Based on childhood recollections
of working class family life in north London in Edwardian times.
We considered ourselves to be very fortunate that our house had gas lighting
laid on. Few working class households in the early 1900s had it. (Electric lighting
and gas heating and cooking came to our
Victorian style terraces much later.)
My grandmother on my mother's side only ever had only
oil lamps and candles,
but we lived on a housing estate that was regarded as modern and state-of-the-art
at the time. There was gas lighting in
the streets, too.
Many houses at the outbreak of
World War Two were still using gas for domestic room lighting.
My family had the old gas fittings on the wall at 153 Bulwer Road,
Edmonton. Although we had been converted to electric lighting by this time,
Dad retained the gas fittings, as he did not trust the new fangled form
of lighting by electricity.
Gas lamps had to be lit every time we wanted light. So they were only lit
when someone wanted to stay in a room for some time. For short-term and emergency
use, we either moved around in the semi-dark or used candles, lit with matches.
There was always a box of matches and a candle in a candlestick beside our beds at night. We were, though, discouraged from using them, because
of the fire hazard and because of dripping wax over the floor or furniture.
Anyway our eyes were quite used to the dark and we had chamber pots so that
we didn't have to go outside to the lavatory
What old household gas lamps looked like and how they worked
Gas ceiling lamp showing chains to control the flow of gas and hence the
brightness of the glowing mantles.
Household gas lamps worked by heating something called a 'mantle' with a gas flame.
The mantle then glowed brightly, lighting up the room. Lamps had two chains:
one to turn the gas on and the other to turn it off. These chains could also adjust
the flow of the gas and hence the brightness of the mantle.
Inside the shade of a gas lamp showing the fitting of the gas mantle.
A mantle for a gas lamp, showing its structure.
Gas mantles were extremely fragile, and once they had been heated, they
crumbled very easily indeed. They were
made from a material that looked like a fine honeycombed silk. To protect
them; to spread their light; and of course for decorative purposes, there
was always a glass cover of some sort screwed round them. In our house, this
was a globe: the top half was milk-white frosted glass and the lower half was frosted
with a pattern on it. There were, though, other colours and shapes. Mantles, being so fragile,
had to be replaced quite frequently. We bought new ones from the
oil shop, each one always in its
own cardboard box to protect it.
A mantle at the moment of lighting. Detail of a
screen shot from an old film.
When the gas was lit, it made a popping sound. We did the lighting with a match through a hole in the bottom of the globe,
taking care not to touch the fragile mantle. Some families used wax tapers which were like very thin candles about 8
inches long. These, being longer than matches, were easier to use, although
they did have to be lit with a match first or from the fire and it was all too
easy to touch the mantle and for drops of the wax to fall off. The lamps in some houses,
particularly later on, had pilot lights
which were alight all the time and which delivered the gas through a narrow
tube. This tube always weaved and curved in exactly the same way as the main
supply pipe, so that it looked like part of the decoration. Such lamps could look very pretty, particularly when they were in a group
Ceiling-style antique gas lamps showing the pipes for carrying the gas for the pilot
light, the mantles and the chains to control the flow of gas and hence
the brightness of the glowing mantles.
With the exception of the scrreenshot and photo below, the lamps on this page were photographed at
the National Museum of Wales.
A gas lamp powered by a visible gas pipe..
The gas for the lamps in most rooms of the house came in through a pipe from
the centre of the ceiling. In the scullery
the gas came from a pipe in the wall. In our house, these pipes were hidden but in some places I saw them outside, as if the gas
supply had been added as an afterthought. I always thought that this looked
Gas lamp in a school hall in the 1930s, detail from a
photo courtesy of Desmond Dyer..Note how the fragile glass globe was
protected from inadvertent breakage by the children.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.