A few hundred gas lights survive in some of London’s most historic locations, two centuries after the first gas lights emerged on the streets, creating a beautiful glow through the night.
But only for a short time. Westminster city council plans to replace 299 gas lights with LED lights, claiming that LED lights are more ecologically friendly and simpler to maintain.
A group of locals opposes the proposal, claiming that the council’s grounds are “spurious.” The architectural historian Dan Cruickshank supports their cause, saying that the installation of gas street lights in the early nineteenth century “transformed city life” and was “a significant moment in London’s history.”
Partly in reaction to the climate emergency, the council wants to electrify its gas lighting during the next two years. It claims that their LED lights “replicate the aesthetic of the gas lighting while making no significant changes to the look and feel of the area.”
The council also has a “duty to keep the street lighting in good working order and maintain light levels to a set standard,” according to a spokeswoman. Gas lighting, however, is becoming more difficult to maintain and does not give enough light to illuminate the roadway. Alternatives to electrification have been investigated, but none of them offer the needed levels of carbon reduction, cost-effectiveness, and illumination.”
Residents have expressed their “strong opposition” to the idea to the city council. It was a “emotive subject,” according to Michael Young, who lives on a street with multiple gas lights. The lights were “an enchanting feature of the area,” and their removal would imply “the loss of something historic.”
Chris Sugg, a descendant of William Sugg, whose namesake firm erected gas street lights in London and abroad beginning in 1837, said the idea would make his great-great-grandfather “turn in his grave.”
He said on his blog that “Westminster is the world’s oldest city lit by gas… and thus has a responsibility to history to retain the original – or at least the remainder of many iterations and developments of this means of lighting.”
The expense of maintaining the lamps, according to Cruickshank, an author and broadcaster who was part in a successful campaign to conserve gas street lights in Covent Garden in the 1970s, is a serious concern, but “it can be done if there is a will.”
He described the gas lights as “extremely romantic,” with a light quality that was impossible to duplicate with electricity.
“The first gas lights were installed on Westminster Bridge in 1819. They improved the quality of life in cities by making the streets safer. “Their introduction was a watershed moment in London’s history,” he remarked.
The need to “dig up the roads to lay new cables” and the carbon footprint involved in the construction of new lights, he added, would counteract the environmental effect of switching from gas to electricity.
Across the city, there are roughly 1,500 gas street lights, including hundreds in royal gardens and palaces that are not under the council’s jurisdiction.
The town’s ancient gas street lights in Malvern, Worcestershire, were spared when local advocates devised a means to make them more energy efficient. The lights were installed with electrical ignition instead of a pilot light, which burns continuously.
In Berlin, over 25,000 gas street lights remain, with gas-light tours available by foot, bus, and bicycle. About 700 gas street lights are still operational in Prague, and four are still operational in Hong Kong (made by William Sugg and Co).
Almost half of the gas lights in Westminster that are slated for conversion to electricity are listed, which means that any alterations must be approved by Historic England.
“Historic England has engaged with Westminster council regarding the replacement of historic gas lighting with gas-effect LED lighting,” according to a spokeswoman. We hear the council is looking for a sympathetic solution that takes into account Westminster’s historic heritage as well as the need for street lighting… In the next months, we anticipate further debate.”