From Sewer Lamps To Sex Shops: Things You Didn't Know About London's Lighting

Rachel Stoplar
By Rachel Stoplar Last edited 101 months ago

Last Updated 18 December 2015

From Sewer Lamps To Sex Shops: Things You Didn't Know About London's Lighting
The Lights of Soho gallery on Berwick Street. Photo by Nigel Bewley from the Londonist Flickr pool.

We never realised how much our city has in common with seminal fart film Thunderpants until going on a lighting tour from Somerset House to Tottenham Court Road. How much do you know about London's luminescent history?

1. The Savoy was the first theatre not to stink

Before Sir Joseph Wilson Swan came along with the revolutionary electric lightbulb in 1878, Londoners had to endure their theatre with the pungent whiff of burning animal fat candles.

The Savoy Theatre was the first public building in the world to enjoy Swan's ingenious invention. The punters were unsurprisingly delighted, 'because they could breathe' as our guide Peter Berthoud sagely put it.

And that Edison chap you may have heard off? Very good at patenting things, but Swan is the real hero of this story.

The 1881 Savoy Theatre via The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive.

2. Human waste can be very useful

On Carting Lane behind the Savoy stands London's last remaining sewage lamp (well a replica, anyway). Although still chiefly fueled by the mains supply of gas, the Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp was also powered with help from effluence from Bazalgette's sewers. It was, if you will, the Victorians' version of recycling. Not only did the original lamp lower the cost of keeping London lit (the lamps burned 24/7), it reduced the aroma of human waste. Maybe Thunderpants wasn't so far fetched after all.

The Webb Patent Sewer Lamp on Carter Lane. Photo by Mike T from the Londonist Flickr pool.

3. We owe a lot to cheeky ice-cream entrepreneurs

The Gatti family, the first people to provide ice cream to the general public, moved into the music hall business in 1857, ended up running the Adelphi and the Vaudeville Theatres, and in 1882 made the natural progression into energy. Take note, Ben & Jerry's.

The enterprising brothers erected a clandestine electricity plant in a Strand basement for some DIY lighting. As they had no official permission, they dug up the pavement between their various businesses under cover of darkness to install the wiring, then covered it over with paving slabs so no-one would notice during the day. How they managed this rather boggles the mind.

They went legit in 1889 as the Charing Cross Electricity Supply Company — we wonder if they still sold ice-cream at this point.

Public art by Jay Atkin on Bull Inn Court commemorates the Gattis. Photo by Rachel Stoplar.

4. Sex shops aren't always what they seem

There are lots of photos of bashful celebs leaving the shopfront pictured below — sadly for the tabloids they haven't started openly frequenting one of Soho's naughtier venues but are instead sipping and supping on margaritas and Mexican grub at hidden restaurant La Bodega Negra.

The iconic lighting is by Chris Bracey of neon oasis, God's Own Junkyard, who are no strangers to the area: they also have a new club and gallery on Brewer Street, Lights of Soho. Bracey, who died last year, reckoned he did 99% of Soho's lighting, everything from sex shops to peep shows, strip clubs to seedy dives.

La Bodega Negra. Photo by Janan Jay.

Find out more about London's lighting history courtesy of Heal's, and more London trivia nuggets with Discovering London.