Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Let There Be Light...Lighting London's Streets

by Regina Jeffers

In describing London at the end of the 1600s, Francis Maximilian Mission, author of Nouveau voyage d'Italie: avec un mémoire contenant des avis utiles à ceux qui voudront faire le mesme voyage (New travel from Italy: with a report containing of the opinions useful to those which will want to make the mesme travel), said:

“They set up (at every tenth house) in the streets of London (Mr Edward Hemming was the inventor of them about fifteen or sixteen years ago), lamps, which, by means of a very thick convex glass, throw out great rays of light which illuminate the path…They burn from in the evening until midnight, and from every third day after the full moon to the sixth day after the new moon.”

Mission had erred in his estimation of the use of lighting in the early 18th Century, but the City, obviously, impressed the French writer and traveler. As early as the 17th Century, the law enforced street lighting from Michaelmas (September 29) to Lady Day (New Year’s Day until 1752, but with the adjustment of the calendar from Julian to Gregorian, April 6) each evening until midnight.

In 1417, Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London, ordained “lanterns with lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemasse.” Paris led the way with lighting the streets. A 1524 order said inhabitants were to keep lights burning in windows, which faced the street. With the regulations of 1668 to improve London’s streets, the residents were “encouraged” to hang out their lanterns each evening.

In 1690, an order required residents to hang their own lights before their homes. By an Act of the Common Council in 1716, all housekeepers, whose houses faced any street, lane, or passage, were required to hang out, every dark night, one or more lights, to burn from six to eleven o’clock, under the penalty of one shilling as a fine for failing to do so.

The aforementioned Edward Hemming attempted to set up lights in 1685 Cornwall as an example of his plan to light London with whale-oil lamps. Needless to say, the Companies opposed Hemming’s plan. Those who made tallow chandlers, tinsmiths, and horners saw Hemming’s proposal as a threat to their livelihood.

The historian, James Peller Malcolm, recorded that “Globular lights were introduced by Michael Cole, who obtained a patent in July 1708.”  Malcolm went on to describe “a new kind of light, composed of one entire glass of globular shape, with a lamp, which will give a cleaner and more certain light from all parts thereof.” Supposedly, Cole first exhibited the light outside a St James coffee house in 1709.

Cesar de Saussure, who has left an amusing and detailed description of his journey from Yverdon, Switzerland, through the German States and then across the North Sea from Rotterdam to London, describes the London streets of 1725 as, “Most of the streets are wonderfully well lighted, for in front of each house hangs a lantern or a large globe of glass, inside of which is placed a lamp which burns all night. Large houses have two of these lamps suspended outside their door by iron supports, and some houses even four.”

The most commonly used fuels until the late 18th Century were olive oil, fish oil, beeswax, whale oil, sesame oil, nut oil, etc. From parish to city parish, a system was put into place to raise a rate from “eligible” households for lighting the streets. Later, a similar system was used for financing paving the streets and establishing a watch. A series of Acts of Parliament established the necessity for proper lighting for London’s streets. A 1736 Act gave the City of London the power to charge the inhabitants for lighting the streets throughout the year.

From Dan Cruickshank and Neil Burton’s Life in the Georgian City, we learn,

“The aldermen and common council began by determining how many houses there were in the City, valued them, decided how many lamps were needed and what they would cost to erect and maintain, and then determined what proportions of the total each rateable inhabitant would have to pay. There were, it was calculated, 1,287 houses with rent under 10 pounds per annum 4,741 with rent between 10 and 20 pounds per annum; 3,045 with rent between 20 and 30 per annum; 1,849 with rent between 30 and 40 per annum; and 3,092 with rent of 40 pounds and upwards per annum. 'In all, 14,014 houses, then inhabited and chargeable.' 

"The reference to rent should not be confused with actual rent paid.' Rates were calculated on the value of a house that was expressed in terms of the rent it was worth. This is not to say that the occupier was actually paying that rent: he could have been a freeholder, a most rare thing in the 18th Century city, paying no rent; a lessee paying merely a nominal ground rent to the landlord; or a sublessee on a short lease paying a rack rent. The committee then established that the number of lamps required was 4,200, exclusive of those wanted in 'public buildings and void places.' 

"This was based on the decision that lights should be 'fixed at 25-yd distance on each side of the way in the high streets, and 35 in lesser streets, lanes, etc.' The money was calculated and raised in the following manner: The several wards of the City agreed for lighting them at an average of 41s. per annum per lamp, at which rate the expense of 4,200 lamps amounted to 8,610 pounds. The fixing of those on posts and irons, averaged at 14s. 6d. each [equalled] 3,045 pounds. 'Houses under 10 pounds [rent] paid 3s. 6d. per annum; under 20 pounds paid 7s. 6d.; under 30 pounds paid 8s.; under 40 pounds paid 9s. 6d.; upwards of 40 pounds paid 12s.'"

In 1726, Stephen Hales procured a flammable fluid from the distillation of coal. From "158 grains [10.2 g] of Newcastle coal, Hales stated he obtained 108 cubic inches [2.9 L] of air, which weighed 51 grains [3.3 g], being one third of the whole." However, Hale's results passed without notice for several more years.  



Regina Jeffers loves all things Austen and is the author of several novels, including Darcy’s Temptation, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy and Second Chances: The Courtship Wars .

Her website is:


  1. Interesting post - I had no idea it started so early, or that it was related to the phases of the moon.

    Just one point I think is misleading: New Year's Day was indeed Lady day, but it reads as if that was January 1st and moved a whole 4 months to April. It actually moved 11 days - like the rest of the calendar - from March 25th, Lady day, which was when the new year was celebrated.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Sarah. I could have explained the concept better.

  2. I was amazed to learn that phases of the moon were involved in street lighting. And that there were such stringent requirements for people to light their own doorways. Good, informative post.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. I had no idea either until I started research for another project.

  3. Interesting post! Shared.


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