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The City of Westminster should stop gaslighting its own heritage

28 January 2022

You may not know it, but if you were to take a walk in Westminster after dark, much of your way might still be lit by gas lamps. From Covent Garden to Smith Square, the gentle glow of gaslight illuminates large parts of the city. Powered by clockwork mechanisms, which are still tended to by a dedicated team of British Gas engineers, the Rochester, Grosvenor and Windsor lanterns, many a hundred years old, are survivors of an age in which street furniture was designed not only to be durable but beautiful.

Or I should say were, for Westminster City Council is in the process of removing all 300 of these lamps, replacing them with LED ‘facsimiles’ that, while they may light the streets, are draining them of any romance.

The process began under the cover of darkness, as it were, during a pandemic when minds were turned to other things. Since an antiquarian book dealer, Tim Bryars, sounded the alarm, a campaign has been underway to protect these important monuments of London’s heritage. Led by Dan Cruickshank, who prevented an earlier attempt to remove them in the 1970s, it is abetted by a new kind of heritage activism, an Instagram account called the London Gasketeers (run by Luke Honey).

As sure as a clockwork mechanism, however, time is fast running out. The campaigners estimate that some one hundred of the gas lamps under the Council’s control have already been removed, many thrown into open-backed trucks. It’s perhaps best not to speculate about their fate. Despite assurances that the difference would be imperceptible, the substitution of a custom-built ‘Back Lamp’ on Crown Passage with a modern imitation sadly shows that this is anything but the case.

Westminster is not the only area of London still to be lit by gas. There are some 1,200 gas lamps elsewhere in the capital and there is no sign, yet, that these are threatened. But Westminster has a special connection to gas lighting. It was here that, on 4 June 1807 – the birthday of George III – the German inventor-cum-entrepreneur Frederick Winsor first illuminated the city. According to newspaper reports, the row of gas lamps outside the Prince of Wales’s residence, Carlton House, burned as bright as the midday sun during the temporary display. Westminster streets, in the parish of St Margaret’s, were the first to be permanently lit in 1814, and in 1837 the founding of the (still extant) manufactory William Sugg & Co. made it a supplier of gas lighting around the world.

A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall-Mall

A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall-Mall (1809), Thomas Rowlandson (after George Murgatroyd Woodward). Metropolitan Museum of Art

It would be difficult to understate how much these lights transformed the urban experience. Previously, negotiating the city by night had been a difficult and dangerous business. The streets were frequently unlit and oil lamps were prone to being extinguished by the wind. Street urchins, known as Linkmen, could be hired to light the journey home, but they were as likely to rob you as to show you the correct route.

In the opening of Bleak House, Dickens describes the ‘gas looming through the fog in divers places, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy’. Until very recently, that effect that could still be enjoyed at Pickering Place behind St James’s, now lit by the stark glare of LEDs.

None of the Council’s justifications for the change stack up. Contrary to its assertions, the environmental impact is negligible. Each lamp consumes only 10 per cent of the gas required by a standard patio-heater.  In a year, Westminster’s lamps use up as much gas as just 100 homes – and this doesn’t include the additional carbon outlay of manufacturing new lanterns and digging up pavements to lay fresh wires. If a brighter light is needed for questions of safety, there is nothing to stop Westminster from following the example of the City of London and interspersing the gas lamps with electronic alternatives, or even simply fitting the lanterns with reflectors.

Gas lamps in Westminster, London in April 2018. Photo: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Sadly, these excuses bear the hallmarks of reasoning after the fact. The truth, as the Council as much as admits in its carefully worded response, is that the gas lamps are inconvenient for it to maintain. The lanterns get damaged by lorries far bulkier than even the heaviest Victorian vehicles, and it is easier to change a lightbulb than it is a gas mantle.

But is convenience enough to justify losing our potent ability to ‘see the past in the light of the past’, as Dan Cruickshank tells me? This isn’t just a Romantic aspiration, but one with hard-nosed commercial advantages, as the city of Prague realised when, in 2002, it decided to re-convert some of its electric street-lighting to gas. Now, the annual lighting of the Charles Bridge is a popular tourist event. ‘History matters,’ Cruikshank says. ‘And it matters commercially,’

Earlier this week, Westminster Council announced that ‘plans to upgrade Westminster’s historic gas lights are being paused while the City Council talks to residents and local groups to ensure proposed electric replacements reflect the City’s heritage’. It is not too late for Westminster Council to come to its senses, but it needs to think more creatively. Brian Harper, a former government scientist who now runs the company Sight Designs, suggests that retrofitting of the existing gas lamps could make them 60–80 per cent more efficient than at present, an improvement on the 50 per cent efficiency saving projected by the Council. While Harper’s invention of a gas lamp that runs on dog poo might be more than some residents of Westminster could stomach, it is proof that ways forward can be found for gas lighting in a zero-carbon future. The hope is only that by then there are still lamps to light.