Two centuries after the first gas fires appeared in the streets of London, casting a romantic glow in the twilight, a few hundred remain in some of the capital’s most historic districts.
But not for long. Westminster City Council plans to convert 299 gas lights to electricity, saying LED lights are better for the environment and easier to maintain.
The plan faces opposition from a group of residents who claim the council’s reasons are “wrong.” Their campaign is supported by architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, who said that the introduction of gas-powered streetlights in the early 19th century “transformed city life” and was “an important moment in the history of London ”.
The council plans to electrify its gas lamps over the next two years, in part in response to the climate emergency. He says his replacement LED lights “mimic the aesthetics of gas lighting and don’t significantly alter the look and feel of the area.”
A spokesperson said the council also had “a duty to keep street lights in good working order and to keep light levels to a defined standard.” Unfortunately, gas lighting is increasingly difficult to maintain and does not provide enough light to illuminate the highway. Alternatives to electrification have been explored, but none meet the required levels of carbon reduction, cost efficiency and lighting. “
Residents told council they “strongly oppose” the plan. Michael Young, who lives on a street with several gas lamps, said it was a “touching subject”. The lights were “an enchanting feature of the area” and replacing them would mean “losing something historic.”
Chris Sugg, a descendant of William Sugg, whose eponymous company installed gas lampposts in London and elsewhere from 1837, said his great-great-grandfather would “turn in his grave” at the proposal.
“Westminster is the oldest city in the world that has been lit with gas… and therefore has the responsibility of history to keep the original – or at least the rest of many iterations and developments of this medium,” said he wrote on his blog.
Cruickshank, an author and broadcaster who was part of a successful campaign to save gas-powered streetlights in Covent Garden in the 1970s, said the cost of maintaining lamps was a real issue, but ‘it can be done if’ there is a will ”.
The gas lamps were “intensely romantic” with a quality of light difficult to replicate with electricity, he said.
“The first gas lamps appeared around 1819 on Westminster Bridge. They transformed city life by making the streets safer. Their introduction was an important moment in the history of London, ”he said.
He said the environmental impact of switching from gas to electricity would be offset by the need to “dig the roads to lay new cables” and the carbon footprint involved in making new lamps.
There are around 1,500 gas-powered streetlights in the capital, including hundreds in parks and royal palaces beyond the council’s control.
In Malvern, Worcestershire, the town’s historic gas streetlights were rescued after local activists found a way to make them more energy efficient. Instead of a pilot light, which burns constantly, the lamps were fitted with electronic ignition.
There are around 25,000 gas-powered streetlights left in Berlin, with guided walking, bus and bicycle tours. Prague has around 700 working gas street lights, and there are four of them – manufactured by William Sugg and Co – still operating in Hong Kong.
Almost half of Westminster gas lamps intended for conversion to electricity are listed, meaning the changes require the consent of Historic England.
A spokesperson said: ‘Historic England has engaged with Westminster Council regarding the replacement of historic gas lighting with LED gas lighting. We understand that the council is looking for a sympathetic solution, aware of the historic character of Westminster and its requirements for street lighting… We look forward to further discussions in the coming months.