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
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
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
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
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
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
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