Memory Lane: Lamps ain’t what they used to be

Mr Arthur Elliott in 1980
Mr Arthur Elliott in 1980
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WHEREVER you look on your travels around the Fylde coast, the pavements and roads are being dug up as old and not-so-old lamp posts are removed.

They are being replaced by the latest energy-efficient models in a programme that is set to go on for some months yet.

One of the new Eon streetlights being installed in the streets of Blackpool.

One of the new Eon streetlights being installed in the streets of Blackpool.

But no matter how hi-tech these new-fangled lighting structures are, the question must be asked: can they make a decent cup of tea or cocoa?

It might sound like a flight of fancy, but such a service was once on offer – if only briefly – back in 1898, according to Arthur Elliott, who was affectionately known as Blackpool’s ‘Director of Dazzle’.

Arthur pulled the plug for early retirement in 1988 after 15 years as the resort’s director of lighting and electrical services.

He admits that over the years he amassed a bulging pile of trade and technical magazines, and today he shares a gem from the February 15, 1974, issue of The Journal of the Association of Public Lighting Engineers.

A hot water street lamp.'Illustration in an article dated 15/02/1974 taken from The Journal of the Association of Public Lighting Engineers.

A hot water street lamp.'Illustration in an article dated 15/02/1974 taken from The Journal of the Association of Public Lighting Engineers.

That magazine carried a flashback article on an enterprising street gas lamp which was also capable of making hot drinks.

Arthur, who lives in Little Eccleston, says: “By anyone’s thinking, the method of utilising the street lamps for that purpose was very ingenious, but I don’t think we had any hot water street lamps in Blackpool, do you.”

The reprinted Victorian article reports: “Street lamps have been erected in London to supply a gallon of hot water for a halfpenny on the ‘penny-in-the-slot’ system. For another penny they supply a compressed slab of cocoa or tea, compact with condensed milk and sugar. Thus for one and a half pence (little more than half a penny in decimal currency) you can have a cup of tea or cocoa in the street.”

Basically, the large post of the lamp contained a tank holding 50 gallons of water supplied from the mains under the street.

A small quantity of water was carried through a spiral pipe round the lamp flame several times and then into a little boiler right at the top, which turned it into highly-heated steam.

This steam passing down again then boiled a gallon of water in a small tank, before passing down again through the large tank.

As the article explains: “In an ordinary kettle you cannot heat above boiling point because the steam escapes but close the vessel completely and the heat rises far beyond boiling point.

Consequently the steam in the little closed boilers of these street lamps becomes very highly heated and is able to raise the single gallon to boiling point.”

When the halfpenny was paid and the handle pulled, the gallon tank of boiling water was emptied, and when the handle was closed, the tank was refilled, and down came the superheated steam, boiling the water in less than three minutes.

The first lamp of this kind was erected in Queen’s Buildings, a block of model dwellings in Southwark in April, 1898.

The lamp was set in the second square of the buildings, not in the street, and was the property of a firm of hot water engineers.

So why did this revolutionary lighting and combined vending contraption fail to capture the nation’s coins and imagination?

As Arthur says: “The arrangement did not meet with much success, and several times the lamp was forced open and the takings stolen.”