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Florence Cole as a child

How early gas street lamps
were lit: The Lamplighter

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Old gas street lamp showing the bars for the lamplighter's ladder to lean against

A modern photo of an old gas street lamp showing the bars for the lamplighter's ladder.

These days the bar to support the lamplighter's ladder often doubles as a support for a road name or plant troughs.

Gas street lamp at the point of being lit by a lamplighter

Street lamp being lit. Note the four mantles.

When I was a child in the early 1900s, the streets were lit by gas street lamps.

Every evening the lamplighter used to come along on his bicycle to light the street lamps, 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.

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How the lamplighter lit the streetlamps

Gas street lamp working parts: hinged glass pane for access to the mantles, chains for opening and closing the gas supply and the lamplighter's pole with its spirit lamp

Sketch, not to scale:

On the left: The lamplighter's pole with its spirit lamp on top for lighting the street lamp and its hook for pulling down the chain to open the gas supply.

On the right: A street lamp with its bar for the lamplighter's ladder, the hinged glass pane open for access and the chains for opening and closing the gas supply.

Based on sketches by Malcolm Head and Bob Ward.

For simplicity the sketch shows only one mantle whereas in practice there could be up to six.

There were bars near the tops of the street lights for the lamplighter to lean his ladder against.

Once up the ladder, he opened one of the panes of glass which was on a hinge and opened the gas supply by pulling on one of the two chains - see the sketch on the right. The other chain closed the gas supply.

He carried a pole with a spirit lamp and hook at the top - again see the sketch, and used the hook to pull down the chain and the spirit lamp to light the gas.

This done, it was on to the next lamp.

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Recollections of the lamplighter from the 1940s

Even as late as World War Two and for a period afterwards some street lights still ran on gas.

How often the ladder was needed

My memory says that the lamplighter only needed the ladder occasionally when the lamp didn't light at the first bidding. If it worked fine, he did everything from pavement level; if it didn't, he needed the ladder for closer inspection or maintenance.

Malcolm Head

What the lamplighter's ladder was like

My memory from the 1940s is that the ladder was wooden and tapered to a point at the top, probably better to fit against the bars of the lamppost and to cut down weight. The lamplighter carried his ladder on his shoulder as he walked between the street lamps.

Laurie Prior

At home my family had a strange shaped ladder which tapered to a point. Now, reading this page, I know the explanation: In the 1940s and early 1950s my father was a lamplighter in West Hartlepool (just Hartlepool nowadays). When the lamps went over to electricity later in the 1950s, the ladder was probably surplus to requirements and was given away.

Peter Booth

Similar pointed ladders used to be common in orchards because the pointed tops could more easily poke through the branches of the trees.

Pat Cryer

The lamplighter's bicycle

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.

Peter Johnson

street lamplighter, 1940s Britain

Computer composed photo of a lamplighter by Laurie Prior as remembered from the 1940s.

Lamplighter, early to mid 1900s England, lighting a pilot light streetlamp by turning on the gas with a pole.

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.

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Poem about a lamplighter

This poem is a child's view of a lamplighter who he called Leerie which I understand was a common name for a lamplighter, particularly in Scotland. It was brought to my attention by Marilyn Davis.

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by
For every night at tea-time and before you take your seat
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Marin go to sea
And my Papa's a banker and as rich as he can be
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do
O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you.

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight.

Robert Louis Stevenson
'The Lamplighter' in
A Child's Garden of Verses

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster