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Gas lamps of London

The feature on lamplighters of London in the Times of India of last Sunday literally dug out from the deep recesses of my mind the memories of gas lamps and their lighters in my birthplace Gwalior in Central India. More than 60 years ago in the early 1940s Gwalior was a small town of about 80000 or so but it used to be the capital of the princely state carrying the same name. Its maharaja was the third richest of all the Indian maharajas after the Nizam of Hyderabad, and Maharaja of Mysore. Being the capital, it had stately buildings, a beautiful palace that was built in the 19th Century on the pattern of the palace at Versailles and broad roads. While most of the roads were illuminated at night by electric incandescent bulbs many lanes, including ours, had gas lights to light them up.

Our house was on the junction of four rather broad lanes. The lane right in front was the main one which took off from the main road and led on to the junction and beyond to the innards with narrower lanes, alleys and pathways. Plumb next to a wall separating a huge unused property in front of our house there used to be a lamp which would be manually lit in the evenings and put out in the morning.  It was a gas lamp and a man would trudge slowly down the lane in the gathering dusk carrying on his shoulder a short ladder that was just long or tall enough for him to be able to reach up to the lamp to light it. There were, if I remember, four such lamps down the length of the lane and he would go to them one by one to spark them. He would observe the same routine in the mornings but only to extinguish the flames by merely capping them for a for a few moments.

This must have been very early in my life, maybe in the late 1930s or even in the early 1940s. Some evenings the man wouldn’t appear at all and the lanes would remain dark and forbidding. What I, however, cannot but appreciate now that a small town in a principality in an obscure part of India had gas lamps even in lanes in some areas, if not all, and for which the administration had taken trouble to lay pipes below the ground to take gas to them. That the feudal administration of Gwalior had thought of providing such an amenity for the common people in those early years of 20th Century takes it a few notches higher in my estimation. Eventually, however, the gas lamps were replaced by electric lights but that was much later – around mid-1940s or, maybe, even later. I wonder whether other such princely states had gas lamps like we had. I know for sure, however, that Calcutta, the capital of British India for a long time, must have had gas-lit streets before they were replaced by electric lamps. The Strand Road along the River Hoogly in Calcutta continued to light up the boulevard for quite some time even after independence.

The feature on London spoke of how the city had been a pioneer in street lighting. The first ever public lighting with gas was installed in Pall Mall in 1807. To celebrate the birthday of King George III, Frederick Winsor, an engineer, lit the most spectacular of candles. To gasping crowds, he instantly illuminated a line of gas lamps, each one was fed with gas pipes made from the barrels of old musket guns and all Winsor had to do was apply a single spark to light up the whole street. The Mall was reported to be almost impassable with spectators until after midnight. The lighting of the Westminster Bridge followed in 1813. The first electric light made its appearance in 1878 on the Thames Embankment.

But the feature was not about electric street lights which today make London streets bright and glowing at night. It was about the gas lamps, about 1500 of which still light up London, including the sophisticated long avenue of Kensington Palace Gardens. These are among the last of the early 19th Century gas lamps that are lovingly taken care of and lit by five remaining lamplighters who, in fact, are engineers of British Gas. It is a labour of love for them. Iain Bell, a lamplighter, so dearly loves them that he runs his hands over the lampposts so tenderly as if he was examining an antiquated sculpture. His objects of ardour are, indeed, beautifully shaped posts with stylised glass lanterns that decorate the streets as very beautiful components of street furniture. Bell jokes that at the time of the Olympics the lamps in this part of town were the cleanest in London; the lighters kept finding excuses to clean the lamps on Horse Guards Parade, the venue for the (bikini-clad) beach volleyball matches. 'The lamps,' Bell says, 'were so clean you could eat your dinner off them.'

The surroundings of Buckingham Palace are lit up by gas lamps. These were reinstalled on special lamps that have a crown on top and are listed. Maintained by a team of six lamplighters round the clock, the lamps are kept in a condition to light up by themselves at dusk. In daylight, each lamp burns with a tiny pilot light. At dusk, a timer fitted to each lamp moves a lever to release a stronger stream of gas which gives enough power to light up the mantles to give off that softer light as against the harsh light of the electric lamps

Having survived the electric lamplights and the Great War II, they are well into the 21st Century mostly because of the dedicated love and care of the lamplighters. Whereas the gas lamps of Gwalior have disappeared without a trace and the current generation may not even be aware that they once existed, the British sense of history will surely take London gas lamps down to the succeeding generations throwing their soft and subdued light on their evolution and history.

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