Lighting the way

  • The lamps are lit by British Gas engineers
  • Many still stand from the Victorian era
  • The royal connection: Prince William’s request to the lamplighters

 

Obvious fact: British Gas engineers work with gas. Less obvious fact: sometimes that gas comes out of peoples’ bums.

“This street lamp’s rigged straight to the sewer,” grins an overall-clad chappie as he gazes at a warm glow in an alleyway by the Strand. Its light comes from a real flame that’s powered by natural gas, but it also sucks up the sewage smell and neutralises it. “It’s the only one like it - it has to be lit 24 hours a day to stop the stink,” explains Gary. “Otherwise… otherwise…” It’s okay. We’d rather not think about it.

 

Victorian engineering

Garry Usher has been a British Gas engineer for several years and is what Keith Flint from the Prodigy might describe as ‘a firestarter’. He’s one of the five engineers who look after the 1,500 London street lamps still powered by natural gas instead of electricity – many of which survive from the Victorian era. And tonight he and his colleague Iain Bell are touring their central London patch.

It’s a fascinating job with some unusual responsibilities, such as fixing lorry damage. To explain, Victorian-height poles can sometimes meet gargantuan-height lorries – the result being a crunch that requires repairs. Garry and the team zip around the city on Honda scooters, scaling lamp-posts by means of ladders left permanently manacled to them, fixing damage, polishing the glass and adjusting the lamps’ timing systems.

“We keep our own hours. It’s pretty flexible,” explains Garry, as we turn into Covent Garden – home to most of Westminster’s lamps. “It means the guy who does the ones outside the Apple Store can avoid coming when the street performers are on.”

“He hates it,” chuckles Iain as we stroll through the Piazza. “The entertainers always take the mickey out of him.”

Lamplighter in action

History repeating

As we walk, you can’t help but notice how astonishingly quaint the gas lamps are. Their light’s a yellowy little halo straining against the darkness, sat upon a pole that’s intricately picked out by wrought Victorian ironwork. It’s hard to believe they’ve lasted almost 200 years.

“It’s amazing that they still exist, really,” grins Ian. “They all systematically started being ripped out a few decades ago, but thankfully at some point, someone said: ‘Hold on! We need to keep a bit of our history here.’ And here we are.”

We walk into Goodwin’s Court, a tiny alley lit entirely by gas that feels as though it was designed to be part of a TV historical docu-drama. “Oh yeah: you name a period drama, it’s been filmed down here,” chuckles Garry. ‘They make us turn the lights off because the cameras just pick them up as big yellow globes.”

 

By royal appointment

The more lights we tour, the more bonkers the lamplighters’ anecdotes become. We nip into a cul-de-sac by Pall Mall and Garry reveals: “The Home Office made me paint a bit of black on that lamp’s bulb – said the glow was stopping their infra-red from picking up visuals.”

We pass Buckingham Palace and Garry nods: “Had to turn those lamps on specially for the Chinese President the other day.” And as we near St James Park, he grins: “That’s where Princes William and Harry lived. Lovely boys.” Which is ridiculous. As if he’s met them. “Oh yeah, I say hello to them quite often when I’m checking the lamps. Actually, William wanted them to come on earlier, so I sorted it for him.”

We end by the sewer light – almost two hundred years of history crammed into two hours. “It’s funny really: we’re keeping alive something that’s been going since 1840’,” smiles Garry.

“I know: amazing to think that if it weren’t for us, this would’ve all been forgotten, isn’t it?’ says Iain. I go to leave, and Garry stops me with one last fact about the sewer lamp. “If you ever see this lamp strobing, you’ll know one thing.”

What’s that?

“Must be curry night…”

And with that, I get out of there. Before I see any strobing.

 

 

Around the web

The original lamplighters

Quaint film of a lamplighter at work in Birmingham in 1973, courtesy of the British Film Institute

The Lamplighter – a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson

Related Articles

We use cookies to provide a better experience. Carry on browsing if you're happy with this, or click here to manage cookies.