Text and images are copyright. All rights reserved.
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.
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.
Even as late as World War Two and for a period afterwards some street lights still ran on gas.
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.
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.
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.
Similar pointed ladders used to be common in orchards because the pointed tops could more easily poke through the branches of the trees.
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.
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.