6 Stories of lighting London’s bridges

The city’s bridges and embankments have been at the forefront of lighting innovations in London for centuries.

They are amongst the first of the city’s thoroughfares to be illuminated  – initially by oil lamps, then by gas and finally by electricity when, in 1878, the Thames Embankment became the first street in London to be lit with electrical arc lamps known as ‘Yablochkov candles’ (after Russian inventor Pavel Yablochkov). Here are six illuminating tales of lighting London’s bridges.

1. Midnight openings

cc97_00996 old southwark.jpg
A busy street view down Old Southwark Bridge with horse-drawn vehicles in the foreground. 1870 – 1900 © Historic England Archive CC97/00996

Both Charles Labelye’s Old Westminster Bridge and John Rennie’s Old Southwark Bridge were officially opened in lamplight during atmospheric midnight ceremonies. The first Westminster Bridge was unveiled on 18 November 1750, illuminated by 32 oil lamps. Almost seventy years later, on 24 March 1819, the first Southwark Bridge was inaugurated by 30 gas lamps and declared open just as the bells of St Paul’s tolled midnight.

2. A lighting first

Ilustration of a Westminster Street filled with pedestrians and people on a horse-drawn-carriage. In the centre of the image is the world's first traffic light. A caption reads The New Street Semaphore at Westminster
Illustrated Times, 16 January 1869. © The British Library Board via the British Newspaper Archive

Old Westminster Bridge was among the first of London’s streets to be lit by gas, illuminated on 31 December 1813. Another lighting first for Westminster Bridge occurred just over half a century later in December 1868, when the current bridge became the site of the world’s first traffic light. Consisting of three semaphore arms on a pillar, with red and green lamps for night-time use, the traffic light was operated by a specially trained police constable.

3. The dark bridge

cc97_00199 thomas page.jpg
Perspective view of Chelsea Suspension Bridge. It was designed by Thomas Page and built in 1858. (1870-1900) © Historic England Archive CC97_00199

Thomas Page’s cast-iron suspension bridge at Chelsea (1858–1937) was hung from four great towers each crowned with a large globular lamp. Unfortunately Old Chelsea Bridge’s four lamps were only lit when Queen Victoria was in residence in the city. The result was that Londoners proved reluctant to use the dark bridge at night, even though it was toll-free for pedestrians on Sundays and Bank Holidays.

4. Spoils of war

aa093802 new london bridge.jpg
Looking south-east along the river Thames towards Tower Bridge through an arch on the north end of London Bridge 1947 – 1957 © Historic England Archive AA093802

The ornate gas lamp standards mounted on the balustrades of John Rennie’s New London Bridge (1831–1967) were cast from the metal Peninsular War trophy guns captured during the Peninsular War of 1807–14. This bridge was later sold to McCulloch Oil Corporation and rebuilt in Lake Havasu, Arizona U.S.A, to boost the prestige of the site owned by business magnate Robert P. McCulloch.

5. The last surviving gas lamps

Close up image of decorative lamps on Westminster Bridge, with the London Eye in the background
Close up image of lamps on Westminster Bridge, with the London Eye in the background. by Patricia Stoughton

Today’s Westminster Bridge features ornate Gothic Revival triple lamp standards that celebrate the entwined initials of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The lamps are some of London’s last surviving gas lamps and are maintained by a specialist team of lamplighters. Westminster Bridge’s lamps were designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, who collaborated with Thomas Page on the bridge.

6. Tower Bridge lamp imposter

Lamp at Tower Bridge
Lamp at Tower Bridge. Image credit: Carine Hawkins

The regimented lines of cast-iron lamp standards that illuminate the parapet of Tower Bridge conceal an unusual secret. On closer inspection you might find that one of the lamps on the northern approach to the bridge is actually a chimney! Once connected to a coal fire that warmed a Royal Fusiliers’ guardroom beneath the bridge, the camouflaged flue is no longer in use. Some of the cast-iron gas lamps from the late 19th century that were originally on Tower Bridge were removed and can be seen outside St Giles’ Church in the Barbican.

 

This blog was written by the Illuminated River Foundation. Head over to their website to find out more about the scheme to light central London’s bridges along the River Thames.

 

Header image: A view looking North West across London Bridge with horse-drawn traffic in the foreground. The bridge was built between 1823 and 1831 by Sir John Rennie © Historic England Archive CC97/01683

1 response to 6 Stories of lighting London’s bridges

  1. sander ankerman says:

    Like this very much , with my own company I am bringing Living History in the city of Rotterdam. You can find me on facebook Eigenwijze-educatie

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s