A lamp fit for a King
How a specially decorated British Gas lamp is part of the coronation celebrations
Just off The Mall in St. James' Park, there is a very special lamp post. London has hundreds of thousands of them, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that they're all much of a muchness. But they're not. While most of them are powered by electricity, over a thousand of them are still powered by gas.
And this one gas lamp plays a unique role in the coronation of King Charles III on 6th May 2023. How? Well, it’s had a very special makeover to mark the royal occasion. The lamp post has been decorated in gold leaf and topped by a special lamp head constructed in the shape of a crown. This particular one was chosen because it’s just outside the ring of steel that will be around Buckingham Palace – it won’t be hidden behind a fence during the celebrations so the coronation crowds will be able to see it in all its glory.
Going for gold
Many of London’s gas lamps are in the Royal Parks, as well as in Westminster, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace, and they’re looked after by a dedicated team of British Gas lamplighters. The idea for creating a special lamp to mark the coronation came from a meeting between this team and the Royal Parks.
“For the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, we got special permission from the Royal Parks to paint a lamp post gold and purple,” explains Aran Osman, part of the British Gas lamplighter team. “It was very popular, with a lot of people coming to see it, so we got together with the Royal Parks to see if we could do something similar for the coronation.”
The lamp head is based on an existing design dating from around 1870, and it was specially constructed for the coronation. Painting the lamp itself didn’t take long, although timings were tight. The lamp needed to be ready by the beginning of May, but work couldn’t start on it until after the London Marathon on 23rd April – which left only a week to get everything ready.
Lamplighters in action
Aran trained as an engineer with British Gas and is one of five specialists who make up the British Gas lamplighter team. Together, the team is responsible for maintaining and repairing London’s 1,100 gas lamps. Each lamp must be checked every two weeks.
The team occasionally works in pairs to do their rounds for safety reasons, as they’re often up a ladder or on a cherry picker to reach the lamps. “We could be up there for anything from 15 minutes if we’re just winding the clock, or longer if something more complicated needs doing,” explains Aran. Most lamps have a Horstmann mechanical clock that triggers the flame to go on and off at the right time each night, and each clock needs to be manually wound every fortnight.
Unsurprisingly, the lamplighters often draw crowds of people while they’re working. “We can talk to hundreds of people a day, they love seeing what we do and taking pictures with us,” says Aran. The team also does interviews with news crews all over the world. “We’ve just done some for Vietnam and Cambodia, and Japan, China and Australia too. French TV loves us – their biggest news network features us at least once a month!” Aran says.
And it’s not just inquisitive tourists and the worldwide media. The lamplighter team has some right royal interactions too. “We do speak to a lot of people who work in St James’ Palace and around Buckingham Palace. The King’s Private Secretary stopped me the other day and we had a good chat,” Aran says. “They can’t say anything officially, but we did get a letter from the King to thank us.”
From George III to Charles III
British Gas has been lighting up London for over 200 years. In fact, it started out in 1812 when King George III was on the throne. It was known as the Gas Light and Coke company and was the world’s first public utility company. “Back then, it was all just gas lamps,” says Aran. “There weren’t any gas cookers or boilers for us to look after.”
In that time, the company has gone through huge changes, but the job of the lamplighters has remained. And it looks set to continue for a long while yet.