28th January 1807. What a Gas!

Before gaslight the only illumination, apart from the moon, were flaming torches carried by link-boys, and oil-lamps which left a smell, smoky trails, smudged ceilings and created ghostly shadows in passageways;  very Dickensian.

Outside nobody could wander into the shadows with safety, but as it was said, ‘the introduction of gas lamps has done more to eliminate immorality and criminality than any church sermons’.(1)

Then:When we consider that gaslight has since been extended all over London…it becomes curious to observe the great hesitation of applying it economically to general use…it was generally assumed that the pipes conveying the gas would be hot, and people used to touch them cautiously’.(2)

Pall-Mall in London became the world’s first gas-lit street Today 1807 after bearing the infamy of being Europe’s worst lit capital.


Gas mantles were a source of light from the incandescence of very hot Thorium (named after god Thor) Oxide which was heated by the gaseous fuels. (3)

Gas was supplied by municipally owned gas-works and was a by-product of coking much in demand by the Industrial Revolution and Urbanisation.

St Pancras Gas-holder. 1900.

The National Light and Heat Company was chartered on 30th April 1812 and by 1819 had laid 288 miles of mains in London to supply 51,000 burners. The later named Gas, Light and Coke Company lasted until until Nationalisation in May 1949.(4)

The future in the 18thc lay with coal gas and along with natural gas was called ‘inflammable air’, because of the clear, bright flame given.


Mantles came in many shapes.

George Nixon lit a room with coal gas in 1760 and Carl Spedding his office with natural gas in 1765 and offered to use it to light the streets of Whitehaven.

In 1782 Archibald Cochrane collected gas from his coke ovens in a container to be used in Culross Abbey to amuse his friends.

However gas was becoming to be seen more seriously and increasingly installed in cotton mills and big houses. By 1846 the Buckingham Palace Chapel was illuminated by gas for first time, thus setting a trend.

Entrepreneurs saw a use for wasted heat from gas-lamps when in 1895 a solicitor, H.M. Robinson patented and formed The Hot Water Supply Syndicate of 11 Adam St. London WC2.

By 1898 this ‘majestic restaurant lamp’ offered by automatic process a measure of hot water as well as pennyworths of beef tea essence, cocoa, milk and sugar. However the gas ‘vending machine’ upset local restaurants forcing its closure a year later.


Lamp-lighter, pre-war.


Inns of Court, London, gas lamp being lit.









In the 1880.s impresario Richard D’Oyley Carte said: ‘the greatest drawback to the enjoyment of the theatre performances are undoubtedly the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres…gas burners consume as much oxygen as many people, [whereas] the [electric] incandescent lamps consume no oxygen’.

The future for lighting, was now with electricity, but a few gas lamps have been retained by English Heritage, in prestigious parts of London.

(1) Westminster Review.

(2) W & R Chambers’ Book of Days (1864).

(3) The element Thorium was discovered in 1828 but had no applications until the invention of the gas-mantle.

(4) A Blue Plaque states that the: Gas Light and Coke Company provided the first public supply of gas in the world, Great St Peter Street, City of Westminster.


A: Coal gas contains calorific gases such as Hydrogen, Carbon Monoxide, Methane and volatile Hydrocarbons and less non-calorific gases such as Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen.

B: Isotopes of Thorium -232  (as well as Uranium (-235 and -238), are the only ones beyond Bismuth that have half-lives measured in millions of years and are thus the only such heavy Isotopes to have survived since their production c 10 billion years ago.

Thorium and Uranium are the only important primordial radioactive elements.


gracesguides.co.uk/Pics of mantles/

dailymail.co.uk. Laura Freeman. 25.11.2014/Pics of lamp-lighters.


thetelegraph.co.uk/Pic of St Pancras Gas-holder.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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