Tag Archives: gas lighting

Lighting Up St James’s Square

Yesterday I was reading The Courier (as one does) for September 23rd 1817 and discovered that two hundred years ago, almost to the day, St James’s Square was being renovated and lit by gas.

St. JAMES’S SQUARE

“No expense is spared, that can render the area of this assemblage of noble dwellings delightful to the taste of its inhabitants. The wall on which the iron railing of the new inclosure is to be placed, having been found so high as to obstruct, in some measure, the view of the intended greensward, it has been lowered, although the coping had been laid on, and great part of the iron railing fixed. Besides this provision for the pleasantness of the square by day, care has been taken, not only for its security, but for its splendour by night. The gas-lights will be scarcely more than twenty paces distant from each other, raised upon handsome iron stands, through the hollow of which the gas will ascend. The form of these is nearly that of a cannon, as far as three feet from the ground; afterwards, they become slender tubes, of a figure not unlike the stalks of some plants. The lamps they are to bear will be large; and not curved but angular, according to the present fashion. The east and west sides are to have seven each; the northern side six. It may be hoped that the improvement, which will be made here by the introduction of these lights, will lead to their use in St. James’s Park, where they are still more necessary.”

(The reference to the Park is presumably to its notorious reputation as a location for nocturnal sexual activity!) The rather small image at the top of the post is a version of Ackermann’s print and shows the Square in 1812 looking northwards towards St James’s church standing opposite the top of Duke of York Street (formerly Duke Street). The statue of William III in the centre and the covered seat on the far left still remain.

St James’s Square has always been the location of some very smart houses, but its central area has had a somewhat chequered past. The area was developed on open fields shortly after the restoration of Charles II by Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans. He laid out a square which had fine new houses on three sides, but which, on the fourth, southern, side, consisted only of the backs of the houses already facing onto Pall Mall.

The central area though, was a problem and, for some reason, no-one seemed to take control of the ground and landscape it. At first it was simply a bare area decorated by ash heaps, rubbish, dead cats and dogs and a storage shed erected as a timber store. There is even a record of a man who ‘kept the ring in St James’s Square for cudgel playing.’! It was also the site of occasional grand firework displays. One of the most spectacular must have been to celebrate the Peace of Ryswick in December 1697 when 1,000 skyrockets, 2,400 ‘pumps with stars’, 15,000 ‘swarms’ 7,00 ‘reports’ and 22 rocket chests each with 40 rockets, were let off.

In February 1726 a petition was presented to the House of Commons complaining that the Square ‘had lain and doth lie rude and in great disorder.’ There were individuals ready to spend money on improvements but they needed an Act to be able to do so. It proceeded with great speed (presumably due to the exulted status of the local inhabitants of the area) and the Trustees were enabled to clean up and ‘adorn’ the Square. Things then proceed slowly until in February 1727 the decision was made to dig a ‘bason’ to be surrounded by an octagonal five foot high iron railing incorporating eight stone obelisks with lamps. This must be the work that is shown in Horwood’s map of 1795.

There were also plans for a statue of William III in brass, showing this very Protestant king ‘trampling down popery, breaking the chains of bondage, slavery etc.’ Nothing came of that, although it was discussed by the Trustees endlessly. Meanwhile the Trustees had to wrestle with the problems created by the fountain in the middle of the octagonal pond which stopped working . In 1778 its surrounding plinth was removed which produced  correspondence from a gentleman ‘who had some interest in the ducks’ that roosted on it. Whether he was a naturalist or a lover of roast duck is not clear. Finally the statue was erected, on a plain plinth, in 1807.

For some reason, in 1799, the Trustees were considering changing the octagonal enclosure to a round one and the Ackermann view of 1812 appears to show that this was done. A Committee for Lighting the Square was set up and it is, presumably, its preparatory work that The Courier was reporting on. However, the number of lamps was exaggerated – in the end twelve lamps were set up, plus one on the South side which was supplemented by four more paid for directly by the residents. The installation of these lamps makes St James’s Square the first public area to be lit by gas. Demonstration lights had been used in Pall Mall 1808-10, but they were not permanent until 1820.

Having routed, they hoped, streetwalkers, pickpockets and undesirables with their new lighting, the Trustees turned their attention to upgrading the centre of the Square and secured the services of John Nash, architect of Regent’s Street. Nash’s scheme included an iron fence around the pond and plantings of shrubs with paths weaving through them. The pond continued to be a nuisance with the need to keep cleaning it out and it was finally filled in during 1854. During the Second World War the railing were removed for scrap metal and the gardens converted to allotments. The present railings and gates date from 1974, the Square having narrowly escaped a proposed underground car park (1953) and a cost-cutting exercise by Westminster Council that would have fenced it with plastic-covered chain-link.

It is still possible to walk along gas-lit streets in the St James’s area, although now the gas lamps are on a timer system, not requiring a lamp lighter, except to change the timer seasonally. The photograph shows gas lamps in Crown Passage which cuts between Pall Mall and King Street.

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

3 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Buildings, Science & technology

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.

SONY DSC

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

Save

3 Comments

Filed under Accidents & emergencies, Architecture, Street life