Nights on the Streets of Regency London

The title of this article might just as well be "Lights on the Streets of Regency London," except that in the Regency, the dark of night was more powerful than any light which was used against it at that time. While doing research into various night-time events, I discovered some details about the appearance of London streets at night which will be of interest to Regency authors. Today, we have all lived with street lights for so long that we assume they have always existed and have always thrown the same amount of light. But they have not.

The gender of the night and the pools of light and shadow along Regency streets . . .

For centuries, the daily cycle of human life was much the same as that of most diurnal animals, rising with the sun as well as setting with it. There was little point to staying up after sunset, since any available light was not only very feeble, but quite costly. However, that gradually began to change, particularly in larger urban areas. In the fifteenth century, London officials required all those who lived along main streets to hang a lantern outside their homes on certain dates. The dates usually included saints’ days and the days when Parliament was in session so that members could find their way home after a late session. A few decades later, the requirement for each household on a main street to hang a lantern at night was expanded to every night between All Hallow’s Eve and Candlemas. The lantern was to be lit and hung by dusk and had to remain alight until 11 o’clock, a time by which it was expected that all decent people should be off the streets.

Such was the only form of street lighting in London until the 1680s. In 1683, London was experiencing financial difficulties, but they were also in need of better street lighting. They sold monopolies in order to fund necessary public improvements. One of those monopolies was granted to Edmund Hemming, who was required to place oil lamps in front of every tenth house along the main streets. Each lamp was to be lit from six o’clock to midnight each evening from 29 September to 25 March. In 1736, London officials were given the authority to raise taxes to pay for street lighting. These new taxes were used to pay for street lamps which were kept burning from dusk to sunrise year round. By mid-century, across London, commissions were established to deal with street lighting, paving, cleaning and draining. However, the commissions which oversaw more affluent neighborhoods provided much better services there than did commissions which oversaw poorer neighborhoods. Thus, the better neighborhoods tended to have street lights which were properly maintained, while poor neighborhoods often had no public lighting at all.

At the end of the eighteenth century, a number of people were experimenting with the use of natural gas for lighting. In January of 1807, Frederick Albert Winsor demonstrated the first public street lighting ever in Pall Mall in London. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter for the first gas company in the world, the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company. On 31 December 1813, Westminster Bridge was the first thoroughfare in London to have gas street lights. Gas lighting was brighter than oil street lamps, so it was a noticeable improvement at the time. However, the light thrown by gas street lights during the Regency was much weaker than the light thrown by the reproduction gas lights which are used in many historical districts today. The improvement came at the end of the nineteenth century, when Carl Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian scientist, invented the gas mantle, which he patented in 1885, long after the Regency was over. The gas mantle enabled gas street lights to produce a much whiter, brighter light than was possible when gas lights were first introduced.

In Regency London, municipal authorities typically placed street lights only at street corners, with one light per intersection. This was considered to be the most effective and economical use of expensive resources. The globes of the gas lights were typically about eight feet high, for a few reasons. The globes had to be tall enough to light the greatest area, but not so high the light would not reach the pavement or roadway. In addition, the poles of the gas lights could not be so tall that the lamp lighter could not reach up to light them each night. Eight-foot poles required that lamp lighters carry only a small step-ladder by which they could easily reach each gas lamp to light it as night fell. Gas street lights which would light automatically were also a late nineteenth-century development. If a lamp-lighter was late, the lamps might well be lit after full dark. If the lamp-lighter was ill or incapacitated, the street lamps for which he was responsible might not be lit that night at all.

Though Regency gas lights were brighter than the old-fashioned oil lamps, that light was more yellow than white and it did not penetrate over great distances. One might be able to read a newspaper at night, if they stood directly under a Regency-era gas light, but it would be quite a challenge to read that same newspaper more than five or six feet from the lamp-post. Within twelve to fifteen feet from the lamp-post, it would be difficult to make out more than basic shapes. Recognizing faces of passers-by would be nearly impossible. In those neighborhoods where the authorities installed gas street lamps only at corners, there could be long stretches of darkness in between gas street lights. In more affluent areas of the city, powerful residents might exert pressure on the lighting authorities to have a gas light placed near their home or business. Other wealthy residents or businessmen would install gas lights in front of their homes or business premises, not just for the light itself, but also as a symbol of their wealth and power.

Even with more street lights along a block, unlike the even brightness of most city streets today, there were still likely to be pools of light and shadow along any given street in Regency London. The more affluent the neighborhood, the more pools of light, while in the poorer neighborhoods, the pools of light would be few to non-existent. For many centuries, night had been a time of danger and fear for most people. The power to hold back the darkness of the night by illuminating city streets was seen not just as a demonstration of wealth and power, but as man’s triumph of good over evil. People felt much safer along the well-lit streets of the better areas of London, while those neighborhoods which remained mostly in darkness were still considered very dangerous.

Another interesting aspect of the hours of the night for centuries was the perception that the night was primarily the province of men. It was believed that only women of easy virtue or criminal intent would be abroad in the hours between sunset and sunrise. No respectable woman should be seen on the streets of the city at night without a male escort. In the daylight hours, a female companion was considered perfectly acceptable, but not during night-time. Men, respectable or otherwise, might travel alone through the city streets at night without causing comment, but any woman who did so was vulnerable to insult or even personal assault by the men she might encounter along her way. Many men, from all classes, experienced a sense of freedom and power during the hours of the night, when the darkness hid them from view. They did as they pleased with little fear of repercussions from anyone, including the authorities. Remarkably, this attitude held sway with law enforcement and other municipal officials for another century, well into the second decade of the twentieth century.

It must also be noted that though gas street lamps made their debut in Regency London, gas lights were not installed in other cities around Britain until the mid-1820s. For those coming to the metropolis for the first time during the Regency, their first few nights on a London street, particularly in the better areas, must have seemed quite a remarkable, even an awe-inspiring, experience. After the darkness of a city or town in the provinces which may have been lit with only a few oil lamps in the center of town, the brightness of so many streets on a London night would have had to be seen to be believed. That which we take for granted today would have been a marvel during the Regency.

Dear Regency Authors, a better understanding of the appearance of the night-time streets in Regency London will enable you to take advantage of those facts for any night scenes in your stories. Mayfair and other upscale neighborhoods would have been fairly well-lit, since the municipal commissioners would have been prevailed upon to install more street lamps along those streets. Wealthy and status-conscious residents would also have installed additional street lamps in front of their homes. Bond Street and other commercial streets frequented by the beau monde would also have been well-lit, for the time. However, such streets would still have pools of light and darkness, since the light of the gas lamps would not have overlapped one another. Therefore, there would have been dark pockets in which a villain or other character might conceal themselves. In contrast, the poor neighborhoods, such as St. Giles, Spitalfields, &c. would have been very dimly lit along main streets, with little, if any light penetrating into side streets or alleyways. Such places would have been very dark indeed, except on clear nights with a full or nearly full moon. The only other light would be the occasional pools of dim light falling from the uncovered windows along those dangerous streets. The light along Regency London streets very definitely depended upon the wealth and power, or lack thereof, of the residents in any area.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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16 Responses to Nights on the Streets of Regency London

  1. helenajust says:

    Very interesting. Did your researches confirm the existence of link boys, who would carry a lit torch for those who paid him?

    Unless they live in the countryside, people these days just do not appreciate how very dark it is without artificial lighting, when the moon is not up or not very full.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Oh, yes, there were link boys at work right through the Regency. With the spread of street lamps, there were few of them at work in the better parts of Regency London. However, they still found work in the darker parts of the city, though there are suggestions that they were hired as much for their muscle as they were for their torches in such instances. And some people still considered them a status symbol and would not travel without at least one to light the way for their coach or carriage, regardless of the light cast by street lamps.

      Link boys would have still been in demand in other British cities where the use of street lamps was intermittent at best during the Regency, as well as in rural areas by those who might have to travel on a night without much moonlight.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

        “there are suggestions that they were hired as much for their muscle as they were for their torches in such instances”

        What did the typical torch look like? Would it perhaps be the equivalent of a Louisville Slugger if wielded by a muscular link boy?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Sorry, but I have no idea what a “Louisville Slugger” looks like, so I cannot answer that question. From what I have read, most torches were lengths of wood wrapped with old rags at one end. The rags were saturated with a flammable liquid and set alight.

          I hope that helps.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

            It’s a brand of baseball bat. A length of wood wrapped with flaming oil-soaked rags would work pretty well as a cudgel.

            And I now know how one of my characters is going to get out of a tight spot.

            Thanks

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              Ah, then yes, a baseball bat would be about the same length and heft as a torch. It would make a most effective weapon in the hands of someone who knew how to wield it. Even more so if it is still burning.

              Regards,

              Kat

  2. I mentioned how the gas lamps scarcely penetrated the dry fogs in 1816, the year without a summer, in ‘Cousin Prudence’, and discussed how Pru’s father, a factory owner, installed gas lighting in the factory to help his workers [he’s a radical who believes that steam power means you can make more cloth, and diversify more, not employ less workers]. Gas lighting was used in some factories too.
    what the lighting also means is that you can party til you drop in London without having to be aware of the state of the moon, which had to be taken into account for any ball in other parts. Only a full, or near full moon was any good because of the change in times of rising and setting over the month [sorry, hobby horse of mine, have read too many historicals where the sickle moon hangs high in the sky at midnight – people don’t LOOK at the ruddy moon apparently.]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Gas lighting was used in a number of factories during the Regency, but typically only in those where detailed work was not a requirement. My research showed that it was not often used in textile mills because the gas light was not strong enough to ensure the production of good quality fabrics. Also, because of the great volumes of lint created by the looms, many textile mill owners considered the open flames of gas lights just as dangerous as they had considered oil lamps before them.

      Since street lighting was so uneven in Regency London, you could party into the night if you were doing so in a good neighborhood. But if you happened to venture into the poorer parts of town, you would either want the moonlight, or a couple of stout friends or servants with you late at night. In the rougher parts of town, the streets could be nearly as dark as a country lane and provided good cover for many nefarious deeds.

      You are quite right, most people today are barely aware of the phases of the moon, if at all. It is no longer necessary for them to travel at night, so they have no reason to do so. Despite the fact that a waxing or waning gibbous moon might provide enough light for night travel, it does not keep a regular schedule over that phase and its light is available at the time needed for only a narrow window of days each month. That is why so many early watches and long-case clocks kept track of those nights, of which most in the 21st century are oblivious.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. This is – again- a post with indispensable knowledge for Regency Novel Writers. It surely helps creating any scene taking place at night, from robbery to love affairs.
    As the light was poor just a few feet from the lamp-post, it might have been easy for a daring young miss to hide her true identity when entering a carriage ready for elopement, and to pretend to be somebody else. Hm, hop-hop, here comes a plot-bunny….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      When I ran across a description of the streets at night under early gas street lamps, I knew I had to post the information here. Just as you said, I thought Regency authors would find the details very useful when setting a scene at night, at least in London.

      I like your plot bunny very much. Even in a better part of town, if the young lady’s partner in the elopement was clever, he would park his carriage in one of the pools of shadow, thus shielding her from any direct light. If she were also wearing a large bonnet and/or scarf, it would be nearly impossible for anyone standing more than a few feet from her to make out her features.

      =^..^=

  4. pulled in a reference to the new gas lighting on Westminster Bridge, story set beginning March 1814 [freezing cold weather and rumours of Napoleon being all but defeated]. Very timely, thank you! Also a tale, apropos said lighting, in passing, of a young lady having an unwanted encounter in the shadows in her youth and using her fan to discourage it while her escort wrung his hands and said ‘oh dear, oh dear’.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I an glad to know the article was timely for you. I hope your readers enjoy that added bit of realism.

      Did she have a dagger concealed in the fan? Otherwise, she must be quite formidable to have protected herself while the spineless young escort was wringing his hands.

      =^..^=

      • I’d have thought a folded fan of ivory would have been enough, jabbed sharply into the nuts. I asked the hubby and the very thought made him feel sick…. it’s a VERY delicate place… he’s seen the few fans I have [not ivory but carved bone sticks comes close…. so he knows how hard they are]

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          It did not occur to me that the target of the fan would be such a sensitive area. I can see where the closed fan could do some real damage. Bone is fairly brittle, so it is more likely to break, but either ivory or ebony, an extremely hard wood, could do the job. Now I also understand why her spineless young escort is wringing his hands. Probably a sympathetic response.

          =^..^=

  5. Pingback: History A'la Carte 1-1-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

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