Let There Be Light…London’s First Streetlights

Old_Street_Light_-_LamplighterIn 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 before mentioned 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 house 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 cot 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 per annum; 4,741 with rent between £10 and £20 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 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 eighteenth-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 the lighting them at an average of 41s. per annum per lamp, at which rate the expense of 4,200 lamps amounted to £8,610. The fixing of those on posts and irons, averaged at 14s. 6d. each [equaled] £3,045. ‘Houses under £10 [rent] paid 3s. 6d. per annum; under £20 paid 7s. 6d.; under £30 paid 8s.’ under £40 paid 9s. 6d.; upwards of £40 paid 12s.’”

In 1726, Stephen Hales procured a flammable fluid from the distillation of coal. From the distillation of “one hundred and fifty-eight grains [10.2 g] of Newcastle coal, he stated that he obtained one hundred and eight cubic inches [2.9 L] of air, which weighed fifty-one grains [3.3 g], being one third of the whole.” However, Hales results passed without notice for several more years.Mulberry_Street_NYC_c1900_LOC_3g04637u_edit


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, buildings and structures, Georgian Era, Living in the Regency, Regency era, Uncategorized, Victorian era, White Soup Press and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Let There Be Light…London’s First Streetlights

  1. Erika M says:

    Ohhh, love history tidbits 🙂 Thank you Regina! The picture is great of the streetlights too! Keep it up love reading about this stuff 😀

  2. carolcork says:

    Regina, I think my son would want to read this. He’s very interested in the history of street lights. Whenever we are in Penarth, he knows all about the age of the various street lights. Luckily, Penarth still retains some of the old Victorian street lights.

    • Your family sounds so interesting, Carol. I imagine the “talk” are never tiring.

      • carolcork says:

        I can’t say that conversation in our house is ever boring. My son loves history and politics and my husband is a railway enthusiast. Oh and we’re all Doctor Who fans as well!

      • I often say my son could talk to the wall, and it would respond. He is a big history buff, especially the American Civil War and the Vietnam War.
        I came to Dr. Who late in life – not so popular in the U.S. until the internet craze.

Comments are closed.