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Illuminating duties of lamplighters

PUBLISHED: 18:25 29 May 2008 | UPDATED: 11:08 03 July 2010

GASSING ABOUT SOMETHING: Two men chat near the riverside gas works at Gorleston. The building was demolished in 1967

GASSING ABOUT SOMETHING: Two men chat near the riverside gas works at Gorleston. The building was demolished in 1967

FOG wreathes around the guttering gas-lit street lamp as a top-hatted and cloaked figure hurries past along the wet pavement and disappears from sight in the murk of Victorian London.

FOG wreathes around the guttering gas-lit street lamp as a top-hatted and cloaked figure hurries past along the wet pavement and disappears from sight in the murk of Victorian London. That is a classic Jack the Ripper cinematic scenario that causes the audience to shiver in anticipation of grisly scenes to follow.

Another scene - classic and specific rather than general - shows the gas lamps over the drawing room mantelpiece in an elegant Edwardian home regularly dimming, increasing the sense of terror and foreboding as the lady of the house (played by Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film Gaslight, retitled Murder in Thornton Square for British screening) fears she is going mad.

In fact, the dimming gas lights was caused by her husband, Charles Boyer, up in the attic, part of his fiendish plan to push her over the brink into insanity. Gaslight was penned for the stage in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton who died aged 58 at his home in Sheringham in 1962 when I was reporting in north Norfolk, and I interviewed his widow in compiling his obituary.

Without the introduction of town gas in Britain two centuries ago with all its benefits for the population, Hamilton would not have had the key element in his massively successful Gaslight - but he also did the industry a disservice by featuring it in (dare I say) a bad light.

Apart from a fly-blown spider-webbed naked 40 watt bulb flickering in the cellar in which the heroine is trapped, no other form of illumination gives a feeling of suspense and menace; a neon tube or a new weird-shaped eco-friendly bulb will never fit the bill.

Last year a ceremony was held in London to mark the bicentenary of gas lights in the capital, an authentically costumed lamp attendant formally lighting one of the traditional survivors in the city.

Gas lights in streets required a man to put them on and off, and Great Yarmouth had a maximum of six at any one time, the last of whom - Robert Bensley Baldry - died in 1939. He lit the final one…ending the gas-light era begun by his father during the 19th century.

One of his last duties finished with the completion of the current Haven Bridge in 1930, for until then he was responsible for ensuring that one of the two red lights hanging on its predecessor as a warning to shipping was lit during darkness; Gorleston was responsible for the other.

Writing on this topic over a half-century ago I reported that one of the last half-dozen lamplighters was believed to be still alive, Caister resident Frederick Gooch, who specialised in the lights outside shops in Yarmouth town centre. It was a demanding job with unsocial hours (on at dusk, off by midnight at the latest, with inspection, cleaning, maintenance and replacing mantles during the day) and the weather being definite downsides.

For some time after their introduction, gas street lamps were lit by the lighter propping his ladder against the horizontal crossbar beneath the lamp, but this was eliminated by the introduction of a long pole.

All lamplighters carried a card issued by the watch committee of the borough council on which was stipulated the times the lights should be extinguished. In summer, the lamplighter had to make his rounds to put them out only a comparatively short time after he had lit them.

During the 1939-45 war, all street lighting was off, houses and commercial premises had to have blacked-out windows after dark, and vehicles and bicycles had partially obscured lamps directed downwards, all to make it as difficult as possible for German aircraft on night raids to locate their whereabouts and identify targets. Citizens grew to dread the “Put that light out!” shouted demand of patrolling air-raid wardens who had spotted even a chink in somebody's black-out shutters.

It is quite impossible for our younger generations to comprehend those stringent lighting restrictions. After dark, you never switched on any light in the house without ensuring that the thickly lined curtains were securely drawn without anything seeping through, or that the black blinds\shutters were in place. Streets were in deep darkness, with pedestrians using torches cautiously. White paint marked kerb edges and obstacles.

Today one or two attempts by councils to cut the hours of street lighting in a gesture towards combating a global warming have provoked protests and outcry…perhaps in these crime-ridden times, we need well-lit streets.

When peace was declared, those of us who could not remember street lights gazed in awe until we became familiar with them. There was a little flurry of excitement when, soon, the conventional tungsten bulbs were replaced on North Quay by sodium with its orange glow, and on Southtown Road by mercury vapour with a cold white glare.

That is a far cry from some of the lights on the A12 bypass/Gorleston inner relief road that won a British Astronomers Association Campaign for Dark Skies award in 1995 for their special design limiting the light pollution that went upwards. Most light was concentrated on the highway, not wasted in the air, enabling stargazers to view the heavens with greater clarity.

An aircraft relying on visually spotting the bypass would be frustrated because it is allegedly well-nigh invisible from above.

The possibility of enemy air raids was a slender one when the 1914-18 war broke out, and the borough's streets remained gas lit although the glass shades were painted to reduce glare. But unexpectedly, Yarmouth became the first place in Britain to be a victim of an air raid when a Zeppelin airship flew over in 1915, whereupon the order was given to the lamplighters not to put them on again until the war ended.

As Yarmouth and Gorleston had their separate gasworks, I assume that Mr Baldry and his colleagues worked on one side of the river, with a similar team looking after the southern part of the self-contained urban borough. Both gasworks have long gone, but there is at least one significant survivor of the gas-lit decades - a disused gas holder built in 1884 on Barrack Road in south Yarmouth and officially preserved as being of special architectural and historic interest.

Its fancy ironwork top gives a touch of style to a functional and dominant structure, and looks an interesting example of industrial design from well over a century ago, despite its present peeling paint.

Another survivor succumbed three years ago - an ornate cast-iron lamp standard beside the sea-front Hollywood Cinema. According to Colin Tooke in his latest book, That's Entertainment, the management of the building when it was the Royal Aquarium provided it for patrons using the side entrance from the Minor Hall when street lights were few and far between, and it was a rare privately-owned lamp on a public path.

Later it was converted from gas to electricity and “survived until 2005 when it was knocked over by a vehicle and damaged beyond repair.”


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