The Last Gas Streetlights

Mar 1, 2019 0 comments

gas street lamp

For much of human history, people have lived in the dark. The sun shines for only half the day, or less—lesser still during winter. So everything that required good visibility, including sewing, embroidery, reading and writing was accomplished while there was still daylight. But that didn’t mean people retired to bed early. In 18th century London, shops were often open till ten at night. Balls went on till two or three in the morning lighted only by candle chandeliers.

Getting around outside, however, was a good deal harder. People had to grope around in the darkness, and with darkness came danger. Thieves and thugs roamed the streets, and there was always the chance of smacking into some unyielding object or falling into the gutter. People took the services of linkboys who carried flaming torches and lighted the way for pedestrians, but linkboys themselves couldn’t always be trusted. Sometimes they would lead their customers into back alleys where their confederates waited to rob them off their valuables. Many people avoided going out at night.

Related: The Sewer Gas Destructor Lamps of England

Things changed in the late 18th century, when it was discovered that the gas obtained by distillation from coal, peat, and wood burnt with such great brilliancy as never seen before. Soon gas-lit lamps were used to light homes and public buildings. Gas lamps made the world a lot more agreeable, even though the fumes blacked the ceilings and discolored fabrics. People could now stay up later to read without straining their eyes, thread needles, and confidently work their food around delicate fishbones on their dinner plates.

London was one of the first cities to adopt street lighting powered by gas. The first gas lamps went up at Pall Mall, in 1807, at a much celebrated event, on the occasion of King George III’s birthday. Over the next few decades, thousands of gas lamps were installed across the British capital. Other cities like Paris and Berlin followed suit.

gas street lamp

Modern cities are ablaze with electric lights, but surprisingly, there are a good number of cities that still use gas lamps for illuminating at least some of their streets. Berlin has around 30,000 or so gas lights, accounting for more than half of the world's existing gas lamps. The numbers are fast falling, unfortunately, as the government wants to replace them with electric lights insisting that gas lights are too expensive and environmentally harmful. Berlin residents are rallying to save the lamps not only because of their social value and cultural significance, but also due to the questionable rationale for their replacement.

In central London, around 1,500 gas lamps still operate, lighting the Royal Parks, the exterior of Buckingham Palace, the Trafalgar square and almost the entire Covent Garden area. The British Gas employs five lamplighters, probably the last members of a dying profession, whose task is to keep the city’s gas lamps burning. Early lamplighters had to go around lighting each lamp by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, they would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. London’s remaining gas lamps get lighted automatically in the evening by a mechanical clock. In the morning, the gas flow gets reduced so that only a small pilot light is left burning throughout the day. The lamplighters’ job is to make sure the mechanism is in working order.

gas street lamp

Gas lamps in Charleston, South Carolina, United States (left) and near Buckingham Palace, London (right). Photo credit: James Petts and Spencer Means

London’s gas lamps were originally on a much shorter pole, but modern vehicles being taller than horse-drawn carriages, all surviving lamps were raised above the height of traffic.

Prague gradually replaced all gas lamps by electric lights. The last went out in 1985, but starting from 2002, several gas lamps have been restored using replicas of the historic poles and lanterns. As of 2018, there are about 650 gas lanterns lighting the streets of Prague.

gas street lamp

A lamplighter lights a gas lamp in Wroclaw Old Town. Photo credit: Emeryk III/

In Wrocław, Poland, and also in Prague, lamplighters still light gas lamps the traditional way, manually using a long pole.

In Boston, in the United States, there are more than 2,800 gas lights in several historic districts of the city. In Cincinnati, Ohio, more than 1,100 gas lights operate in areas that have been named historic districts. Gas lights also operate in parts of the famed French Quarter and outside historic homes throughout the city in New Orleans, and many small towns and neighborhood throughout the United States.

Leading image by KPG_payless/

gas street lamp

A gas lamp in Berlin. Photo credit: Sebastian Rittau/Flickr

gas street lamp

A gas lamp on a street in Zagreb, Croatia. Photo credit: Jorge Láscar/Flickr

gas street lamp

A gas streetlight in Prague. Photo credit: kennymax/

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