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  • William Tyler

Let there be Light - in Victorian Britain

The King James version of The Bible in Genesis 1 says, '.....and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.'


In most of history, after sunset, we lived in almost total darkness; and darkness filled us with the fear of the unknown; hence why so many of our folktales in Western and Northern Europe are set in dark and frightening forests.


Thus for much of historical time we only had fire, in one form or another, to push the dark back. We began the human relationship with light at the campfire before moving indoors with wood or coal hearths. We lit rush lights and candles to glimmer faintly in the dark as we moved away from the fire, possibly to find somewhere to sleep.


It is amazing today to think that improvements in lighting only reached us, and then not all of us, in the 19th century. My own family home in Bristol, which my grandparents had been given as a wedding gift, and of which in the late 19th century they were the first occupiers, still had vestiges, when I was a child, of the gaslighting which they enjoyed as a young married couple.


For my own childhood, growing up in the early 1950s, I can well remember asking if the lights could be put on (by then, of course, electric), and being told somewhat roughly 'it isn't lighting up time yet.' How did my parents and grandparents know when lighting up time was on a particular winter's evening? They looked in the local Bristol evening paper. All local and national papers provided this service to their readers. Today there is still official lighting up times but they are no longer printed in newspapers and the younger generations will never have heard of the phrase.


Lighting up time was first introduced locally in the 19th century and was then enforced at national level under the Lights on Vehicles Act of 1907. It was the motorcar and indeed increased horse driven traffic that necessitated this change. It had nothing to do with indoor lighting of one's home as enforced in mine! The 1956 Road Traffic Act defined lighting up time as 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise. The law said during this period all vehicles, including bicycles as well as motor vehicles and horse drawn carts, must show lights in unlit streets. Today the legislation, although still in force, is almost never invoked as street lighting in towns has improved dramatically in recent decades and we have all become used to switching our car lights on in the country- although it is interesting to note that one still sees cyclists riding in the dark with no lights.


Before my grandparents had gas lighting in their home and before I grew up with electric lighting, our forebears had candles, or, for the poor, rushlights. Rushlights were literally made from rushes covered in built-up layers of fat and placed in special holders. In order to get the maximum light from this poor source you lit the rush from both ends - hence the phrase 'burning the candle at both ends'.


At the start of the Victorian Age there were three types of candle. Those made from tallow, those from whale oil, and those from beeswax. The disadvantage of tallow candles, made from animal fat, was their smoky nature and their smell. Whale oil candles were harder than tallow and beeswax ones and therefore lasted longer and were more economical. The best sort, of course, were the beeswax ones, but their cost was high for the average middle class household in early 19th century Britain. To improve the light from candles, the rich used sconces, chandeliers, and elaborate candelabra, all three enhanced by the use of mirrors. The rest of us made do with the humble candlestick.


The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was specifically constructed to maximise the light from the candles in the room. Some historians maintain that only this one room in the whole of 18th century Europe would have provided the level of lighting we would today regard as adequate.


Before gas lighting was, in Lucy Worsley's phrase 'tentatively', introduced in the 1840s, oil lamps were a big improvement on candles, and were first used towards the end of the 18th century. Oil lamps were a particularly dirty form of light, however, and this goes some way to explaining why Victorians favoured dark colours for interior decoration which helped to mask the soot from the lamps more effectively than the light colours favoured by the Georgians.


Gaslighting was regarded, correctly, as dangerous; one of the few houseplants that could survive in a gas lit atmosphere was that iconic Victorian plant, the aspidistra ! Thus, when electricity arrived in the 1880s gas lighting had no future, although because of the high price of electricity, this new form of lighting took some considerable time to reach into all homes. Gaslighting still exists in the streets of London where some 1,500 still shine forth nightly.


One exception to the arrival of good lighting in our homes was the coming of early television viewing in the 1950s, when many households pulled the curtains and turned the lights out in order to get a better view of the television screen.


We are no longer constrained by the dark, yet we remain only a failed light switch away from being thrown back to The Middle Ages! Thus why most of us keep the old reliable candle in a drawer somewhere, just in case......


I'd better just go and check where ours are!


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