London's Most Unusual Lamp Posts

Eleana Overett
By Eleana Overett Last edited 79 months ago
London's Most Unusual Lamp Posts
Caricature of reactions to new Pall Mall street lighting

Considering there's already a Loo Tour of London, we're just waiting for someone to come up with a lamp post tour too. London has the lamp post boast of being the first city to demonstrate public street lighting with gas on the 28 January 1807 in Pall Mall, with lamps stretching from St James's to Cockspur Street. So while we wait for someone to jump on this great idea, here are a few London lamp post highlights to get them started.

1. London loves gas... lamps that is

One way to get rid of the excess methane that built up in London's sewer system was to redirect it up towards the streets and burn it off in gas street lamps. Gas lamps were never purely powered by this sewer gas, however; they were mostly fuelled by the mains gas supply. The only example of a Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp left in London is located behind the Savoy on Carting Lane — affectionately known as Farting Lane — though this is  a replica as the original was damaged by a lorry some years ago.

At one time there were thousands of working gas lamps in London, and though they've now mostly been converted to use electricity, there are still 1500 of them dotted around the city. Find out where they are and more about them here.

Carting Lane lamp post

2. Hiding a Cold War secret

There are many spy sites in London, and Roy Berkeley's A Spy's London does a great job covering them. One such site is a lamp post at Audley Square, which was used by the KGB as a letter drop during the Cold War. A trap door in the back was the perfect hiding place for coded messages, and KGB operatives would put a chalk mark below the number 8 on the post to indicate a message was ready to be picked up. This site was only discovered when double agent Colonel Oleg Gordievsky was extracted from Russia and revealed its location.

Audley Square lamp post

3. Dual purpose for healthier streets

Across London, lamp posts are beginning to double up their purpose as both lights and charging stations for electric cars. Ubitricity is a German firm attempting to enable the expansion of electric car use in major cities by providing electricity points that don't add additional and potentially ugly street furniture to our pavements. It seems a promising idea, with residents of Twickenham and Barnes already able to use these lamp posts, and more boroughs are next on the list to receive them.

Lamp post turned electric car charging point (Image: ubitricity)

4. Conversation starters

If you were in the Olympic Park in late 2016, you may have spotted a very strange sight — people texting lamp posts. It wasn't just lamp posts, the public could text almost anything from utility boxes to phone boxes and have a conversation with a usually inanimate object. The Hello Lamp Post project's aim was to 'encourage you to look at the area in which you live, work or play with fresh eyes and engage with objects you might sometimes take for granted'. Quite sad we missed it, actually.

Hello Lamp Post project (Image: Marisa Jensen)

5. Chosen by Londoners

If you've spent any time by the Thames then you'll have seen the writhing dolphin/sturgeon lamp posts that line up and light up the embankment. They were chosen by the public who loved the design, and they have their own Wikipedia page so clearly they're worth mentioning. The London Metropolitan Board of Works wanted to install new electric lights along the Thames in the late 1860s and put out a call for design submissions. One of these designs was submitted by George John Vulliamy based on the intertwined fish of the Fontana del Nettuno in Rome. Several magazines published the various designs, and posters along Victoria Embankment gauged public interest before the final decision was made. Vulliamy's won the popular vote, one of the reasons being that it lent itself to repetition, as opposed to some of the other grander and more elaborate designs. Love them? Hate them? Well now you know who to blame: 19th century Londoners.

Writhing dolphin lamp post (Image: Paul Farmer)

6. Adorned with colourful flying rats

In 2015, an unusual flock of pigeons came to rest on the lamp posts of Soho Square and Greek Street. These colourful birds were created by Patrick Murphy and we reported at the time they were only supposed to be hanging around for a few months. Well, two years on, you can still see a few of these winged creatures latched to their perches, which have turned ordinary lamp posts into pieces of art, and a statement about marginalised groups many will probably miss.

7. The listed mystery

Many a lamp post in London is now listed, which stops councils from ripping out works of beautiful engineering for, okay, arguably more efficient and probably more cost effective lamp posts. But we're a city built on history, and part of that history is the way we've lit our streets. Ealing has a great example of a cast iron standard with the base dating back to 1895, and looped cursive LEB (London Electricity Board).

1895 Ealing lamp post

However, when it was listed in 1981, the standard was described as having '4 modern lamps on semi-circular brackets supported by wrought-iron scrolls'. A picture sourced by London Historians' Blog from the London Metropolitan Archives shows that in 1976, this was in fact the case. What happened to the original standard? We're not sure, but we're curious.

1976 Ealing lamp post standard (Photo: London Historians)

8. Busting a few myths

If you've taken a stroll down The Mall, have you ever noticed the ships that sit on top of the lamp posts? They were designed by Sir Thomas Brock and are said to represent each of Nelson's ships at Trafalgar, though this doesn't seem to be a theory backed up with any hard evidence. It's more likely that they simply signify Britain's strong naval history. Another prevailing myth is that the statue of Nelson atop his column at Trafalgar Square faces down The Mall so he can survey his fleet of nautical lamp posts, but this is easily debunked as he in fact faces down Whitehall at something else entirely.

The Mall lamp posts topped with ships

9. Crop circles or blueprints?

Where Jools Holland saw crop circles, the designers of these lamp posts saw the plans of the Canary Wharf development. These lamp post designs were specially commissioned and installed on site back in the 1990s. We're not sure exactly where these lamp posts are, so if you find yourselves over that way we'd be interested in seeing a snap or two. And you can read a tongue-in-cheek run down of this episode of Building Sights here.

Jools Holland inspects the Canary Wharf lamp posts (Image: BBC)

Last Updated 26 September 2017