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From Lamp Posts to Litter Bins: The Stories Behind England’s Street Furniture

Street furniture's deceptively simple, everyday functionality ensures the generally smooth operation of the public realm, as well as often providing subtle local character and style.

Street furniture is so commonplace in our cities, towns, villages and countryside that it is hidden in plain sight. But its deceptively simple, everyday functionality ensures the generally smooth operation of the public realm, as well as often providing subtle local character and style to streetscapes.

A lamp post with a ammonite decoration above the lamp shades
Lamp post, Lyme Regis, Dorset. The ammonite design pays reference to the town’s location on the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage site famous for fossils. Image via Creative Commons.

Here we walk down some of the country’s streets and roads, taking a look at the remarkable range – from old to ultra-modern; from familiar to lesser-known and unsung, in four broad categories – that helps paint a picture of how street furniture has evolved in response to changes in society, developing technology and threats to the nation.

1. Beneficial Utility

Pumps, Drinking Fountains, and Cattle Troughs

A cast iron water pump
Late 19th century cast-iron water pump, complete with stone water basin, Layer-de-la-Haye, Colchester, Essex.  Erected in the late 19th century and still in its original location, it has been newly listed Grade II. Image © Historic England DP311800.

For centuries, water for domestic and agricultural use was drawn via a bucket from wells. By the 18th century, communal water pumps became common. Early ones were rudimentary with lead pipes and wooden boxes. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution from the mid-18th century, pumps were made of tougher cheaper cast-iron, often elaborate in style.  

Many villages did not have piped water until the late 19th century, with some places still having to depend on wells into the 20th century.

By the mid-19th century, rapid population growth and unregulated private water suppliers, especially in urban areas, meant that drinking water for most of the population was dirty and polluted. Cholera was rife, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. It was realised from around the 1850s that the disease was water-borne. Communal pumps were closed on sanitary grounds and there was an acceptance of the need for a clean public water supply.

Liverpool led the way erecting around 30 public drinking fountains between 1854 and 1858, with London following shortly after. The pictured fountain’s Romanesque style was influential. Drinking fountains, many made of granite or marble, spread across the country, becoming the most stylistically and varied form of street furniture.

A stone cattle trough which has been turned into a flower bed
Cattle trough with drinking fountain, Essex. Listed Grade II. Image © Historic England IO01E/000790/3.

Animals played a key part in everyday life in the 19th century, with horses used for transport and live cattle, sheep and pigs brought to market. Charities funded drinking troughs for them. 

Most well-known was the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (the ‘Trough’ was added to the original name in 1867) which provided over a thousand troughs in London and across the country, many made of granite. The Association is still in existence today, looking after around 800 historic troughs and drinking fountains.

Street Lighting

Three Victorian gas lamps
Gas lighting, Belle Vue Island, Malvern, Worcestershire. There are over 80 Victorian gas lamps still working around the town – an important part of its Victorian heritage. In the early 20th century, there would have been well over a thousand. Image via Creative Commons.

The development of gas lighting in the Victorian era had a profound effect on the domestic and working lives of the British population. Gas lighting, derived from coal, had been invented in the 1790s, but it was not until the early years of the 19th century that it started to spread nationally.

Black and gold gas lamp and ventilation column
A rare combined gas lamp and ventilation column (with unusual Egyptian patterning), New Cross Road, London. Listed Grade II. It was installed in 1897 as part of a public convenience programme for Greenwich District Board of Works. The ventilating pipe extracted foul gases from the lavatories below, to be burnt off by the (missing) gas lantern at the top. The two ‘arms’ could support the lamp lighter’s ladder as he extinguished or lit the gas mantel at dawn and dusk.  Image © Historic England.

The first gas street lighting was in London’s Pall Mall in 1807.  By the 1820s, many towns and cities had followed suit with the gas produced by local gasworks.  Ornamental cast-iron gas lamp posts proliferated. Even though electric street lighting started to be used in the latter part of the 19th century, gas lamps continued to be installed until the mid-20th century.

Recently there has been some controversary as councils are modifying or replacing gas lamps with eco-friendly LEDs.  London’s Westminster Council, for example, has 305 gas lamps and has to date replaced 30 with replica lookalike LED lamps.  There was anger after historic Victorian gas lanterns were photographed in a skip.  Westminster has now paused the work and is consulting residents and conservation groups about further upgrades. 

Modern curved grey lamps along a street
Prize-winning contemporary lighting, Tower Esplanade, Skegness, Lincolnshire.  The scheme is part of the design transformation of the town. Image via Creative Commons.

Seating

A bench with winged sphinxes as the arms
One of 21 benches, with armrests designed as winged sphinxes with others as seated camels, situated the on the Victoria Embankment, London. A further group on the Albert Embankment features swans. Designed by GF Vulliamy 1872-1974 as part of an ensemble of elaborate high Victorian street furniture established along the River Thames following the building of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s vast new sewerage system. Listed Grade II.  Image © Jerry Young.

Public seats and benches date in the main from the 19th century, when local authorities and private individuals started to pay for their installation on streets and in other communal areas. During the Victorian and Edwardian period, seats (either of wood, cast-iron or stone) often became highly elaborate.

A wooden park bench set in a hedge
A classic wooden park bench, Ruskin Park, London, commissioned as a memorial to three young men killed in a traffic accident in Thailand. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Some modern public benches are designated as memorials, or as ‘listening benches’- carrying sound recordings of the history of the area; others have internet access – the first reputedly in Bury St Edmunds in 2001.

Small modern one person benches
Contemporary public seating at the O2 complex, Greenwich Peninsular, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes. (See anti-rough sleeping benches later).

Litter Bins

A green bin with the paint pealing off in a field
Old weathered litter bin, Middleton, Lancashire. Image via Creative Commons.

Litter first became a national problem in the 1950s. Litter levels started rising with the birth of the consumer society after the Second World War. Mass production increased and the use of plastic packaging boomed. Local councils started to make their litter bins more visible by using brighter colours.

A poster reading on the left side 'Now fines up to £10 if you drop litter' with a man bending down to pick up some litter, with 'Keep Britain tidy.'
A Keep Britain Tidy poster from the 1950s. Image in the Public Domain.

To counter the litter epidemic, in 1954 the Women’s Institute initiated a government-backed campaign – Keep Britain Tidy – a grassroots drive to change the public’s attitude to litter. Over the decades, celebrities such as the Bee Gees helped the charity.

A poster with a pair of blue eyes staring  and 'Thoughtless dog owners, we're watching you' 9 out of 10 dog owners clean up after their dog. Are you the one who doesn't?'
A modern anti-littering poster, with the Keep Britain Tidy’s original Tidyman logo in the bottom right corner. Image in the Public Domain.

Keep Britain Tidy continues to the present day, with its annual national litter-picking event planned for 25 March – 10 April 2022.

There is no national standard colour code for recycling bins.  The Cheltenham bins pictured above use red for plastics and cans, yellow for empty coffee cups, blue for paper and card, black for general litter.

Steel litter bin
Contemporary polished steel litter bin for general waste, South Bank, London. Images via Creative Commons/Courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Urinals

Human waste had fouled Britain’s towns and cities for centuries. George Jennings (1810-1888) was a sanitary engineer who invented the first public flushing toilets, demonstrating them at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park where they were hugely popular. 

In 1858, Jennings offered to set up public conveniences in the City of London, and by the late 19th century many local authorities across the country were providing public conveniences, including urinals. These were for men only. The first female public toilets were opened at Piccadilly Circus in 1889.

Narrow dark grey urinal
Modern urinal, Covent Garden, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Cycle Stations

Among early bike stands were concrete slabs where the bike’s front wheel was pushed into and supported by a deep groove, or a forked piece of metal to hold the front wheel. Such basic designs offered no security.

Sheffield in South Yorkshire pioneered the revolutionary ‘Sheffield rack’ – thick metal tubing bent into the shape of a square arch where bikes could be secured. The hoops pictured above are a modern take on the design. 

A green cycle shelter with a roof to lock in your bike
Modern secure cycle shelter, Green Dale, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Around 7.5 million people use bikes in the UK. Nearly 80,000 a year are stolen, with London the hotspot. Bike security is constantly evolving in a bid to stay ahead of thieves.

A row of hire bikes
Hire bikes (‘Boris Bikes’) safely secured at one of London’s 750 docking stations, Blackfriars Road. The scheme, which now has nearly 14,000 bikes and which registered around 11 million hires in 2021, was launched by Boris Johnson 30 July 2010 when he was Mayor of London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes

2. Traffic Measures

Signage

A sandstone milestone with 'VIII miles from Wotton x2 Brstol' written on it.
Late 18th/early 19th century painted sandstone milestone, Rangeworthy, Gloucestershire. Listed Grade II. Reminders of a pre-motorised age, milestones are one of the most widespread forms of street furniture, with the Romans first laying them in Britain nearly 2,000 years ago to mark every 1,000th double-step of their marching soldiers. 117 still survive. Image © Historic England IOE01/05870/25.

A significant amount of street furniture is associated with horse-drawn transport, followed by that connected with the dawn of motoring and its aftermath over the decades.

Road signage increased markedly in 18th century Georgian Britain as manufacturing and overseas trade boomed and there was a need to move goods round the country. But roads were in a poor state and travel difficult. At the dawn of the century, Turnpike Trusts were established, with local worthies building roads and charging users a toll to pay for the upkeep. Milestones became compulsory from 1767 to give information about direction and distances, as well as keeping stagecoaches carrying passengers on schedule. 

At the peak of the Turnpike Trust age, around 20,000 miles of roads had milestones, but the coming of the railways from the 1830s, as well as the later growth of motorised transport, saw their importance wane.

A white cast iron signpost with 'Crantock 4, Zelah 4, Truro 9, Redruth 13, Newlyn East 1, Mitchell 3.5, Newquay 4.75, Cubert 2, Holywell 3.75, Cornwall'
Early 20th century cast-iron signpost (finger post), St Newlyn, Cornwall, unusual for the number of fingers.  Listed Grade II. The earliest known existing example is the 1699 Joseph Izod’s post, near Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. Image © Historic England.

Signposts – initially made of wood, then cast-iron; with square or curved or triangular-ended fingers – were used extensively by the Turnpike Trusts. They proliferated with the increase in motorised traffic from the late 1890s, and continued to be produced well into the 20th century. Sign posts were erected by cycle clubs, or the AA or RAC. 

In 1932, government regulations stated black-and-white capital letters should sit on a white background, with a black-and-white post. Most councils followed this ruling, although some had their own local variations – including green sign posts in Jersey.

Many signs were removed by law during the Second World War (1939-1945) to confuse would-be invaders, and not all were reinstated. More were lost following the Traffic Sign Regulations Act of 1964 which modernised signs and which also prohibited local authorities erecting new sign posts. However, existing old sign posts remain an important part of rural identity today. Dorset, for example, still has over 700 examples.

Bus shelters

Bus shelters largely date from the start of regular services for horse-drawn omnibuses in the 1820s, with the first official bus stops established in London in 1829 – the route running between Cornhill and Paddington. By 1890, there were around 25,000 bus stops for horse-drawn buses in England. Early shelters were built of cast-iron, wood and glass, with many handsome examples in seaside towns.

Urban transport was undergoing a transformation by the end of the 19th century.  The electrification of streets for trams in the 1880s led to their widespread use by the first decade of the 20th century. Also, by 1899, the first privately-run motor bus services began in London, with such services becoming a standard feature of urban transport.

The pictured bus shelter is part of a new initiative to improve the Leicester’s 479 shelters. 

Great Guildford street bus shelter, with slim red seats
Typical modern London bus shelter (see later), Great Guildford Street. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

AA Boxes

A black and yellow AA phone box
A private phone box – a mid-20th century AA Call Box No. 817,, listed Grade II. Beadnell, Northumberland. Image via Creative Commons.

Car owners who were members of the Automobile Association (AA) were issued with a key and could use the phone within the phone box to call an AA Patrolman if their vehicle had broken down. The RAC had their own similar blue call boxes). New phone technology rendered them obsolete. The few that survive have become historic street furniture.

Traffic Lights

An old police notice giving instructions on how to follow the traffic lights.
A sign giving information about the country’s first traffic light system, installed outside the Houses of Parliament, London, 10 December 1868.  Richard Mayne was chief of the Metropolitan Police.  Image via Creative Commons.

The first traffic light system in Britain to control ‘vehicles and horses’ used railway signalling technology – semaphore arms as pictured.  A few months later the system exploded, injuring a police officer.

The first true traffic lights in Britain date from 1926 when red/amber/green lights were installed in London’s Piccadilly, manually operated by a police officer. The first fully automatic traffic lights were established in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, November 1927, becoming widely adopted across Britain from around 1933.

Today, smart traffic light schemes are being rolled out that will change sequence according to traffic demands. Artificial intelligence will also detect when a certain number of pedestrians are waiting to cross the road, changing the lights to red without waiting for a button to be pressed.

Modern pedestrian button for the traffic light with one figure lit up red
A modern pedestrian traffic light crossing with a touch-free crossing box activated by a sensor, Canary Wharf, London. The first pedestrian-controlled lights were installed in Manchester in 1929. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Zebra Crossings

Zebra crossing
Abbey Road zebra crossing, London, made famous on the cover of the Beatles’ final album: ‘Abbey Road’ (26 September 1969), with the band walking across it. Listed Grade II. Public Domain.

Leslie Hore-Belisha was Minister of Transport in the mid-1930s. He introduced pedestrian crossings as part of the Road Traffic Act of 1934. 9,000 pedestrian crossings, with their distinctive flashing yellow globes (‘Belisha Beacons’), were erected in London that year, with the scheme extended to the provinces in the November. Initially crossings were marked with steel studs; zebra markings not appearing until 1949. 

Parking Meters

The Road Traffic Act of 1957 legalised the installation of parking meters on public roads, with London’s Westminster City Council inaugurating a pilot scheme of 647 metered spaces in Mayfair July 1958. Parking cost 6 old pence an hour. From the 1960s, pay and display machines proliferated, dispensing a ticket for cash. Traffic meters become a common type of street furniture across the country. 

Today many machines are cashless, with drivers required to pay remotely using a mobile phone or credit card.

Low Traffic Neighbourhood Measures

Two planters in the street
Two planters preventing vehicle access, but allowing cycle and motorbike access, Dulwich, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Concern about the environment, along with a drive to make localities safer for the public to walk and cycle in, has led to a reshaping of some residential streets into Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). As well as wider pavements and cycle lanes, vehicle traffic is banned from certain streets by erecting temporary or permanent barriers called ‘modal filters’, such as the planters pictured above.

Electric vehicle charging points

Transport in the UK accounts for over a quarter of all emissions. The government has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2035 and net zero by 2050. The future lies in electric vehicles, with widely available on-street charging of electric vehicles key to this vision. Forecasts suggest that up to half a million public charge points of various types may be needed by 2030 – a potentially significant addition to the country’s street furniture.

Traffic Signage

Yellow and blue keep left sign
Keep Left sign, Champion Hill, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes

The Department for Transport in 2013 (latest data) estimated that there were around 4.57 million traffic signs in Britain, a number that had increased over 111% in ten years. Over 120 categories of signs were listed, of which the most common were waiting/loading restrictions, speed limits, and parking regulations.

3. Communication

Post Boxes

Up until the 1830s, the general system for posting letters in Britain was costly, slow, corrupt and inefficient. Social reformer Roland Hill championed a uniform postal rate of one penny which would encourage the sending of letters by the growingly literate Victorian society. In 1840, postal reforms formally introduced the Penny Post – a pre-paid adhesive postage stamp, costing one penny, that would ensure delivery of a letter weighing up to one ounce between any two places in Britain irrespective of distance. In 1839, 76 million letters were posted annually in Britain. After the introduction of the Penny Post the number was 168 million.

However, letters still had to be taken to the nearest letter-receiving office which was often miles away. Anthony Trollope, the novelist and General Post Office official (the GPO was the state postal system until 1969), had seen the European practice of using locked roadside pillar boxes with regular collection times. He introduced this system to the Channel Islands in 1852 and on mainland Britain the following year. By the end of the 19th century there were 33,500 Royal Mail post boxes. The postal system is known as the Royal Mail as it had originally delivered Royal and government documents from the 17th century.

Today, there are over 115,000 post boxes – 800 different types from cylindrical, oval and hexagonal pillar boxes, to wall boxes and those fixed to posts – each bearing the insignia of the reigning monarch when manufactured.

Phone Boxes

5 K2 phone boxes
A group of five 1927 cast-iron neo-classical K2 phone boxes, apparatus intact within but now with permanently locked doors, Covent Garden, London.  Designed by Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), the red phone box has global iconic status and is a renowned example of industrial design. Grade II listed. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

The earliest phone boxes – the unpopular concrete K1’s, painted cream with a red door – date from the end of the 19th century, but it was a GPO competition, won by the eminent architect Giles Gilbert Scott, that saw the birth of the seminal red cast-iron K2 in 1921. Around 200 still survive.

The most common red phone box today is Scott’s slightly smaller K6, introduced in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. By 1960, there were 64000; 11,700 of these survive. 2,000 are listed. Many phone boxes are not in working order, but some have been ingeniously repurposed, including as a library, mini art gallery, micro night club, ice-cream parlour, coffee shop, pub, bakery and defibrillator booth.

Modern black and glass telephone box
Modern BT phone kiosk, Blackfriars Road, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

British Telecom (BT) assumed responsibility for the phone boxes in 1980 and made sweeping changes, including creating new phone box designs to prevent vandalism, and controversially removing many K6 boxes and selling them off.

Modern street hub
One of nearly 500 BT 5G-enabled Street Hubs (the ultra-modern equivalent of a phone box), offering free UK landline and mobile calls, 999 facility, charging points for phones, maps of the area, directions, and real-time information – tube updates, train times and weather, plus environmental sensors and advertising. Blackfriars Road, London. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

4. Control, Enforcement and Security

Bollards

Bollards are among the most common forms of street furniture. Early examples were made of wood, then cast iron, and were used from the 18th century onwards to prevent horse-drawn carts and carriages – and later motorised transport – from mounting pavements. Bollards also protect buildings, walls, and entrances opening directly onto streets, as well as prohibiting traffic in certain areas.

Surveillance

CCTV was first used in Britain as a temporary measure in 1960 to oversee crowds at London’s Trafalgar Square during a visit by the Thai Royal family. Over the decades, CCTV has become a permanent and highly visible feature of every aspect of modern life. Recent analysis in 2020 estimates that there are over 5 million CCTV cameras in Britain, the majority operated by private businesses and homeowners, with the state controlling less than 4%.

Anti-Rough Sleeping and Anti-Skateboarding Measures

The public benches pictured above are examples of ‘defensive’, or ‘hostile architecture’ – designs intended to deter; in both cases here to discourage rough sleeping. 

There are many other examples of defensive architecture, especially in cities, that have attracted controversy and accusations of urban design negatively influencing normal human behaviour, including ‘skate stoppers’ to discourage skateboarding along edges, studs set in ground level window sills to deter sitting, spikes to prevent loitering or rough sleeping in small underused sections of modern estates, and bus shelter seats that are tipped and narrow, again to deter loitering, but also making it difficult for the elderly, infirm or pregnant to rest on comfortably.

Anti-Terrorism Measures

Over the last 30 years, the increasing number of threats and acts of terrorism, here and abroad, have altered the look of many of Britain’s towns and cities. Attacks include the IRA’s 1990s bombing campaign in the City of London, 9/11 in New York, the coordinated suicide attacks on London’s transport in 2005, the Westminster Bridge attack in 2017 using a van as a weapon to kill, and the 2019 London Bridge fatal rampage.

Local authorities across the country have responded by installing anti-terrorism measures to protect their citizens and buildings. This new ‘street furniture’ has become an accepted part of today’s urban landscape.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Banner image: Modern public seating at the O2 complex, Greenwich Peninsular, London. The London Docklands’ white Skyline tower and cable cars are visible in the distance across the River Thames. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

The role of Historic England 
Some street furniture is protected by listing. You can find out more from the National Heritage List for England. 

Further Reading

13 comments on “From Lamp Posts to Litter Bins: The Stories Behind England’s Street Furniture

  1. There is a paucity of information about roadside troughs which played an important role in sustaining agricultural rural economies.
    Most troughs were built for watering stock and are found both within and along the edges of fields. They can also be found in the enclosures attached to field barns where they held water for over-wintering cattle. Many troughs are set into field walls so that they can serve stock in two fields; these often have a sandstone divider or bars across the middle, Sometimes a divider or bars will be present in a wall, sometimes the stone trough will have been replaced by a galvanised one.
    Troughs are also found alongside roads and tracks, often fed by a natural stream or spring, and sometimes by a piped or culverted supply. Roadside troughs will also have served moving stock but were primarily intended for horses.
    Some troughs originally associated with other agricultural and industrial uses still survive.
    It is a general belief that in addition to the Bradfield troughs being principally used for household water, they were also used to provide horses, donkeys and mules with a drink, and in more recent times would have been used by steam road vehicles that needed to replenish their water supply.
    We have catalogued and recorded nearly 100 troughs in the parish of Bradfield and developed a series of walks visiting iconic examples.

    https://bradfield-walkers.org.uk/trough-walks-in-west-sheffield/

  2. David Brogan

    An excellent article!

  3. I’ve been championing street furniture for decades so I’m delighted to see this. So much of it, particularly that relating to early electricity and tram systems, was swept away from the 1970s onwards because no-one knew what it was. When I saw this blog, I assumed it was prompted by the publication of Lynn Pearson’s new book on the subject, but you don’t mention it.
    Whilst most of the published histories record Pall Mall as the location of Britain’s (and the the world’s) first gas street lights, that accolade probably belongs to Golden Lane, also in London, where gas made in the small gas works at the nearby brewery supplied a number of street lamps, earlier in 1807 than the Pall Mall demonstration.

  4. Richard Taylor

    You might like to add something on electricity and telephone suppliers street furniture. There is a rare example of a listed electric substation from 1900 in western Sheffield: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1270496

    • Indeed! I’m cataloging remaining Post Office telegraph cable joint marker posts. These cast-iron markers with a distinctive royal crest and “broad arrow” symbol mark the routes of underground telegraph cables – the predecessor of the Internet and the very first means of near-instant long-distance communication. Over 100 years old now more and more markers are being removed for road and building redevelopment, but are an important piece of our industrial, communications and social history. See https://gpo-markers.derektp.co.uk

  5. Jane Sidell

    Superb! Really diverse range of items and some truly splendid examples.

  6. chriscullenuk

    Excellent article although I have an issue with term “Anti-Homeless” in reference to discouraging rough sleeping – this is a social issue especially within our urban areas – compassion required here I think

  7. Jeremy BURNETT RAE

    Thank you! Brilliant article, quite fascinating and informative.

  8. Sandra Lea

    Excellent article. As a City of London Guide I have been collecting information about street furniture for many years, but, I cannot find the date or circumstance of the introduction of concrete paving slabs to London’s pavements. I have tried every organisation/book/road engineer that I can think of but nobody seems to know. Does anybody know?

  9. Barry Knight

    Don’t forget the even more humble “horizontal” street furniture: manhole covers, drain grilles, pavement gullies, water stopcock covers, fire hydrants, telephone junction box covers …
    During lockdown I walked the streets of my home town, St Albans, and discovered a multitude of these items, many made by local manufacturers who no longer exist and which are under threat of replacement by the uniform products of national or international companies. Happy to share this information with you if you’re interested.

  10. Mike M

    Very interesting article but it would be good if you could spell the noun Peninsula correctly. It doesn’t have an r on the end – that’s the adjectival form

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