The famous farting lamp of London

Last week I wrote on The Great Stink of 1868.  By chance todays post is on a related subject.  Many people will be aware that in the Victorian age, much of London was lit with gas lamps and in deed several places still are.   Less well known is that some of these lamps were powered by the gas from human sewage.

The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp was invented in the late 19th century by the Birmingham inventor Joseph Webb. In London the lamps were used for two main reasons; firstly to burn off the smells and germs from London’s sewer system, and secondly as a low cost, low maintenance way to keep London lit up at night.

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Part of the original patent for the sewer lamps.

Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer, with the gas then being diverted into the lamp on the street above. The lamp remained lit 24/7, powered at least partly by an almost unlimited amount of waste.

Intriguingly, the effluence from the sewers was not actually concentrated enough to fully power the lamps. Instead, the lamps were “dual powered” by ordinary town gas supplies which heated the filament up to around 700 degrees F. This heat then drew the methane and other gases from the sewer system, in turn ventilating up to three quarters of a mile of pipe!

There is just one of these lamps still fully functioning in London and it is in a very swanky park of London, next to one of the finest hotels in London, The Savoy.  The map below is at least partly powered by the waste that their guests produce.

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The final working sewage lamp in London in Farting, I mean Carting Lane.

There aren’t any accurate details of how many of these lamps were produced as a fire in 1925 at the Webb Lamp Company some time ago destroyed all records but hundreds and likely thousands were installed.

Just off The Strand is a relatively unvisited street called Carting Lane.  We are very lucky to still have this lamp as just a few years ago, a reversing lorry accidentally knocked over the lamp.  Thankfully it was subsequently restored by engineers from Thames Gas and is now protected by Westminster Council.

The lamps were invented in the 1890s by a Birmingham man Joseph Webb. Within ten years of their arrival in the lamps became spread across the London to London and then the world.  Old sewers were often wonky and pockets of gas could collect that would lead to deadly explosions and these lamps were a clever way to eliminate that problem and provide almost free lighting to the murky streets above.

Rather morbidly, a number of these lamps were used to ventilate the septic tanks and also the Post Mortem Rooms in various large hospitals in provincial towns such as Southend and also on the large city hospitals such as the  six such lamps installed on the apex of the glass roof of the Pathological Block of  Whitechapel’s London Hospital in 1900.

A sewer lamp in Whitley Bay, Newcastle.

A sewer lamp in Whitley Bay, Newcastle.

As technologies and operating procedures changed and electricity came to dominate things, naturally the use of the lamps began to fall by the wayside with the damage of WW2 not helping matters.  Though as a boy in my local seaside town of Whitley Bay there were still many of these lamps around in the 1970’s and 80’s, brightly painted in that the seaside mood would not be spoilt by the concept of burning gas from human waste.    In Sheffield some lamps remain and they continue to serve the original purpose of ventilating the sewers.

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An old sewage lamp in Rural Lane, Sheffield.

The lamps went to some British Commonwealth countries though in Canada, a separate flame burner had to be installed just under the surface of the lamp to ensure the freezing winters didn’t block the ventilation pipe.

 

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
This entry was posted in history, Life, London, Science and Engineering and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The famous farting lamp of London

  1. Contractions of Fate says:

    Oh, I say!

    >:8o

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sed30 says:

    Reblogged this on sed30.com and commented:
    Fascinating- did not know this. Assumed they were town gas supplied.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A fascinating post … just wondering is an initial “s” missing on your adjective to describe the park by the Savoy….

    Like

  4. Pete says:

    Reblogged this on Pete's Favourite Things and commented:
    Following on from my post about Frederick Winsor and the production of Gas in London, I was interested to read this post from Stephen Lidell which presents a whole different method of producing gas to light our streets.

    Like

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