Antiquarian book dealer Tim Bryars of Bryars & Bryars in Cecil Court and Luke Honey, a dealer who previously worked in auction houses including Phillips, Bloomsbury Auctions and Bonhams, have begun raising awareness about the plans by the council and have support from other antiques dealers and historians.
Westminster Council announced last year that from 2022 it will “be installing like-for-like lanterns on non-listed lamp columns and gas effect LEDs that closely mirror the appearance of the original gas lights”. It said in the longer term it will “look at how we can electrify listed structures”.
However, those against the plans believe the original lamps should be kept to preserve the aesthetics of historic London.
Following the campaign the council announced last week (January 26) that the plan to upgrade the lights has been “paused while the council talks to residents and local groups to ensure proposed electric replacements reflect the city’s heritage. No more working gas lamps will be removed while this consultation - expected to take until the end of this year - has been completed”.
Cllr Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said: “We all recognise the value these historic gas lamps bring to our city. They are part of our heritage and why people love visiting and living here.
“While these lamps are beautiful and atmospheric, 200-year-old fittings are increasingly difficult to maintain as spare parts are difficult to come by.
“It is right to take the time now to ensure that where new electric lights go in, they are as faithful to the original as possible. That’s why we are working with organisations like Historic England.”
A Historic England spokesperson said: “Historic England has engaged with Westminster Council regarding the replacement of historic gas lighting with gas-effect LED lighting. We understand the council is seeking a sympathetic solution, mindful of the historic character of Westminster and its requirements to provide street lighting.
“We have advised the council that in our view, Listed Building Consent would be required to replace gas lights that are listed, and we are expecting further discussion in the coming months.”
As part of the campaign Honey created social media accounts under the name The London Gasketeers and is in the process of creating a website. They have support from celebrities including actor Simon Callow as well as fellow antiques dealers and historians.
“Handsome and beautiful”
Speaking about the topic on the Ladies Who London podcast (hosted by Blue Badge tourist guides Alex and Emily) Bryars and Honey raised the issue and Callow added his support. He said: “Cecil Court has a row of charming Victorian lamps. They cast a light on Cecil Court which is absolutely enchanting and very, very rare to find these days. They make everyone look more handsome or more beautiful and the book shops themselves look more handsome and beautiful. It is a little piece of perfection. Any council should want to keep it and preserve it.
“[Cecil Court] is not quaint, it is not twee, it is just absolutely charming. We are not trying to stop the clock. We are just saying something beautiful exists there so let’s keep it.”
Speaking to ATG, Bryars said: “The lamps cast a really distinctive glow. For a business like mine the setting and its aesthetics is very important. The shops in Cecil Court have original Victorian frontages and we want to keep these gas lamps. You can’t replicate the patina of age.”
Honey and Bryars believe the existing lamps can prove to be the better option on heritage, safety and environmental grounds and that they could be restored or retrofitted to be more efficient rather than be replaced.
Bryars argues: “The lamps have worked perfectly well for the last 100 years. The mechanism is still clockwork which is as environmentally friendly as you can get. It is a remarkable technology and we would like to see the last vestiges of it preserved so that other people can have the same experience. We are just asking for the 250 or so lamps to be left to be enjoyed in the right setting.
“The amount of gas used in the lamp is miniscule: the equivalent of 100 homes using gas each year, when you compare to the number of homes in London that’s nothing.
“As antiques dealers we are passionate about preserving a technology that once changed everyone’s lives.”
Honey commented: “It is just so sad to see this conversion to modern lights. We are arguing for keeping them and instead either restore or retrofitting them rather than replace them. If you think how much energy is used by those patio heaters outside restaurants, that is 10 times the energy used by these lamps. They are not a big issue in the scheme of things.”
In London there are working gas lamps maintained at Westminster Abbey and even new ones reinstalled with Ptolemy Dean, Westminster Abbey’s surveyor of the fabric, ensuring the gas lamps are cherished. There are also Victorian lamps used and maintained at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden.
While in Malvern there are around 80 working gas lamps while Clifton in Bristol is also preserving its lamps. Further afield, in the US Cincinnati, Ohio and in Boston, Massachusetts have historic districts with working lamps.
Gas lamps in numbers
- 305 gas lights in Westminster
- 139 of these are listed
- 10% of the 305 gas lights have been replaced with LED lights so far