London's Greatest Lamps, And The Nonsense That's Said About Them

By M@ Last edited 61 months ago
London's Greatest Lamps, And The Nonsense That's Said About Them

Looking for London's best lamps? Let us enlighten you...

London's Embankment lamps

London's famous lamps
Image Shutterstock

The most famous lamps in London are those that line the embankments of the Thames. Each sturdy upright smacks of confidence, forged when London was the capital of an Empire, and could afford to leave tons of surplus metal along the riverside. George Vulliamy designed the lamps in the 1860s. Many originals remain.

They are magnificent. But they are also stupid. Look at the ornamentation...

Definitely not a dolphin.
Image by M@

This is a fish. Any toddler will tell you that. And yet officially these are 'stylised' or 'heraldic' dolphins. I mean, how? No dolphin has scales, or flappy mouth fins, or a stubby nose, or a lithe snake-like body that could wrap twice around a column.

It's just silly; like calling the statue of Nelson a stylised goat. Actually, it's worse. Nelson and a goat are both mammals, whereas fish and dolphins belong to entirely different taxonomic classes*. But let's get back to lamps.

Trafalgar Square's medley of lamps

Everyone's favourite stylised goat shares Trafalgar Square with some of the capital's most notable illuminators. Take this confection, for example:

Image Shutterstock

That's a work of art to match anything in the nearby National Gallery. All very classy and respectable... until we point out that the cherubs look like they've been tied to a stake on top of a huge bonfire. You can't unsee it now. Sorry.

Burn, baby, burn. Image by M@

To the other side of the square, lazy guidebooks might point out another lamp that forms part of 'London's smallest police station'. It isn't. The lamp was reputedly made from iron salvaged from Nelson's ship HMS Victory. It wasn't.

This is not London's smallest police station
London's smallest police station. (Not.) Image by M@

In the background is London's famous set of 'gay traffic lights', which uses gender-inclusive symbols instead of green and red men. According to the Express, the crossing 'leaves pedestrians BAFFLED'. It doesn't.

London's other ornate lamps

The immolated cherubs of Trafalgar Square are not the only flamboyant beacons across this city. Most of our bridges have sturdy lamp champs.

People tend to ignore this beauty on Westminster Bridge, because it's nowhere near as exciting as the illuminated phallus parade on show at pavement level:

Image Shutterstock

Tower Bridge not only has ornate lamp posts, but also counterfeit ornate lamp posts that are really chimney stacks:

Imposter. Throw it into the Tower
Image obviously nicked from Google Street View

Let's have one more pontine wonder. This lamp can be found on Putney Bridge, and very nice it is too.

Image by James Mccash in the Londonist Memory Machine Facebook group

Our tip for London's most impressive lamp, though, is some miles from the Thames. This strutting hydra of a lamp stands guard over (and acts as a ventilation pipe for) Tooting Broadway tube station.

Image by M@

Chop off one of those arms and we suspect it will grow back more tenacious still.

London's surviving gas lamps

London still has an estimated 1,500 working gas lamps. Don't believe us? Then watch our short video, following a group of engineers who look after them.

The most famous gas lamp in London is the one on Carting Lane, off Strand. This is sometimes described as London's only fart-powered lamp, since it draws on gas from the sewers. In reality, such lamps were mostly powered by mains gas, with sewer fumes contributing little.

Carting lane's farting lamp. Image by M@

While most of the remaining gas lamps are in central London, a few can be found further afield. That shown below is one of five on Malam Gardens, Poplar, an estate that was originally built for gas workers.

Image by M@

*Note for pedants: Yes, we know that there is, taxonomically, no such thing as a fish, but this is an article about lamp posts, and we need to stay vaguely on topic.

Last Updated 12 March 2019

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