Regency Bicentennial:  Gaslight Makes Its Debut on the London Stage

This coming Sunday marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the first instance in which gaslight was used to light the stage of one of London’s legitimate theatres. A non-patent theatre had been fully lit with gas, including its stage, the year before. In addition, other patent theatres had been partially lit by gas prior to this date, but none of the legitimate theatres in London had yet used gas to illuminate the stage. In fact, there was something of a competition to introduce gaslight into the legitimate theatres in the metropolis in the summer of 1817, but the results of that competition are not clear-cut.

Gaslight on the London stage during the Regency . . .

Gaslight, that is, lighting by means of gas, first began to be used in England in the eighteenth century, mostly for industrial purposes. It was not until the early nineteenth century that it came into wider, more public use. The first demonstration of the lighting of streets by gas was in January of 1807, along a few blocks of Pall Mall, in London. This demonstration had been set up by the German inventor, Frederick Albert Winsor, in honor of the Prince Regent’s birthday. After that, more and more streets in the metropolis, and other cities and towns throughout Britain, were gradually illuminated by gaslight. The Prince Regent had been delighted by the demonstration in Pall Mall and he became a strong proponent of the new technology.

Gaslight was also installed in an increasing number of factories, since the light it provided lengthened the working hours in the winter months, and it was an economical source of lighting. Even so, in the early years of the Regency, few people were willing to have gaslight in their homes or shops. Though gaslight was one of the most efficient forms of lighting which had been discovered to that time, and most people had an ancient and instinctive fear of the darkness, many of them also feared this new technology. In addition to a natural fear of fire, many were also fearful of the effects of the possible noxious fumes which might be released when gas was burned. Some thought it would suffocate them, while others believed it could damage eyesight or cause headaches and a host of other ailments. By 1816, a number of public buildings across Britain, including a church, had been illuminated by gaslight. People began to notice that no apparent ill-effects were suffered by those who spent time in gas-lit rooms. Gradually, the fear of lighting with gas began to diminish and proprietors of a number of businesses and other commercial enterprises felt they could safely employ gaslight without the risk of alienating their patrons or customers. A few people, those who could afford it and did not fear it, even had gaslight installed in their homes. Nevertheless, the use of gaslight in private homes would not become common in Britain until the 1850s.

In August of 1816, an East End theatre, originally known as the Royalty, was actually the first London theatre to be fully illuminated by gaslight. Far from the legitimate theatres in the West End, the Royalty was not a patent theatre, and the performances there catered to those who lived and worked near the docks. At the time, the proprietor of the Royalty theatre was Joseph Vickers, who also owned a gas works, which he had built in 1814, conveniently situated in a yard just to the west of the theatre. In the summer of 1816, Vickers had gas piping and lighting fixtures installed throughout the theatre, so that gaslight could be used to illuminate not only the exterior and the auditorium, but also the stage, something which had never before been done in London. For its grand re-opening, the theatre was renamed The East London Theatre. Though large numbers of people came to the gas-lit performances at The East London Theatre, this implementation of new lighting technology was largely ignored by the patent theatres in the West End of London for more than a year.

However, The East London Theatre was not the first theatre in the metropolis to see gaslight in action. In 1803, and again in 1804, the Lyceum Theatre, a non-patent theatre on the Strand, had been the site of demonstrations of gaslight, accompanied by a lecture, provided by Frederick Albert Winsor, who hoped to obtain a patent for his process. Though a handful of people were interested in the new technology, the theatre proprietors were not, and gaslight was not permanently installed in the Lyceum at that time. In 1809, the Lyceum Theatre was finally granted a license and became a legitimate, patent theatre. Like the other legitimate London theatres, it continued to be lit by candlelight, including the stage, until the summer of 1816.

In the spring of 1817, three of the legitimate theatres in London, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the Lyceum Theatre, all announced that they were planning to install gas lighting for the opening of the theatre season later that year. And each of them was determined to be first to do so. During that summer, the Lyceum Theatre was enlarged and renovated by its new manager, Samuel Arnold, and was also re-christened The English Opera House. In the course of this refurbishment, Arnold had gas piping and light fixtures installed to light the stage, though at that time, there was no installation of gaslight in the auditorium or the exterior of the building. It seems that this may have been an effort by Arnold to achieve some publicity and/or notoriety for the opening of The English Opera House that season by, at least technically, winning the competition among the legitimate theatres to install gaslight.

The opening night for the first gas-lit performance at The English Opera House would take place on Wednesday, 6 August 1817. Prior to that opening night, Samuel Arnold announced that "The Gas Lighting will this evening be introduced over the whole stage." Which was perfectly true. But what Arnold neglected to mention in his announcement was that the rest of the house would still be lit by candlelight. Nevertheless, many people attended the performance, and within a few weeks, Arnold announced that the trial use of gaslight over the past few weeks had been such a success that he was installing gaslight throughout the entire theatre. The English Opera House opened on Monday evening, 8 September 1817, with the theatre fully illuminated throughout by gaslight.

Technically, the management of The English Opera House considered their theatre to have been the first to use gaslight and thus the winner of the competition between the three legitimate theatres. However, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, opened on Saturday evening, 6 September 1817, with their stage illuminated by gaslight. In addition, Drury Lane had been using gaslight in the auditorium and the boxes for several weeks prior to its use on the stage. Therefore, Drury Lane management believed that they had won the competition by two days, since they were using gaslight throughout the theatre two days before The English Opera House. The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, offered a demonstration of gaslight on their stage on the evening of 6 September 1817, and thus claimed a first, of sorts. It terms of the winners of the competition, it was a split decision. Drury Lane was the first to use gaslight in the theatre, while The English Opera House was the first to use gaslight on stage. But the competition was essentially academic. Before the year was out, all three of the competing legitimate London theatres were fully illuminated throughout by gaslight. However, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, was not part of the competition, and continued to use candles and oil lamps until April of 1843.

The introduction of gas lighting was the first significant advance in theatre lighting in England since theatres had moved indoors in the seventeenth century. Unlike candles and oil lamps, gas was much easier to control and manage. The light provided by gas burned brighter and whiter than that provided by either candles or oil lamps. In addition, the flame burned at the same intensity indefinitely, with no need to trim wicks. And that intensity could be controlled by regulating the flow of gas. Once this was understood, lighting designers were able to create an array of lighting effects on stage which had never before been seen. A sunrise or sunset could be suggested by dimming then increasing the light, or the reverse, while still enabling the audience to see the actions of the actors on stage. In addition, a low flow of gas produced a yellowish color of light, while a high-intensity flow produced a bluish light. For the first time the scenes of a play could be presented as a carefully composed image. The audience no longer had to imagine the lighting effects of a certain scene, they could actually see them on stage.

There were still some problems, however. The gaslight installations on the stages in Regency theatres included foot lights and wing lights, but there were no fixtures large enough at that time to fully illuminate the stage from above. It was therefore difficult to simulate the effects of full daylight for those scenes which required it. Because gaslights burned with an open flame, often uncovered, there was always the real chance of fire. Another problem was that the smell of gas could be offensive when allowed to escape by faulty burners. Though The Times reports were initially strongly in support of the new lighting technology, within a few weeks, they reported that " . . . having sat through a whole evening in the theatre, playgoers felt a burning and prickling sensation in their eyes, a soreness in the throat and a headache which lasted for several days afterwards." It must be remembered that an evening at the theatre during the Regency could last four hours or more, since a selection of entertainments were presented as part of a single evening’s performance. Exposure to gas for that length of time would certainly produce the symptoms reported in The Times, particularly for those in the nearest proximity to a faulty gas burner.

Despite the fact that three of the legitimate theatres in London, as well as several non-patent theatres, were lit by gas by the end of 1817, and others did the same in the years that followed, it is important to remember that the house lights were still not dimmed during any theatre performance during the Regency. The use of gaslight would have allowed for the dimming of the house lights during a performance, but the audience would have been horrified at the very thought. They came to the theatre as much to be seen as to see the play and would have been outraged to have to sit through a performance in the dark. In fact, the house lights were not dimmed in any theatre in Britain until the 1870s, when the renowned actor, Henry Irving, determined to dim the house lights, for the first time, at the Lyceum Theatre. [Author’s Note:   The English Opera House, previously the Lyceum Theatre, which was the first to light its stage with gas, burned down in 1834. It was rebuilt, with its entrance on Wellington Street, instead of the Strand, under the new name of the Theatre Royal, Lyceum and English Opera House. It was in that new theatre building that Henry Irving, when he took over management of that theatre, finally dimmed the house lights for the first time.]

Dear Regency Authors, all aspects of the introduction of gas lighting into the three legitimate London theatres during the later Regency might make useful plot points in a story set during that period. Characters interested in new technology might be very keen to attend one of the theatres once it is announced they will be illuminated by gas light. Perhaps they might even argue over which of the theatres was truly first with gaslight. Of course, those who are mistrustful or fearful of gaslight might balk at attending a performance at one of the theatres which use it. They might even refuse to go to those theatres and would limit their theatre attendance to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, which was still using only candles and oil lamps and would continue to do so throughout the Regency. Should it be necessary to make a character ill, mayhap they sat near a faulty gas burner during an evening at the theatre and developed some or all of those symptoms described by The Times. Then again, some characters might be thrilled by the various new lighting effects which create much more exciting scenes during a performance on a gas-lit stage. How else might you use gaslight to light up a Regency romance?

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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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3 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:  Gaslight Makes Its Debut on the London Stage

  1. It hadn’t occurred to me that the house lights were not dimmed during a performance, which is obvious really if only I’d thought about it, the snuffing and relighting before gas would be prodigious. I’ve used gas lighting in 1810 in the orphanage in my Charity School series, as a healthier form of lighting for those girls learning practical skills as well as for easier studying for those planning to become governesses. A few rooms were lit at first to see how it worked, and whether there were any ill effects, it’s a background mention of it, but fun to include a discussion of the fears of the time against the apparent advantages. I have had stories from relatives about the importance of keeping the gas mantle trimmed, and replacing it regularly to prevent the evil miasmas from the gas escaping. My house still has all the old gas outlets, closed off, of course, but interesting to see that the overmantle was the place to put gas lighting, rather like overmantle candles, and probably with a mirror installed there as well to increase the light. In the hallway there is a fitting outside the kitchen door to shine right down the hall, but interestingly not one in the porch [that’s stoop in US English] for the convenience of poor visitors blundering up the path and up the steps in the dark. Maybe the owner in the gas lighting era was antisocial…. but as electricity wasn’t put in until 1931 when there had been several owners you’d think someone would have put a light by the front door at least!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Apparently, quite a lot of people were very upset when Henry Irving dimmed the house lights that first time. Most of them had come to the theatre to be seen and did not care much about the play. They were quite put out to have to sit in the dark! 😉 Eventually, people came to the theatre to see the play and they liked having the house lights dimmed.

      The gas mantle was not invented until the 1880s, so that was not a problem during the Regency. But the gaslights at that time were essentially open flames, which was not exactly safe. A number of theatres lit by gaslight burned down, including the Lyceum, in the 1830s.

      It is cool that you have a house set up for gaslighting. There are probably not many of them left. I suspect that gaslight in homes was installed to allow lights where candles had once been used since that is what people were used to and saw no reason to change. So it would make sense that they would have overmantle lights. It is odd that there was no gas fixture on the porch of your house. Maybe the original owner was anti-social. Or maybe they had some other form of lighting for outdoors at that time.

      BTW – “Stoop” in America is much smaller than a porch, of which we have many here. A stoop is the small area near the front door of an urban house or apartment house, oftentimes with two or three steps, where people congregate and chat. It may or may not have a roof. A porch is a larger space, might be at the front or back door of a house and always has a roof. Hope that helps.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Yup, I am translating porch English style correctly into stoop. It;s 3’x2′ deep and recessed and I put a door on the outside both to keep the draught out and so the postman can leave outsize letters and parcels if I don’t answer the door. Indeed, I think most English porches must be smaller than American stoops because you can get two people into most porches if they are very, very friendly and that’s about it. Essentially, it’s a covered area in front of a door the width and depth of the door, which may be recessed, as it often is on older properties, or built out with its own little roof. Some modern porches have enough room for a few pot plants. It always has a roof, which may be part of the upper floor if it is a recessed porch, but does not always have a second door. It’s to keep the weather off the most used door, really, because of the unpleasant exigencies of wooden doors swelling in the wet. You can tell when it isn’t raining in sunny England, because it’s foggy.

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