The light from the street lamps
When I was a child in the early 1900s, the streets were lit by gaslight.
Gas street lamps gave out a circle of light which
didn't spread far. In between the lamp posts was dark.
The light from the gas street lamps was greenish, eerie and flickering. Both
my father and I on separate occasions thought we saw a woman ghost in our front
bedroom, but I didn't want to think of such things and put it down to the eeriness
of the gas lighting.
Three lighted mantles in a gas street lamp.
Photographed in Blists Victorian Town,
How gas street lights worked
The street gas lights worked the same way as the
house gas lights in that the flame from the
lighted gas heated up a mantle which became incandescent and gave out light.
A gas street lamp, a detail from a larger photos from
the early 1900s. The bar to support the lamplighter's ladder doubles as
a support for the road name.
Street lights gave out more light than house lights because there were more
gas jets to a lamp, each with its own mantle.
How the early street gas lamps were lit
Every evening the lamplighter used to come along on his bicycle to light the
carrying his ladder on his shoulder. It was a wooden ladder which must have
been very heavy, unlike the aluminium ones of later years. I often wonder now
how long it took him to do his rounds and how large his rounds were.
There were bars near the tops of the street lights for the lamplighter
to lean his ladder against.
How the later street gas lamps were lit
Even as late as World War Two and for a period afterwards
I remember street lights running on gas. Every evening just before it got
dark a man on a bicycle came to turn on the lamps. He arrived with one hand
holding a wooden pole over his shoulder the other hand steering the bicycle.
He would stop at each lamp post and reach up with his pole to turn on the
gas. He would insert the pole into the vent at the bottom of the glass case
and push a lever into the 'on' position. (Some lamps had a chain instead
of a lever.) Then the pilot light lit the gas making the mantle glow.
Just after the war clockwork timers started being installed.
Then the light came on automatically every evening and went off
automatically every morning.
Every so often a man with a ladder would visit each lamp to wind up the
Also every so often during the day a man came round
with a ladder to service the lamps or to repair the panes of glass that
often got broken. Council men would also come round to paint the lamp posts
which were made of cast iron.
Enhanced screen shot from
the 1940s film Gaslight. Although the film was set in earlier
times, gas street lamps were still common. So it is likely that this is
probably reasonably authentic.
Another use for street lights
We children used the lamp posts as winning posts in some of our outdoor
Shop window street lamps
Shops had their own gas lamps outside in the street, to
light their window displays in the evenings and in winter, and to give a welcoming feel. These privately-owned
gas lamps also contributed to the general light on the streets.
Privately owned lamp outside a shop.
Detail from a photograph in Farnham Museum.
Lamp outside a terraced house used as a
in Leicester in the early 1900s
Privately owned gas lamps were used outside pubs. This photo shows the lamp that used to be outside the Old Bull pub in
Silver Street, Edmonton. It has
now been repositioned in a similar position outside the new Bull pub,
although it is now electric.
When I asked the landlord why, he said that these lamps were a historical feature of public houses.
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.