street lighting (Early)

street lighting (early)

Gas lighting replaces oil lamps


Until the advent of public lighting in Yeovil's streets, people either relied on moonlight, or groped their way through the town after dark using a lantern. When ‘Commissioners for improving the Town of Yeovil’ came into being in 1830, they immediately appointed a committee ‘to estimate the expense of lighting and watching the town’, and were requested ‘particularly to point out the parts of the Town which it will be desirable and necessary to light, and the number of Lamps required.’

The Committee, Messrs Etheredge, Hannam, Wellington, Mayo, and Masters, presented their report on 24 August 1830, stating that in their opinion "all parts of the Town be more or less lighted, those Streets, and other places which are most populous, and the greatest thoroughfares, being supplied with the largest number of Lamps, and others being lighted more sparingly, the number of Lamps now standing in the Town is 85, the situations of which cannot be much improved, and the Committee calculated it will require 75 new Lamps to complete the lighting . . . the expense of putting up these new Lamps, including Posts and Reflectors, and Zinc Caps for the whole, both old and new, will be about £122. The Committee recommend, with a view of obtaining more accurate information as to the expense, the Lamps lighted, in the first year, under the direction of the Commissioners, and not by Contract – and they estimate the expense of lighting the whole, including Oil, Turpentine, Cotton, Ladders, repairs and Lamplighters wages, at £160 a year. They further recommend, as a general rule, that the lighting in every year should commence in the Month of September and be discontinued in the month of April – but the particular nights of the year when the Lamps should be lighted, and the Hours of lighting in each night, must be regulated by the state of the Moon, and may either be left to the judgement of the superintendent, or may be regulated by the Almanack, at the commencement of every year."

On 2 November 1830, "Mr Hill’s bill" of £42 2s 8d for new lamps was passed for payment, and £14 6s 0d was ordered to be paid Mr Hannam "for the old Lamps erected in the town", which were then to become the property of the Commissioners. The Commissioners’ statement of accounts for the period 1 November 1831 to 1 November 1832, shows payment of £123 17s 2d for "Lamps, lighting, Oil, and incidental Lamp expenses".

In April 1833 the Commissioners "declined to undertake the lighting of the Town with Gas", but were prepared to negotiate with a Company of Shareholders who were willing to carry out the work. In December the same year, a committee was empowered to enter into a contract for lighting the town with the Yeovil Gas & Coke Company. In March 1844 a draft contact was signed which stipulated "that 100 of the Oil Lamps and Lamp Irons and all the Oak Posts be sold".
In 1836 an additional lamp was ordered to be placed ‘in the new Street called Peter Street’.

Both oil and gas lamps continued to be paid for by the Commissioners until 1846, after which only gas was used to light the streets. A proposal put forward at the 10 March 1837 meeting of the Commissioners, was that the Gas Company be asked to extend the time of lighting the Town Lamps for two additional months each year (from 1 September to 1 May instead of from October to April) and that they be extinguished at 12 o’clock at night. It was proposed also that the Gas Company be paid £2 2s 8d for each lamp – an increase of 10s 8d over the existing rate. But these proposals were defeated. However, in 1859 a new contract was entered into with the Gas Company under which the Company was to light 93 lamps during the eight months from September to April, and 12 lamps ‘in such situations as may be appointed’ were to be kept lit until 4 am when they were to be extinguished by, and at the expense of, the Gas Company. The following year it was decided to keep these twelve lamps lit until 6 am."

A resolution passed in 1844, offered the Gas Company 45s per lamp "for the ensuing season", but requested that "four feet burners" be kept "turned on at full" instead of the existing ones "which consume five feet per hour". The Gas Company declined the offer and the Commissioners’ minutes for 22 October 1844 reads: "The Gas Company having made a proposition to light the town from the 1st day of November to the 1st of April next at £205, the Commissioners, in no respect acquiescing in the justice of the calculations and demands of the Company, but from a conviction that the Inhabitants are suffering the greatest inconvenience from being left in darkness, felt compelled to accede to the offer, and it was Resolved unanimously that it be accepted accordingly".

In 1852 in his Report to the General Board of Health concerning, among other items, Yeovil's street lighting, Thomas Rammell wrote "Up to 1834 the streets of the town were lighted with oil, there being about 120 lamps, at an expense of about £135 a year. Since that time it has been lighted with gas by a Company established in 1833; it is a private Company, neither registered nor incorporated, but acting under a simple deed of co-partnership. Under the powers of the Town Act the rights to lay mains under all the streets has been conceded to this Company by the Commissioners.

The works are situated in the lower part of the town, near the Newton turnpike gate, and close to the (Dodham) brook which constitutes the main outfall for the sewerage of the town. There are two gas holders, holding collectively 34,000 cubic feet, and premises for eleven retorts; ordinarily, of these six are worked in winter and two in summer.

The pipes are laid under every street in the town. The principal main is 6 inches in diameter, and the mains diminish from this size to 2 inches towards the exterior of the town.

There are 123 public lamps lighted for eight months in the year from nightfall till 12 o'clock, and twelve which are kept burning the whole night. During the remaining four months none of the public lamps are lighted."

Mr Hannam states, "In the first instance 90 public lamps were lit by us for £135 at a very great loss. About ten years ago we contracted to light a certain number of lamps for a longer period at, I believe, 55s. a lamp. The present contract was entered into about five years ago, to endure for ten years. The conditions were that the Gas Company should lay down additional mains and put up more lamps, so as to supersede all the oil lamps at a cost to them of about £500, the town paying for 123 lamps lit as above directed at the rate of 47s 6d each, the whole of the cost of repairing mains and lamps, lighting, and extinguishing, being undertaken by the Gas Company."

The Gas and Coke Company continued to light the town after it became a corporate borough in 1854, adding new lights as new streets were constructed, until threatened by the advent of electric street lighting in the 1880s. To combat this challenge, the Company, to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden jubilee, presented the town with a single-standard three-bracket Sugg lamp at the junction of High Street with Hendford and Princes Street (see Gallery).

In 1897 the undertaking was acquired by the Corporation and so continued until the nationalisation of the industry in 1949, although four years earlier they had already decided to light all the town’s streets by electricity "as a long-term policy". 1913 saw the first electric street lamps in Yeovil, supplied with current by the Petter generating station at that company’s Nautilus Works in Reckleford, though gas lighting continued in many of the town’s streets until well into the 1950s.



From my collection. This colourised image features in my book 'Yeovil - The Postcard Collection'.

This photograph, from around 1910, gives a really good indication of just how large Sugg lamps were. The three-lamp 'Sugg Lamp' was donated to the town in 1887 by the Gas and Coke Company to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. the lamp was removed in 1928.