By Karen Wallis-Smith
During the Victorian era, major improvements in the fields of science and engineering led to a huge expansion in industry. Having previously been restricted to candle and firelight, the effect of introducing a ‘controllable’ light source to society was enormous. Factories, streets, shops and, eventually, houses could now be lit on a scale previously unimaginable; extending the number of working hours in a day.
Experiments with gas began in the eighteenth century, but William Murdoch was the first to use gas on a large scale, when he lit his house and office in Cornwall and, later, his employer’s (Boulton & Watt) works. However, it was Albert Winsor who formed the Gas Light and Coke Company, which became the largest gas company in the world. His success came despite, or maybe because of, some rather ludicrous initial claims; such as his claim that a room full of gas when entered with a candle ‘Will never inflame because it is intermixed with the air of the room’ and that gas was ‘more congenial to our lungs than vital air’.
Now for the dangerous bit... There were two types of gas used in Victorian times ‘coal’ and natural gas. Coal gas included a rather lethal combination of hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and sulphur. Not only is this a highly flammable composition, but the occupants of any building with poor ventilation ran the risk of carbon monoxide suffocation.
As the popularity of gas grew and supplies expanded into homes the industry soon became very cut throat. A lack of regulation meant firms cut corners and tried to sabotage their competition. Low pressure was a common problem for consumers, caused by the numerous fractures of pipes and joints due to poor workmanship, accident or sabotage. However, rather more concerning, were the increased reports of fires, explosions and suffocations. The image of a Victorian lady fainting is as likely to be due to lack of oxygen caused by gas lighting as an overly tight corset.
The Victorian passion for design and decoration led to the creation of some stunning and imaginative gasoliers (chandeliers powered by gas) and gas wall brackets, often adorned with beautiful glass shades. However, they suffered obvious drawbacks with large flames leaping from them, doubly risky given the Victorian passion for copious drapes and a lack of fire retardant fabric! The impure gas of the Victorian era also gave off a nasty smell, blackened walls and ceilings and tarnished metal due to the sulphuric acid given off.
Despite its many drawbacks, gas remained the most popular form of lighting until the launch of the National Grid in the 1930s and the history of lighting would be much duller without it.
ProjectBook members articles are published on the Country Life website each week.
“Gas Lighting toxic fumes, explosions and soot" was originally published on 23rd August 2011 in Country Life’s online Property Blog.
Karen Wallis Smith works with Fritz Fryer Antique Lighting who are a lighting sales, restoration and consultancy service.
The company is renowned for its work with private and commercial clients to create sympathetic lighting solutions for period properties. As well as specialist knowledge of period lighting, they also offer an exciting range of contemporary, interior and exterior lighting and lighting accessories.
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