Activists save London’s historic gas lanterns

Activists save London’s historic gas lanterns


Fascinated tourists watch as Paul Doy climbs a ladder in front of London’s Westminster Abbey and lifts the globe of a gas lantern.

He winds up the timer and then ignites a small mesh of fabric, creating a distinctive, soft, warm light that illuminates the darkness.

“I like the historical aspect,” says Doy, even though it means getting up at 5am to tend the lights in trendy Covent Garden.

“It’s mostly about winding up the 100-year-old mechanical clocks” in the lamps “and setting the times for them, especially now too because we’re losing light much earlier,” he told AFP.

However, the 200-year-old nightly ritual almost became history when local authorities planned to replace 174 listed gas-powered lamps with eco-friendly LED lamps.

Westminster City Council’s plan caused an uproar among some residents and heritage enthusiasts, and even prompted a question in Parliament.

But on Tuesday the council said it had decided to call off the move. Instead, 94 other unprotected gas lamps will be converted.

Tim Bryars, who owns a small bookshop in Covent Garden, stumbled across the plan just over a year ago.

“One morning I was leaving my store and there were some guys from the city government digging a hole in front of my bookstore,” he said.

‘I said what are you doing?’ And they said, “Don’t worry, we just want to see how easy it will be to convert your gas lamps into electricity.”

He led a campaign to save them and called the council’s U-turn on Wednesday “a good first step”.

“Basically, they admit we were right, but they have to do more,” he told AFP.

“We actually need a firm political commitment to keep the gas lamps positive and not just keep a few until they become a nuisance.”

– “London’s DNA” –

London has over 1,000 gas lanterns that were installed in the early 19th century.

At the time, they were considered a major innovation in a city with dark, dirty, and often dangerous streets.

In central London they still illuminate parts of The Mall Avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, the back streets of Covent Garden and around Westminster Abbey.

The atmospheric light they emit is reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens, Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes.

“They are an incredibly important part of London’s history. They’re in London’s DNA,” said Luke Honey, an antiques author who was also involved with the campaign.

“They are just beautiful things. The quality of the light is incredibly natural,” he said at Goodwin’s Court, near Covent Garden, which is said to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

“I’m afraid reproduction LEDs just don’t reproduce the beauty of the original bulbs, nor the quality of this particular gaslight.”

Joe Fuller, manager of British Gas’s vintage street lamp maintenance team, accepted that some of the replacement parts “look very good”.

“But they are still different from the originals,” he said.

“I think it’s really important that we preserve that legacy and keep as many as possible.”

– Consultation –

Previous attempts to replace the gas lamps drew a similar outcry, forcing the council to abandon its plans.

But a change in leadership revived the project as part of an overarching goal to reduce carbon emissions – and improve public safety.

The council had tried to persuade naysayers in a public consultation that ended on Sunday.

Paul Dimoldenberg, cabinet member for the City Government and Air Quality Council, said the lamps were “increasingly difficult to maintain and repair”.

“On a street where gas lights are out… the streets are in the dark longer and therefore not as safe as they should be for pedestrians or anyone using the streets after dark,” he added.

But in abandoning the move, he said the council had recognized “the strong legacy issues at stake”.

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