Old Street Lights Of Epsom And Ewell


Image of Epsom High Street showing what is thought to be the earliest street lights
Image of Epsom High Street showing what is thought to be the earliest street lights
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Let me confess immediately that I know virtually nothing about lamp posts and street lighting, as will become apparent, and I started taking notice of them only the other day when a descendant of Henry Pownall asked if I knew anything about his involvement with erecting lights in Epsom. The answer was that I did not, but the topic has triggered an interest in historic lamp posts in Epsom and Ewell, and pictures thereof.

People rarely notice any street furniture, unless it is hideous, obstructive or, at the other end of the spectrum, grand and on a large scale; modern street lighting is utilitarian, strictly functional and unlovable. However, this was not always the case and, if you look around the older parts of your neighbourhood, you may spot a pleasing example. Be aware, though, that most of these objects are not protected by a heritage listing and could be uprooted at any time, to be replaced with a new, ugly specimen.

'On the grand scale' and made to be noticed.
'On the grand scale' and made to be noticed.
One of a row of handsome street lights by the canal in Venice.
Image copyright Linda Jackson © 2012.

In 2008, in the St Andrew's area of Bristol, the local council swiftly uprooted 30 Victorian lamp posts without any warning and re-sited them in the more affluent area of Clifton, the excuse being that the St Andrew's residents needed brighter modern (uglier) lights to reduce car crime. One pensioner bolted himself to a 1920s example in protest. Please do not go that far, unless you find a particularly beautiful one near you and fear for its future, but if you do know of a special street light (and this could be affixed to the exterior of a building - posts are not compulsory), please take a photo and email it to the webmaster, telling us your name and when and where it was taken, and we may use it on the website. Or, take a look at your past photos and see if you can spot an old lamp post, because it is very often in a picture of something else and you haven't noticed it particularly. It is important to record these things for posterity because 'once they're gone, they're gone'.

In the 18th century street lighting was oil-fuelled. We do not currently know when there were first street lights in the Epsom area, but we would surmise that a large number of lamp posts went up after the formation of the Epsom and Ewell Gas Company in 1839. The early lamps were lit individually at dusk by lamplighters, who then returned at dawn to extinguish them. Gas lighting generally began much earlier than this and the first recorded use in England was by steam engine expert William Murdoch, who lit his own house in Redruth, Cornwall by coal gas in 1792. In 1798 gas was used to light the Soho Foundry in Birmingham and one of its employees, Samuel Clegg, set up the Gas Lighting and Coke Company. Once comprehensive gas networks had been built, lamplighters became redundant and both the gas supply and ignition were automated. I live in Brighton and the remains of its original unlovely gasworks, built in 1818/19, are directly behind my house. This website http://hovehistory.blogspot.co.uk is about Brighton & Hove, so not of direct relevance to Epsom and Ewell, but it does give a very interesting account of the general development of lighting over the years and, in particular, the fuels utilised, including spermaceti (a substance found in the head of the sperm whale and used to make candles).

The first UK street to be lit with gas was Pall Mall, London in 1807 and the cartoon below shows what a lark/novelty it was. The first place outside London to have gas lighting was Preston, Lancashire in 1825. In Brighton there are 19 listed lamps on the Royal Pavilion Estate, all dating from about 1835, during the reign of William IV, and now converted from gas to electricity.

A peep at the Gas Lamps in Pall Mall - Click image to enlarge
A peep at the Gas Lamps in Pall Mall - Click image to enlarge
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A modern-day lamplighter in Brest, Belarus.
A modern-day lamplighter in Brest, Belarus.
These beautiful lamps are oil-fuelled.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Although electricity has largely superseded gas in street lighting, there are still places in the world where gas lamps exist. There are some in London, and in Berlin they have around 44,000, which figure represents about half of the examples still extant. However, plans are afoot to replace those in Berlin with something more environmentally friendly by 2020 - hence the importance of recording these historical objects while they are still around.

Gas lamps at Lincoln's Inn 2008.
Gas lamps at Lincoln's Inn 2008.
Image source Wikimedia Commons

The earliest picture we can show you of an Epsom gas light is the one immediately below. It is almost identical in style to those on Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco, which had some experimental gas lamps in 1853 (converted to electricity in the 1870s).

A Gas Lamp in Epsom High Street c1890s
This retouched image is courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

This particular lamp seems to have been replaced soon afterwards, as the next two pictures, probably dating from the very early 1900s, show.

Street Light by Spread Eagle 1
Street Light by Spread Eagle 2
The same lamp post, looking in the opposite direction.

Eventually electricity took over as the fuel for street lighting, but this did not necessarily mean replacing the entire structure, as it could be converted. The first street in the UK to be lit by electricity was Mosley Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1879. The Surrey Records Office holds documents showing that major works for electric lamps and cabling were commissioned in 1899 for the county (today, at least, the street lighting in Epsom and Ewell is the responsibility of the county council, rather than the local body).

As I said earlier, a casual question has triggered a lamp post hunt and our intrepid Brian Bouchard found these for us in Epsom High Street just last week.

Lamp Post outside of the Spread Eagle
Lamp Post outside of the Spread Eagle
Image copyright Brian Bouchard © 2012

I will show you a close-up momentarily, but we believe these particular examples would have been converted from gas and were probably moved to their current position when the shopping arcade was built. Notice the ornate work on the columns, which is clearly shown in the next shot.

Lamp Post Base outside of the Spread Eagle
Lamp Post Base outside of the Spread Eagle
Image copyright Brian Bouchard © 2012

Closer examination of the column in the foreground reveals the words 'Val D'Osne', which was a renowned foundry in Haute-Marne, France from 1836 to 1987. This firm's elaborate cast iron work can be seen all over the world, and particularly in Paris.

Here is another style of light, to be seen all along Epsom High Street in double and single formation. It looks as if they were converted from gas at some stage, since they have the cross-piece where the lamplighter's ladder would have rested, and we think that they date back to about 1875.

Lamp Post by the Clock Tower
Lamp Post by the Clock Tower
Image copyright Brian Bouchard © 2012

And finally, as a change from the High Street, here is an excellent old picture of South Street, complete with lamp.

South Street Lamps
South Street Lights

If any of you are willing to go out snapping (and we would particularly like some examples from Ewell), here are two clues as to where you can find historic lamp posts:
- Listed lamp in the churchyard of St Mary's, Ewell, quite near to the church.
- Church Street, Epsom (some 1920s examples).

Linda Jackson
December 2012



An old gas lamp post
Gas lamp post - detail
An old gas lamp post in Downside, Epsom
Images courtesy of Clive Gilbert © 2013



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