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Street Life

Following my recent musings on crop circles,  JP,  a friend who takes an occasional interest in my posts, took me to task. “ Why are you writing all this boring stuff about UFOs?”, he said. “We all know it’s not aliens. Write about something interesting – like – what’s this bell thing on the pavement in the middle of Shenfield?  Here’s a picture – it looks really old, it must have some history”.             

Found on the streets of Shenfield, Essex.

So, I undertook JP’s mission and started looking at what is quaintly called street furniture. It’s the stuff you pass by on the street without really noticing. But there’s a lot of it, and it packs a historical punch.

The road goes forever on…

The history of the roads themselves is of course really interesting. But the stories of Roman pavers, chariot-ruts, turnpikes, John McAdam’s handiwork, and ankle-wrenching cobblestones must wait for another post. Let’s get back and move the furniture around a bit.

You can divide the paraphernalia of the street into two distinct camps. Some things  seem to have been there for ever – or at least a few hundred years – things like street lighting, post boxes and bollards.  The engineering might change over the years, but the underlying functionality stays the same. 

And then there’s the other camp –  artefacts no longer used, but which remind us of a past that’s disappeared. Things like water pumps, village stocks and horse troughs.

What’s fun for the history-seeker is witnessing the gradual slippage of time on our streets.  Objects gradually slide from the first camp into the second – for example,  telephone boxes and drinking fountains; once used universally, now gradually becoming museum pieces. 

In turn, new objects take their place, which will become the museum pieces of the future. What will our distant descendants think of electric charging points and cardiac defibrillators?

Leaning on a lamp post

So off we saunter down the city street. It’s probably a London street, because that’s what I know and love best. It’s an evening stroll, so our way’s lit by the glow of  street lamps.  The Romans got there first of course, having oil-based street lamps over 2,000 years ago. In the barbarian wastelands of Albion, it took a while longer to introduce street lighting. 

William Murdoch’s house – Redruth, Cornwall

Cornish engineer, William Murdoch was a supervisor in a tin mine in Redruth. He worked out how to refine coal gas in order to produce a usable flame, and in the 1790s his house in Redruth became the first in the world to be lit by his new invention.

Commercial public  lighting by gas soon followed. First installed in Pall Mall in London in 1807, and then implemented throughout the country, and eventually the world.

Gas men on scooters

You can still see old gas lamp posts around. Although many have been converted to electricity, some still remain gas-fuelled.  Incredibly there are still  1,500 or so gas-lit lamp posts in London alone. A team of 4 British Gas attendants tend the majority, whizzing around the city on scooters.  They retrieve their ladders from where they’re chained (the observant might spot these on the streets), and then shin up to maintain the clock mechanisms that turn the flames off and on, and the gas mantles. This little video shows the work of the team :

Gas lamp, Richmond, London

Incidentally, a good way to identify a gas lamp post, is to look for the horizontal rail just below the lamp itself.  The lamplighter used it as a ladder-rest.

Gas-fuelled lamp posts are scattered around London, the oldest by Westminster Abbey, the most modern in Covent Garden. You can follow the map shown here

 to see a fair few, if you fancy a quirky day out in the capital.

The deadly SGD

Before we leave our gaseous enterprises, I just want to bring to your attention an interesting alternative lamp post, with the arresting title of: the Sewer Gas Destructor Lamp. You can still see some of these scattered about, mainly in northern towns. Mr Albion tells me he remembers seeing them on the streets of Manchester.

Sheffield SGD

Their purpose wasn’t to provide lighting. Actually, they were built to dissipate unpleasant odours from the sewers beneath the streets into the air above the lamp. Although they did have a flame, it was fuelled by the normal gas supply, since sewer gases are generally not sufficiently combustible to light a flame, you’ll be pleased to hear. Here’s a picture of one, from the streets of Sheffield. 

Yablochochkov’s candles

Eventually of course, gas was replaced by electric lighting. Paris claims to be the first city to be lit by electricity – using arc lamps called Yablochkov’s candles, named after their inventor – in 1878. London followed later that year. The Holborn Viaduct and the Thames Embankment were the first locations to be lit up by the new invention.

But where do you think was the first full street in London, to be lit by electric street lighting? You want a clue? All right,  Brixton…  (oh, keep up), it was Electric Avenue of course!  I won’t write a lot about electric lighting, or inundate you with pictures of light bulbs and such. You all know what they look like. But, don’t you think our present electric street lamps will appear so quaint in a few hundred years or so, having been replaced by…. who knows?

Water, water, everywhere

All this hanging around lamp posts builds up a thirst – let’s try and find some clean, free water.

You can still spot public drinking fountains and horse troughs, usually Victorian,  scattered around the streets of our towns and cities. Why would anyone go to the trouble of providing these for free? The answer is in the historically poor quality of drinking water. Before the link between public hygiene and public health was discovered, disease and early death were rampant, because of a contaminated water supply. Water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid claimed multiple lives.

A doctor, John Snow (no, not that one), made the link between these fatal diseases and bad water. He famously proved his point in the 1850s, when he identified a hotspot of water-born diseases near Broadwick Street, in London’s Soho. Because the authorities were slow to react and didn’t believe the connection, he took action himself. He simply removed the handle of the public water pump. Soho residents were then forced to walk to a pump situated a great deal further away, which was supplied with cleaner water. The death rate fell and John Snow was vindicated.

John Snow’s handle-less pump, Broadwick Street, Soho

The original pump has long gone, but now you can see a replica of the famous handle-less pump, which stands in front of the pub that proudly bears John Snow’s name.

The demon drink

Once the importance of clean water was recognised, the great and the good were keen to supply public fountains with a pure supply of water. Not solely for the good health of the populace I’m afraid to say, but to keep the common folk out of the pubs. In an age when drinking water was suspect, people of all ages turned to beer – considered far safer to drink. And so, temperance societies in particular were very keen to provide a copious supply of water, to help folk avoid the demon drink. 

The first public fountain was set up at Saint Sepulchres in Newgate, London, in 1859, and was used by a staggering 7,000 people a day. A few years later, the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain  Association changed its name by dropping the “Free”, and adding “and Cattle Trough”  to its title. The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association did what it says on the tin.  Animal welfare was beginning to be considered seriously in the 1800s, with the foundation of the RSPCA in the 1820s . 

Cattle trough, near Chelmsford, Essex

You can still see their  troughs on the streets, although many have now been put to use as flower beds. And you’ll easily spot  Victorian drinking fountains, many still flowing with water, in order to keep you out of the pub. And hopefully, in order to stop the purchase of yet another plastic bottle of water.

A load of old bollards

No doubt we will spot the odd bollard or two on our evening stroll. “What’s there to write about a bollard?”, I hear JP sigh. Well, what about cannon bollards? The earliest bollards weren’t used to block traffic. They were actually placed in dockyards and on jetties, for mooring ships. And the materials most easily at hand to construct them were old ships’ cannons, which were sunk into the ground, and then shored up with dirt or even old cannon balls. There are still a few remaining cannon bollards along the banks of the Thames, including one at Bankside on the South Bank.

Cannon bollard, Bankside. Photo Credit: Secret London

There’s a story that this particular bollard is made from a French cannon, captured at the battle of Trafalgar. Apparently, although much of the captured ordnance was reused by the British, the cannons were too large to be fitted into Navy ships, and so they were “up-cycled”, as we would now say. They were made into bollards, as a taunt to the French enemy.

The Trafalgar story is probably untrue, according to naval historian Martin Evans, but he agrees that the Bankside bollard is made from an old ships cannon, maybe French, maybe not. There are others scattered around the city, if you’re interested in naval history.

Going, going, gone

Almost at the end of our evening stroll, we pass two items of street furniture which are gradually slipping into the “quaint but now unused” category.  Telephone boxes still stand in our streets, but with the advent of mobile phones, their days are surely numbered. Their active life on our streets has been brief – first introduced in 1924, they will no doubt be obsolete within a hundred years of their birth. But it is fun to see their re-purposing, into a host of mini libraries .

Re-purposed phone box, near Burnham, Norfolk

Post boxes however, will probably struggle on for a while longer. Although they have been around since the 1600s, the big change occurred when Rowland Hill proposed a fundamental change to the postal service in 1840. Up until then, the receiver paid for the postage, not the sender. Hill proposed that the sender paid.

A sailor son

There is a story that Hill witnessed a poor woman approached by a messenger with a letter. She sadly declined to receive it, since she had no funds. Hill questioned her, and found out that her sailor son had sent the letter. They had devised a system where he would regularly write letters that he knew she would never be able to pay to read, but she would at least know he was still alive, when the messenger tried to deliver it. That story apparently prompted Hill to action.

Victorian letterbox spotted in Truro, Cornwall

After Hill’s shake-up of the system, post boxes were introduced throughout the country.  The free-standing ones were originally hexagonal in shape, later circular.  You can still spot very old ones, and identify their age by the monarch’s insignia on them.

Except in Scotland. The Scots refused to have the logo E II R, representing the current queen, on their post boxes. They argued that she is the first Elizabeth to rule Scotland, not the second. Tudor Elizabeth was merely queen of England. Hence, Scottish post boxes  only bear the motif of a crown.

Hiding in plain sight

Our tour of the city streets has now ended. So many of the artefacts we have seen are like a deserted house – the inhabitants have long fled, leaving the evidence of their everyday lives strewn around. The history really is in plain sight.

But what of our ancient bells, which intrigued my friend JP, and which are found embedded into the pavements of streets around Britain? 

Bell bollard, Clapham Common, London

 They were invented in – the 1980s!  The bell bollards actually are built as a safety device. Their  structure is designed to deflect the wheels of lorries and cars, which might crash straight through an upright bollard. With a bell design, the vehicle will most likely stop in its tracks. But as consolation, JP, you have the knowledge that in a few hundred years they will be considered quaint historical street furniture!


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