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Westminster’s 300 iconic gas lamps are being replaced with ‘eco-friendly’ LEDs

Some of London‘s last remaining gas lamps that have bathed Westminster in a ‘distinctive Dickensian glow’ since the late 19th century are being replaced with electric alternatives due to the ‘climate emergency’, MailOnline can reveal. 

Westminster City Council is in the process of converting the 300 lamps which stand in the borough with more eco-friendly LED versions, as part of a £6million upgrade to its lighting network.

The Central London lamps, which are powered by mains gas, are among only 1,500 still left in the capital.

The lamps controlled by the council light up some of London’s most famous landmarks, including the Embankment and Trafalgar Square.

Gas lamps – which revolutionised life when they were first installed in London in the early 19th century – also feature in films including Mary Poppins and The Muppet Christmas Carol. 

But shocking photos show how gas heads from lamps which were electrified in Covent Garden were carelessly thrown into the back of a flat bed truck by council contractors.

Concerned resident Nick Taylor, 57, who took the images in March last year, told MailOnline there was ‘no consultation’ before the lamps were replaced.

He said the lamps put in their place have a ‘very bright, white light’ which make them appear as though they are from a ‘garden centre’.

A Council spokesman told MailOnline that the lamps need to be replaced as part of measures to tackle global warming and because ‘gas lighting is increasingly difficult to maintain’.

However, electrical engineer Brian Harper, who persuaded council bosses in Malvern, Worcestershire, to keep the region’s historic gas lamps after proving they could be made more efficient and less costly to maintain, told MailOnline that the lights can be retained at ‘low carbon and high efficiency’.

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, who was involved in a successful campaign in the 1970s to prevent gas lamps in Covent Garden from being replaced as part of a proposed redevelopment of the area, is among those demanding that the council keep the lamps.

Calling them a ‘living bit of the history of 19th century London’, he told MailOnline: ‘I want other generations to be able to enjoy them like we have enjoyed them. If these things can be maintained without too much difficulty, what is the problem?’

Some of London’s last remaining gas lamps that have bathed Westminster in a ‘distinctive Dickensian glow’ since the late 19th century are being replaced with electric alternatives due to the ‘climate emergency’, MailOnline can reveal

Westminster City Council is in the process of converting the 300 lamps which stand in the borough with more eco-friendly LED versions, as part of a £6million upgrade to its lighting network. Above: Winston Churchill is seen with gas lamps behind him as he walks towards Parliament in shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939

Westminster City Council is in the process of converting the 300 lamps which stand in the borough with more eco-friendly LED versions, as part of a £6million upgrade to its lighting network. Above: Winston Churchill is seen with gas lamps behind him as he walks towards Parliament in shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939

The lamps controlled by the council light up some of London's most famous landmarks, including the Embankment and Trafalgar Square. Above: An illustration showing pedestrians lingering beneath gas lamps on Westminster Bridge

The lamps controlled by the council light up some of London’s most famous landmarks, including the Embankment and Trafalgar Square. Above: An illustration showing pedestrians lingering beneath gas lamps on Westminster Bridge 

The Central London lamps, which are powered by mains gas, are among only 1,500 still left in the capital

The Central London lamps, which are powered by mains gas, are among only 1,500 still left in the capital

Nearly 140 of Westminster’s lamps are grade-II listed, meaning council bosses needed the approval of Historic England to replace the gas-powered ‘heads’ with ‘sympathetic’ replicas. 

Gas lamps which are not under threat include ones within the Parliamentary estate, which is part of the Palace of Westminster and not controlled by the council.

How do the Westminster gas lamps work? 

All the lamps operated by Westminster City Council are powered by mains gas.   

Whilst it is difficult to date them exactly, the earliest ones were probably installed in the late Victorian era, during the 1890s. 

The lamps are fitted with clockwork which needs to be wound approximately every two weeks so that they come on at the correct time.

A flame known as a pilot light, which is always burning, does not produce the light seen by Londoners.

 Instead, the light is generated when a piece of metal mesh, known as a mantle, is heated. The gas flows through the mantle and is then lit by the pilot light. 

When the mantle becomes extremely hot, it lights up to produce the distinctive yellow glow that has been loved by tourists and Britons for more than a century.  

There are also hundreds of lamps in the Royal Parks and Palaces which will not be affected by the council programme.  

Westminster resident Tim Bryars, who runs a bookshop with his wife in Cecil Court, Westminster, approached MailOnline after council contractors ‘dug a hole’ next the gas lamp outside his business earlier this month.

He said the workers ‘breezily explained’ that they were checking to see if the lamps, which are believed to date from the 1890s, could easily be replaced with electric ones.

‘I’m greatly attached to the Cecil Court gas lamps. They’ve bathed our street in a distinctive Dickensian glow since Cecil Court was rebuilt in the 1890s.

‘They really enhance the area. They’re incredibly distinctive. To replace genuine working Victorian gas lamps with faux heritage lamps would be absolutely tragic,’ he added.

Fellow Westminster resident Mr Taylor said he remembered a ‘questionnaire’ being sent to him and other people who live in the area before contractors came to replace the lights near his home in March last year.

He said: ‘There was no meetings or a consultation, it was just a questionnaire. The next thing I knew they started to dig up the paving.’

Mr Taylor, who is retired, said that he was told the lamps were ‘crooked’ and unsafe’, but the residents believe the council has deliberately failed to maintain them so that the arguments for replacing them are more compelling.

‘When you walked in the area it had a nice atmosphere, it had a nice yellow light to it,’ he said.

‘I would like to keep them in terms of their historic value and their ambience and the atmosphere.

‘They’ve replaced them with things that are like strip lights. They have a very bright, white light.

‘Of course they’re more emergency efficient but they look like something out of a garden centre.

Shocking photos show how gas heads from lamps which were electrified in Covent Garden were carelessly thrown into the back of a flat bed truck by council contractors

Shocking photos show how gas heads from lamps which were electrified in Covent Garden were carelessly thrown into the back of a flat bed truck by council contractors

Concerned resident Nick Taylor, 57, who took the images in March last year, told MailOnline there was 'no consultation' before the lamps were replaced. He said the lamps put in their place have a 'very bright, white light' which make them appear as though they are from a 'garden centre'

Concerned resident Nick Taylor, 57, who took the images in March last year, told MailOnline there was ‘no consultation’ before the lamps were replaced. He said the lamps put in their place have a ‘very bright, white light’ which make them appear as though they are from a ‘garden centre’

The Sun Tavern pub is seen last year, with a gas lamp outside it

An image taken more recently shows that the lamp has been removed entirely

Before and after: Photos taken by Westminster resident Nick Carter show how a gas lamp fitted outside the Sun Tavern pub in Westminster has been removed

An original gas lamp in Covent Garden before it was replaced

The electric replacement

Mr Taylor’s images reveal how lamps in Covent Garden have been replaced with electric versions which are intended to mimic the traditional look of the originals

Gas lamps - which revolutionised life when they were first installed in London in the early 19th century ¿ also feature in films including Mary Poppins and the Muppet's Christmas Carol (pictured)

Gas lamps – which revolutionised life when they were first installed in London in the early 19th century – also feature in films including Mary Poppins and the Muppet’s Christmas Carol (pictured) 

A scene from the Disney re-make of film classic Mary Poppins, in which Mary's original chimney sweep companion, Bert, who was played by Hollywood star Dick Van Dyke, has been replaced by Jack, a lamplighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda

A scene from the Disney re-make of film classic Mary Poppins, in which Mary’s original chimney sweep companion, Bert, who was played by Hollywood star Dick Van Dyke, has been replaced by Jack, a lamplighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda

‘They let things fall into disrepair and then they say they’re not in good repair and have to remove them. If you did keep them up you wouldn’t need to repair them,’ he added.

The council said in response to a concerned email from historian Mr Cruickshank that its gas lighting is ‘increasingly’ difficult to maintain and that the lamps do not provide ‘sufficient light to illuminate the Highway’.

They also claimed that there are now ‘very few’ companies which can undertake repairs on the lamps. They said one quote gave a waiting time of eight months to repair the gas feed to one lamp.

They added that they have had a ‘number of complaints’ from residents and business owners about needing to improve levels of light on roads with gas lamps to help reduce crime levels.

The council are using a range of traditional-looking LED lamps to replace the gas versions.

Of the gas lights it controls, 139 are listed, meaning any changes to these lamps have had to be approved by the council’s conservation staff.

Mr Harper, whose business Sight Designs makes and refurbishes gas lamps, sprung into action a decade ago when traditional lamps in Malvern were set to be switched off.

Westminster resident Tim Bryars, who runs a bookshop with his wife in Cecil Court, Westminster, approached MailOnline after council contractors 'dug a hole' next the gas lamp outside his business earlier this month. Above: Mr Bryars poses with the lamp and the filled-in area of pavement

Westminster resident Tim Bryars, who runs a bookshop with his wife in Cecil Court, Westminster, approached MailOnline after council contractors ‘dug a hole’ next the gas lamp outside his business earlier this month. Above: Mr Bryars poses with the lamp and the filled-in area of pavement

Nearly 140 of Westminster's lamps are grade-II listed, meaning council bosses needed the approval of Historic England to replace the gas-powered 'heads' with 'sympathetic' replicas. Above: A gas lamp is seen in St James's Square, Westminster, when it was being removed in the 1930s

Nearly 140 of Westminster’s lamps are grade-II listed, meaning council bosses needed the approval of Historic England to replace the gas-powered ‘heads’ with ‘sympathetic’ replicas. Above: A gas lamp is seen in St James’s Square, Westminster, when it was being removed in the 1930s

Gas lamps are a distinct part of London's history and feature in hundreds of illustrations, such as the one above, which depicts a jolly dancing scene

Gas lamps are a distinct part of London’s history and feature in hundreds of illustrations, such as the one above, which depicts a jolly dancing scene

There are around 1,500 gas lamps in London overall. Above: An illustration showing gas lights on Lombard Street in the City of London

There are around 1,500 gas lamps in London overall. Above: An illustration showing gas lights on Lombard Street in the City of London

The gas lamps on the Embankment were installed in the Victorian era but are among the lights which will be replaced with electric versions by Westminster City Council

The gas lamps on the Embankment were installed in the Victorian era but are among the lights which will be replaced with electric versions by Westminster City Council

Gas lamps give off a distinctive mellow, yellow light which is different from the type given off by modern LED versions. Above: Gas lamps line a street in Westminster

Gas lamps give off a distinctive mellow, yellow light which is different from the type given off by modern LED versions. Above: Gas lamps line a street in Westminster

He convinced council bosses that the lamps could be refurbished and made more efficient by reducing their running costs and gas usage.

Mr Harper, a former Ministry of Defence engineer, claims the refurbished lamps generating savings of around 80 per cent and that gas usage was reduced by up to 60 per cent.

His group, which is unofficially known as the Malvern Gaskeeters, improved the lamps by changing the way they work.

Whilst the lamps in Westminster have a flame known as a pilot light which is always burning, Mr Harper changed the Malvern lights so they worked with spark ignition – similar to a domestic cooker.

The clockwork inside the Westminster lamps – which needs to be wound approximately every two weeks so that they light up at the correct times – is another alleged justification for changing them for electric versions.

However, Mr Harper said the mechanism can be replaced with an electronic control system so that they do not need regular maintenance.

The light from the lamps is produced by a piece of metal mesh known as a mantle. The gas flows through the mantle and is then lit by a pilot light or spark.

A flame then envelopes the mantle and raises it to a temperature where it lights up to produce the distinctive yellow glow that is loved by tourists and Britons alike.

‘We have a policy that we want to spread gas light because it is exceptionally pleasing to the public eye,’ Mr Harper said.

‘Where you have gas-powered gas light it should be retained at low carbon and high efficiency.’

The businessman said that he was in discussions with officials at Westminster Council a decade ago – when they were ‘very keen to keep their gas lights’ – but no deal was struck.

Speaking of the Westminster lights, he said: ‘Because they have gas to them, they should stay as that.

‘They work off the normal gas mains.

Gas lamps which are not under threat include ones within the Parliamentary estate, which is part of the Palace of Westminster and not controlled by the council. Above: Gas lamps are seen in New Palace Yard in 1905

Gas lamps which are not under threat include ones within the Parliamentary estate, which is part of the Palace of Westminster and not controlled by the council. Above: Gas lamps are seen in New Palace Yard in 1905

There are also hundreds of lamps in the Royal Parks and Palaces which will not be affected by the council programme.  Above: Gas lamps are seen outside Buckingham Palace

There are also hundreds of lamps in the Royal Parks and Palaces which will not be affected by the council programme.  Above: Gas lamps are seen outside Buckingham Palace

‘You have a time clock to turn them on and off. You mix in air like with a Bunsen burner. It goes up and is heated by the mantles, that’s where the flame is.

‘It is expensive to convert a column from gas to electric. It is also a bad thing to replace the lantern which is on top with a new one.

‘Gas lighting produces the right spectrum of light to make people comfortable. The lanterns they are proposing to put up are not really a good replica of a gas lantern.’

He added: ‘It costs about £60,000 to £70,000 a year to power all 300. We will lose a very important asset by ripping off these lanterns.’

Mr Harper was also sceptical of the council’s argument that the lamps need to be replaced to tackle the ‘climate emergency’.

‘The arguments they put forward about carbon saving are not as strong as they think they are,’ he said.

‘Firstly, the gas use on 300 lights is only the same gas use as 100 average houses in a year. It has a tiny gas usage.

‘The second one is that we can provide a package that would reduce that by a factor of two anyway.

‘We improve the light, we don’t waste the light and we don’t over-illuminate underneath the lantern. We are able to spread the light out by a factor of three.’

A gas lamp - with its column painted blue - is seen in early evening, with the iconic Tower Bridge behind

A gas lamp – with its column painted blue – is seen in early evening, with the iconic Tower Bridge behind

Photographs taken in the 19th century show gas lamps on the Embankment and Shaftesbury Avenue

Photographs taken in the 19th century show gas lamps on the Embankment and Shaftesbury Avenue

Part of the way Mr Harper and his team have been able to boost the light output whilst limiting gas usage is by fitting the lamps with reflectors.

Mr Cruickshank, 71, who has presented programmes for the BBC and written nearly 20 books, said the gas lamps which were first installed in Westminster were ‘pioneering’.

If you get the notion of history and a living history and a continuation of a type of light of London in the 19th century, a romantic quality, it engages one’s sense of the past.

In the same way I spend my life fighting for old buildings. It’s rational because old buildings are beautiful.

‘Gas lamps are in a sense the same: a living bit of the history of 19th century London. To me and to many people it is a delight, it is window into the imagination.

A council spokesman told MailOnline: ‘The City Council declared a Climate Emergency in 2019, and in response to this we are taking a variety of measures to reach zero carbon operations.

‘As the Highways authority, the City Council also has a duty to keep the street lighting in good working order and maintain light levels to a set standard.

‘Unfortunately, gas lighting is increasingly difficult to maintain and doesn’t provide sufficient light to illuminate the highway.

‘We are of course sympathetic to the ‘look and feel’ of the city and have worked hard to come up with a solution which replicates the aesthetic of the gas lighting.

‘We want to ensure that we respond to the climate emergency and keep street lighting in good working order, while also not significantly changing the appearance of the area. This programme is due to be completed in 2023.’   

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