ torches. SONY DSCOften the link-boys could not be trusted to guide the walker safely home and not into the hands of muggers and pickpockets and the air of danger was intensified by the identification of the boys, plunging their flaming torches into the dark snuffers, with illicit  acts. The presence of a link boy in a painting was enough to alert the viewer to a sexual sub-text. This snuffer is outside Chatham House in St James’s Square.

William Murdoch, an engineer working for Matthew Boulton and James Watt at their Soho Foundry steam engine works in Birmingham is the first person known to have lit a house by gas, although, having tried it at home in Redruth, Cornwell in 1792, he did not seem interested in trying to expand on that use. Instead he used gas to light the interior of the Soho Foundry in 1798 and four years later he illuminated the outside in a spectacular public display.

Meanwhile a German inventor, Fridrich Winzer, known in Britian as Frederick Albert Winsor, took out the first patent for a gas light in 1802. In 1807 he set up a retort in Pall Mall and produced a temporary display of street lighting on January 28th 1807 for the Prince Regent’s birthday. Prinny became a fan of the new technology and gave it his support.


Coal gas contains hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and sulphur – smelly, explosive, a fire risk and a definite health hazard and the technology to make it safer lagged beghind the ability to produce it. Gas in homes was very rare until the 1840s and did not really catch on until the 1860s when the gas lighting installed in the new Houses of Parliament allayed public fears. Even then the light was from a flame, in effect a powerful candle – the first gas mantle was not invented until 1885.

Meanwhile some shops risked introducing it. Entrepreneur publisher Rudolph Ackermann rebuilt his  luxurious Emporium in the Strand in 1810 and it was the first shop in London ‘to be lit solely by Gas, which burns with a purity and brilliance unobtainable by any other mode of illumination hitherto attempted.’ But it was slow to catch on , although its benefits for street lighting – and the reduction of crime –  were easily appreciated. In 1812 Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coal Company and on December 31st 1813 Westminster Bridge was illuminated permanently.

In 1804 Winsor had tried lighting the Lyceum theatre by gas, but it was not until 1817 that it was installed there and at the Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres. In that year the Chartered Gas Company’s three stations produced 8,500 cubic metres of gas, capable of lighting gas lamps giving the equivalent light of 450,00 candles. Despite the dangers, gas light was here to stay and by 1826 virtually every city and large town in Britain had gas street lighting.

There are still gas lights on the streets of London today. Crown Passage, which runs between King Street and Pall Mall, is still very reminiscent of the network of alleys and courts that crisscrossed the fashionable St James’s area – home to gaming hells, brothels and lodging houses on the doorstep of St James’s Palace and Almack’s Assembly Rooms – and it still has gas light and a gas lighter, although when I met him he was simply setting the timing mechanism that turns the gas on and off these days. The other gas light shown is on the front of a house in St James’s Place, almost opposite Cleveland Court where Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, had his banking premises for a time.

SONY DSC                SONY DSC



Filed under Accidents & emergencies, Architecture, Street life

Braving the Dentist With Jane Austen

With a dental check-up looming next week my thoughts have turned to teeth!


Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra from Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, 15-16 September 1813 about the experience of her nieces, the daughters of Edward Austen Knight:

 Going to Mr Spence’s was a sad Business & cost us many tears…& alas! we are to go again to-morrow. Lizzy is not finished yet. There have been no Teeth taken out however, nor will be I believe, but he finds hers in a very bad state, & seems to think particularly ill of their Durableness. They have all been cleaned, hers filed, and are to be filed again. There is a sad hole between two of her front Teeth.

 The next day she wrote again

The poor Girls & their Teeth! …we were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all, the two just beyond the Eye teeth, to make room for those in front. When her doom was fixed, Fanny, Lizzy & I walked into the next room, where we heard each of the two sharp hasty Screams. Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too & pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely & making a considerably point of seeing her again before winter…The little girls teeth I can suppose in a critical state, but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fanny’s. I would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth & double it.

 Poor Marianne was twelve and Lizzie thirteen. I am not sure what the filing was for unless this is Jane’s misspelling of “filling”. Or perhaps it was to remove jagged edges from a broken tooth. Image

Mr Spence was probably George Spence, dentist to George III, who had his business in Old Bond Street. He patented a brand of tooth powder and was wealthy enough to buy a country estate at Cranford and to see his sons well educated and launched on successful careers in the law, the navy and the church. “The World In Miniature” edited by W.H.Pyne (1827) contains a series of descriptions of various typical characters and occupations. In the section on Boxers it describes Mr Spence being interrupted while attending to a lady by the arrival of a gentleman who had made the mistake of trying to settle a dispute with a drayman and who had swollen lips, front teeth “beaten in” and his mouth left in “a deplorable state”. Mr Spence pushed his teeth back into place and called on him the next day to finish the job. It does not record what the unfortunate lady who was abandoned part-way through her treatment thought!


Tooth brushes looked very much like modern ones but tooth powders must have been quite abrasive and contained all sorts of substances, including soot. Various pastes and gums were also used to fill cavities and disguise damaged teeth, but these must often have done more harm than good: I would love to know what the Ceylon Exotic consisted of! The advertisements for Trotter’s Tooth powder and the false teeth are from The Spectator of February 1809, the Ceylon Exotic was advertised in the same newspaper, June 1806.

False teeth ranged from wooden ones to various porcelain and metal varieties to real teeth taken from corpses – even on battlefields. This must have carried with it grave risks of infection and Mr Spence himself wrote a paper on, “Observations on a Disease Consequent to Transplanting Teeth” in 1790. One does wonder what e happened to the teeth he extracted from Marianne!

 Dentists like Mr Spence were for the well-off, of course. For the working people it was probably a case of putting up with toothache until it got too bad and then getting someone to pull it out for you or using the services of someone at a market or fair. This photograph of a roadside dentist, with a picture of gleaming white teeth displayed outside his tent, was taken in Rajasthan, India, last year and I wonder if perhaps his ministrations would not be preferable to Mr Spence’s after all! Image


Filed under Medicine & health

Jane Austen Buys a Cap


On March 7th 1814 Jane Austen was staying with her banker brother Henry in Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, and writing to her sister Cassandra. The weather was wintry – “Here’s a day! The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us? We were to have walked out early to near Shops, & had the Carriage for the more distant.”

In the end she, and her niece Fanny, did go out on foot to Coventry Street to Newton’s the linen drapers and, it seems, wandered a litle futher along into Cranbourn Street to do some window shoping in Cranbourn Alley.  “A great many pretty Caps in the windows of Cranbourn Alley!  I hope when you come, we shall both be tempted. I have been ruining myself in black satin ribbon with a proper perl edge; & now I am trying to draw it up into kind of Roses, instead of putting it in plain double plaits.”

You can just make out Cranbourn Alley in the street view above – the second opening from the left. The Alley is still there today, just a minute’s walk west from Leicester Square tube station, but there is no longer any hope of finding charming headgear – it is just a narrow passage between a money exchange and a fast food shop and the crowds making for Leicester Square pass it without a glance.

Image The pretty cap in the print is worn with Morning Undress and is from the French Journal des Dames et des Modes for 1814, headed Costume de Londres. Jane describes a new cap in detail in a letter to Cassandra on 16th September 1813. “My Cap is come home & I like it very much, Fanny has one also; hers is white Sarsenet & Lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning, Carriage wear – which is what it is intended for – & is in shape excedingly like our own Sattin & Lace of last winter – shaped round the face exactly like it, with pipes & more fullness, & a round crown inserted behind. My Cap has a peak in front. Large, full Bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple perhaps, & another at the left ear.”



Filed under Fashions, Shopping

New Blog!

Bear with me while I set this blog up!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized