A depiction by Gustave Doré of poor vagrants huddled on Westminster Bridge on a starry night in the 1870s; it was said that the number of such vagrants could fully populate an average city.
The high death rate in London has been blamed in part upon the lack of natural light. The prevalence of rickets, for example, has been noted in this connection. It is revealed in Werner’s London Bodies that in St. Bride’s Lower Churchyard over 15 per cent of children’s skeletons, dating from the nineteenth century, showed signs of that disorder, while those who did not succumb spent their lives upon “badly bowed limbs.” So there was a yearning for light, or, rather, an instinctive need for light. If it could not be found naturally, then it must be artificially created to satisfy the appetite of the Londoner.
As early as the fifteenth century lights were established by statutory decree. In 1405 every house beside the main thoroughfare had to display a light at the Christmas watch and, ten years later, the mayor ordered that the same dwellings bear lamps or lights in the dark evenings between October and February, in the hours from dusk until nine o’clock. These lanterns were of transparent horn, rather than of glass. But medieval London remained in relative obscurity except, perhaps, for the light spread by those who carried torches to guide pedestrians or by servants who used the flare of flaming brands to accompany the passage of some great lord or cleric. In the early years of the seventeenth century “link-boys” bearing lights also became a source of brightness.
The great change in the street lighting of the capital did not occur, however, until 1685 when a projector named Edward Heming “obtained letters patent conveying to him, for a term of years, the exclusive right of lighting up London.” He stipulated that for a fee he would fit a light in front of every tenth door, from six to twelve, on nights without a moon. Heming’s patent was not ultimately satisfactory, however, and nine years later the aldermanic authorities gave permission to the Convex Light Company to illuminate the city; the name of the company itself suggests the development from the horn lantern to more subtle and sophisticated means of lighting with lenses and reflectors. Light had become fashionable. Indeed in the first decades of the eighteenth century, as part of the general “improvements” in the condition of London, the illumination of the streets became of paramount importance. It was still a matter of security—the Kensington Road, a notorious haunt of highwaymen, was the first to introduce oil-lamps with glazed lights, as early as 1694. In 1736 an Act was passed permitting the city authorities to implement a special lighting rate or lamp rate so that all the streets could be properly illuminated each night; as Stephen Inwood has suggested in A History of London, “this gave the City around 4,000 hours of lighting a year, compared to 300 or 400 before 1694, and 750 from 1694 to 1736.” Suburban parishes also began to levy special rates for lighting; so gradually, and by degrees of illumination, London at night became a different city.
In the early decades of the eighteenth century observers and strangers remarked upon its glare, and upon its “white ways.” By 1780 Archenholz reported that “As the English are prodigal of their money and attention in order to give everything that relates to the public an air of grandeur and magnificence, we might naturally expect to find London well lighted, and accordingly nothing can be more superb.” It seemed that, as every year passed, the nights of the city became steadily brighter. In 1762 Boswell noted “the glare of shops and signs,” while in 1785 another observed that “Not a corner of this prodigious city is unlighted … but this innumerable multitude of lamps affords only a small quantity of light, compared to the shops.” It is entirely appropriate that in these two accounts of London’s brightness the shops, the centre of trade and commerce, shine brightest of all.
Yet if it is an attribute of London that it becomes continually brighter— at first starting at a slow pace but then gradually increasing momentum until by the late twentieth century it had become almost over-bright—the brightness of one generation will also be the dimness of a succeeding one: the light of eighteenth-century London, the glory of the world, forty years later was dismissed as little more than a toy. In his Memoirs, published in the middle of the nineteenth century, John Richardson declared that “forty years ago the lighting of the streets was effected by what were called parish lamps. The lamp consisted of a small tin vessel, half filled with the worse train oil … In this fluid fish blubber was a piece of cotton twist which formed the wick.” In those days, therefore, the lamp-lighter became a familiar figure in the streets of London. There is a portrait of one in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress lighting a lamp at the corner of St. James’s Street and Piccadilly; his face has an oafish, if not bestial, cast and he is spilling oil on the wig of the rake beneath. This must have been a familiar enough mishap upon the streets. Richardson has his own description of the lamp-lighters. “A set of greasy fellows redolent of Greenland Dock were employed to trim and light these lamps, which they accomplished by the apparatus of a formidable pair of scissors, a flaming flambeau of pitched rope and a rickety ladder, to the annoyance and danger of all passers-by. The oil vessel and wick were enclosed in a case of semi-opaque glass … which obscured even the little light it encircled.” These lamps were rarely, if ever, cleaned. And so by all accounts the great brightness of eighteenth-century London seemed, at least to later Londoners, to be an illusion. The streets did not seem ill-lit to their inhabitants at the time, however, because the brightness of London exactly conformed to their sense of the social milieu. The light is relative to the expectations and preoccupations of the city.
That is why the great change came at the beginning of the era of the imperial city when, in 1807, oil gave way to gas. It was first employed in Beech Street and Whitecross Street, where now the Barbican stands, but a year later it was used to light up Pall Mall. There is a cartoon by Rowlandson, dated 1809 and entitled A Peep at the Gas Light in Pall Mall. One gentleman points a cane towards the new lamp and explains that “the Smoke falling thro water is deprivd of substance and burns as you see,” while a less expert citizen protests: “Aarh honey if this man bring fire thro water we shall soon have the Thames burn down.” In the same print a Quaker declares, “What is this to the inward light,” as if the progress of technology were itself a kind of profanity, while a prostitute tells her client, “If this light is not put a stop to—we must give up our business. We may as well shut up shop.” To which he replies, “True my dear not a dark corner to be got for love or money.”
In 1812 Westminster Bridge was the first to be illuminated by the new fuel. The highly intellectual Hester Thrale declared, in 1817, towards the end of her life, that “such a glare is cast by the gas lights, I knew not where I was after sunset. Old Father Thames, adorned by four beautiful bridges, will hardly remember what a poor figure he made eighty years ago, I suppose, when gay folks went to Vauxhall in barges, an attendant barge carrying a capital band of music playing Handel’s ‘Water Music’—as it has never been played since.” So the river, quite changed by the gas-light, became the object of surprise or bewilderment—“I knew not where I was.” Even the music upon the water seemed changed.
There were many illustrations of street-lights in all their variety, modelled in baroque and classical styles, with additional representations of gasometers and elaborate retorts. The old epoch of the lamp-lighter was mocked in the process, but the less advantageous aspects of the new lighting were also depicted. A series of cartoons depicting A London Nuisance has one of a lamplighter on the top of his ladder spilling oil over an unfortunate pedestrian, in the old style, while another shows a gas explosion in a chemist’s shop. That prospect of combustion was one of the reasons why the domestic use of gas was not fully in place until the 1840s. Yet by 1823 there were four private companies vying for trade, much of which, along the two hundred miles of gas mains laid just beneath the surface of the streets, was once more devoted to the lighting of the principal shops.
The shops of the eighteenth century, with their narrow windows and panes of bulging glass, were lit inside by tallow candles or blinking oil-lamps. With the modern shops of the next century, the encroaching darkness of twilight was suddenly the “herald of such a light such as the sun never darts into the nooks and crannies of traffic; broad streams of gas flash like meteors into every corner of the wealth-crammed mart.” The new gas-lighting would not only banish vice and crime from the streets, it would also materially increase the speed and volume of trade: truly London light. “But it is really at night that London must be seen!” wrote Flora Tristan in her London Journal of 1840. “London, magically lit by its millions of gas lights, is resplendent! Its broad streets disappearing into the distance; its shops, where floods of light reveal the myriad sparkling colours of all the masterpieces conceived by human industry.” A similar enthusiasm is evinced in an account of the Strand where “the shops were all brightness and wonder,” and of another thoroughfare where the shops “seem to be made entirely of glass.” You might be forgiven for thinking that the great new brightness was the brightness of burgeoning commerce.
Yet there were other attitudes towards the new light. For some it was harsh and unnatural, the lurid emanation of an artificial city. To other Londoners, however, the gas was most glorious for the shadows which it cast. It created a city of softness and mystery, with sudden pools of light fringed by blackness and silence. So in certain areas London’s ancient presence stifled its new light; the shadows, and the mystery, returned. This may perhaps account for the speed with which London became accustomed to higher levels of brightness. When they ceased to be dazzled by the illumination of gas, the old presences of London began to reassert themselves. The author of The Little World of London noticed down one lane that “the glass of the gas-lamp has been wantonly pelted away to the last fragment. The flame flickers in the night-breeze, and casts its fitful gleams upon every form of poverty and wretchedness and vice, here huddled together as in a common asylum.” Gas, instead of being the incandescent banisher of vice and crime, here compounds the misery of the dispossessed. In a poem of the 1890s by Arthur Symons, there is a description of
The dim wet pavement lit irregularly
With shimmering streaks of gaslight, faint and frayed
where once again it is the flickering, inconstant and insubstantial nature of the city light that is manifested. It is as if the city has swallowed up the light or, rather, fundamentally changed its nature. In the night paintings of late Victorian London, for example, the dark shapes of the city beneath the moon are only momentarily illuminated by lines of gas-lamps. Paradoxically that which had seemed most new, and revolutionary, in lighting soon became identified with all that was overburdened with age and history. Who has not, in imagination, seen the gas-lamps in the fog? It is the very permanence and longevity of London which transform even the most recent invention into an aspect of its ancient life. The yellow gas in the old square lamps was replaced by green incandescent gases, dancing like so many glow-worms in their glass bottles, but these in turn were replaced by a new force.
The first employment of electric light was upon the Embankment in 1878, followed by the illumination of Billingsgate and the Holborn Viaduct as well as two or three theatres. Since London was then the great centre of world power it is appropriate that the first power station in the world should be at 57 Holborn Viaduct; it was constructed by Thomas Edison in 1883 and less than ten years later, according to that commercial imperative which is by now so familiar, the first electric advertising signs were placed in Piccadilly Circus. The city exploited this new brightness from the beginning, and once more “the golden tint of the electric light” was apostrophised; when “the gold and silver lamps” emerge from the twilight, “The shops shine bright anew.” There seems to be no escape from the conjunction of light and trade. Like other forms of light before it, however, electricity was said to render the city unreal and unfamiliar. One Londoner suggested that the novel light lent “a corpse-like quality” to the skin while in the floodlit streets “the crowd looks almost dangerous and garish.” This particular light was also more “cruel and clinical” than its predecessors. Those who became accustomed to electricity, however, soon looked back upon gas with the same nostalgic contempt as those living in gas-light regarded the old days of the oil-lamp. Arthur Machen, in the early 1920s, recollected that gas-lit London was “all glorious and glittering” but that now “I should find it sombre and gloomy, an abode of shadows and dark places, ill-lit with flickering and unsteady yellow flames.” The electricity moved down Oxford Street and Kensington High Street, Knightsbridge and Notting Hill. It spread from Piccadilly by means of overhead cable to Regent’s Park and the Strand. By 1914 there were seventy power stations operating within the metropolis, turning it into a generator of energy and power.
The variety of lighting supplies at first had the effect of turning London into an unevenly lit city; each of its twenty-eight boroughs made their own arrangements with the suppliers of electricity, which means that a car travelling at speed in the 1920s might pass from one street bathed in a very high light intensity to one shrouded in comparative darkness. But this had always been the case, since the city of contrasts had relied upon contrasted light. As Arthur Symons wrote in London: A Book of Aspects, “In London we light casually, capriciously, everyone at his own will, and so there are blinding shafts at one step and a pit of darkness at the next.” The many accidents in the 1920s, however, created a demand for a level standard of illumination, which in turn led to a standardisation of lamp-posts with columns 25 feet high and 150 feet apart. It is one aspect of London life which even the most knowledgeable citizens scarcely notice, and yet the uniformity of lighting in the major streets is perhaps the most significant aspect of the modern city.
In the autumn of 1931 certain public buildings were illuminated by floodlighting for the first time; so great was the interest and excitement that the streets were filled with spectators. It is as if London is always revealing itself anew. Nine years after the floodlighting, however, the night city was plunged into profound darkness during the black-out, when in certain respects it reverted to medieval conditions. In the streets themselves, as reported in Philip Ziegler’s London at War, “It seemed … sinister to have so many people shuffling around in the blackness”; familiar roads became “impenetrable mysteries,” leaving Londoners frightened and confused. One recalled finding her destination but only after becoming “damp with perspiration and quite exhausted.” Storms were welcomed since, in the instantaneous lightning flash, a well-known corner or crossing could be glimpsed. This sense of bewilderment and panic could have emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries no less than during the Second World War, but this latter-day darkness served only to confirm how frightening and mysterious London might still become.
When the black-out was lifted in the autumn of 1944 the relief was palpable. “It is no longer inky black, but all softly lit up and shining, and all the little beams of light are reflected most charmingly in the wet streets.” Those “little beams” in later years gave way to neon, mercury and general fluorescence so that, at the beginning of a new century, the city lights up the sky for many miles around and has become a greater source of brightness than the moon and stars. For some this is a source of anger, as if the artificial city were somehow contaminating the cosmos itself. Yet there are still many streets which are only partly illuminated, and many small passages and byways which are scarcely lit at all. It is still possible to cross from a brightly lit thoroughfare into a dark street, just as it has been for the last three hundred years, and to feel afraid.
But does London have its own natural light? Henry James noted “the way the light comes down leaking and filtering from its cloud ceiling.” There is a sense of damp and misty brightness which other observers have recorded, as if everything were seen through tears. But James also noticed “the softness and richness of tone, which objects put on in such an atmosphere as soon as they begin to recede.” Buildings and streets dissolve into the distance, therefore, without the clarity of the light in Paris or New York. It has been said that nowhere “is there such a play of light and shade, such a struggle of sun and smoke, such aerial gradations and confusions.” Richard Jefferies, who in his apocalyptic novel After London (1885) depicted the city as a miasmic wasteland, had an eye for just such “aerial gradations”—from a yellow sunset to an “indefinite violet” in the south-west, from the dazzling light of summer to the redness of the winter sun when the streets and buildings are suffused with a “fiery glow.” The faint blue-green mist was known as the light “that London takes the day to be,” softening and blending the cityscape while in the parks there hovers “a lovely pearl-grey haze, soft and subdued.” Yet there is also a coldness in the light of the streets which may be glimpsed in the grey of winter and the blue mist of spring, the haze of summer and the “orange sunsets of autumn.” It is derived from the immensity which the light of London reflects so that, as Hippolyte Taine put it, it becomes the emanation of a “huge conglomeration of human creation” when “the shimmering of river waves, the scattering of the light imprisoned in vapour, the soft whitish or pink tints which cover these vastnesses, diffuse a sort of grace over the prodigious city.” That sense of immensity is glimpsed in Virginia Woolf’s account of London as “a swarm of lights with a pale yellow canopy drooping above it. There were the lights of the great theatres, the lights of the long streets, lights which indicated huge squares of domestic comfort, lights that hung high in the air. No darkness would ever settle upon these lamps, as no darkness has settled upon them for hundreds of years.” The lights of London blaze perpetually. From the air the lights shine for miles like a vast web of brightness. The city will never cool down. It will remain incandescent. Yet where there is light there is also shadow, and the darkness of night.