London gas lamps are an icon of the city. But plans are afoot to swap the gentle flame for the white non-heat of technology.
London still contains over a thousand gas-powered lamps. They are beacons from another age. They speak to us from a time of swirling fogs and horse-drawn traffic. Some of these posts have illuminated the capital for almost 200 years. A team of dedicated engineers still keep a close eye on these historic beacons, winding the clockwork and repairing damage.
But many of these lambent pillars are under threat. Westminster Council intends to replace all 275 lamp heads on its patch, including those of Grade II-listed lamps, with LED versions. Campaign groups, led by the London Gasketeers and the redoubtable Dan Cruickshank are on the case, but they need support.
Why Westminster council wants to replace the lamps
Gas lamps are expensive to maintain and repair. They also burn a fossil fuel, which is more detrimental to the environment than low-power LEDs. Gas lamps also put out less light, which could affect safety.
According to a council statement: "We are proud of our city's heritage and as its cultural custodians, it is a responsibility we take seriously. This requires balancing this role with the needs and demands of managing a modern world city. A key element of this is providing high-performing lighting for our public spaces so they remain welcoming and safe."
The plan is to replace only the lantern part at the top with LED replicas "that very closely mimic the originals in style". The historic posts these sit on would be unaffected.
Why campaigners want to keep the lamps
The heritage argument should speak for itself. Gas lamps are an important part of London's history and character. To switch them all to LED robs us of a light on the past. Some of these lamps are proper old — the ones on Birdcage Walk, for example, have gently illuminated the park since the reign of George IV. At a stroke, 275 pockets of charm will be robbed of their romance. The intangible but dollar-luring image of "Ye olde London" will also be diminished.
Campaigners also argue that the environmental hit is less than negligible. It's been estimated that each lamp consumes just a tenth of the gas burnt in a patio heater. They account for 0.0088% of Westminster's carbon emissions. The work to replace them, digging up pavements and such, would itself engender carbon outlay.
The fate of 275 gas lamps might seem like small fry at a time of fuel and climate crisis but, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, the man most associated with gas-lit London: "The little things are infinitely the most important."
How can I get involved?
Westminster Council has already switched a handful of lamps to LED. It's now in the process of assessing the impact. As part of this, it is holding public site visits and feedback sessions to garner opinions. Go along, and see if you agree that the new lights "closely mimic" their antecedents.
If you think the council is wrong, you can follow London Gasketeers on Twitter and Instagram (where they're particularly active) to hear about the latest updates and how to lend support.