Westminster’s historic gas lamps largely saved after council backtracks on LED replacement plan

Westminster’s historic gas lamps will GLOW ON! City council will save 174 ‘Dickensian’ streetlights after public objects to replacing them with eco-friendly LED alternatives

  • MailOnline revealed in July last year that Westminster Council was in the process of converting the lamps
  • The work to replace the lamps was paused at the start of this year to allow a consultation to take place 
  • Council announced today that it has decided to retain 174 of the lamps, although 94 will be changed for LEDs

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Proposals to replace Westminster’s historic gas lamps with LED alternatives have been largely scrapped after a long-running campaign. 

MailOnline exclusively revealed in July last year that Westminster Council was in the process of converting the 305 lamps under its control to LED versions that it said were more eco-friendly.

The work to replace the lamps was paused at the start of this year to allow a consultation to take place, although more than thirty lamps had already been replaced when the work stopped.

Campaigning group the London Gasketeers, which was co-founded by Westminster residents Luke Honey and Tim Bryars, had been looking to persuade the council to drop their plans. 

High-profile acting greats Griff Rhys Jones – who is president of the Victorian Society – and Simon callow spoke out in defence of the lamps, as did architectural historian Dan Cruickshank. 

The Daily Mail had also urged readers to write to Westminster Council demanding that the plans be dropped. 

Now, campaigners’ efforts have largely paid off, with the council announcing today that it has decided to retain 174 of the lamps after its wide-ranging consultation heard from heritage bodies, enthusiasts and residents. Overall, there was more than 1,250 responses to the consultation. 

The council will retain 138 of the lamps that are Grade-II listed, whilst a further 36 non-listed lamps that are in prominent positions will be protected.

However, councillors say 94 non-listed lamps will still be converted to LEDs to aid their climate commitments, although they will be fitted with replica mantles, piping and clocks so that they look like gas versions. 

The Gasketeers said in response that they ‘cautiously welcome’ the council’s announcement, but raised questions about why some of the lamps are still being converted in the name of climate action, given their negligible carbon footprint.  

Proposals to replace Westminster's historic gas lamps with LED alternatives have been largely scrapped after a long-running campaign. MailOnline exclusively revealed in July last year that Westminster Council was in the process of converting the 305 lamps under its control with LED versions that it said were more eco-friendly

Proposals to replace Westminster’s historic gas lamps with LED alternatives have been largely scrapped after a long-running campaign. MailOnline exclusively revealed in July last year that Westminster Council was in the process of converting the 305 lamps under its control with LED versions that it said were more eco-friendly

The lamps controlled by the council light up some of London’s most famous landmarks, such as Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square. They are powered by mains gas and maintained by a team of British Gas engineers.

How the Daily Mail urged readers to help save Westminster’s gas lamps 

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail had called on readers to write to Westminster Council leader Adam Hug and urge him to save the lamps. 

The five remaining British Gas engineers who maintain the lamps were visited this month by the Mail’s Jane Fryer. 

The dedicated team spend up to 60 hours a week caring for the city’s lamps. 

On his rounds engineer Aran Osman showed how he cleans, winds and mends and fettles the lamps. 

‘You become very attached to them — like friends, almost,’ he said.

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail had called on readers to write to Westminster Council leader Adam Hug and urge him to save the lamps. Above: The Mail's Jane Fyrer examines one of the lamps

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail had called on readers to write to Westminster Council leader Adam Hug and urge him to save the lamps. Above: The Mail’s Jane Fyrer examines one of the lamps

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They are among only 1,500 still left in the capital.

Gas lamps – which revolutionised life when they were first installed in London in the early 19th century – also feature in films including Mary Poppins and The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Lamps which were not under threat include ones within the Parliamentary estate, which is part of the Palace of Westminster and not controlled by the council.

There are also hundreds of lamps in the Royal Parks and Palaces which will not be affected by the council programme.

Westminster resident Mr Bryars, who runs a bookshop with his wife in Cecil Court, Westminster, approached MailOnline last year after council contractors ‘dug a hole’ next the gas lamp outside his business.

He said the workers ‘breezily explained’ that they were checking to see if the lamps, which are believed to date from the 1890s, could easily be replaced with electric ones.

MailOnline previously revealed the careless way in which some of the lamps in Westminster had been replaced in 2020.

The council claimed that their replacement was necessary to address the ‘climate emergency, and because ‘gas lighting is increasingly difficult to maintain’.

However, MailOnline was shown figures that suggested that the lamps under Westminster council’s control only use the same amount of gas as 40 patio heaters, which are in widespread use across London in the outdoor seating areas of restaurants and pubs.

The lamps are also said to use make up 0.63 per cent of Westminster Council’s total annual carbon emissions of nearly 45,000 tonnes.

In their partial climbdown today, the Council claimed that Westminster residents in Bayswater and Knightsbridge had urged it to replace the gas lamps as part of its commitment to address climate change. 

But it also said that some lamps that are set to be retained may have to be electrified if there are ‘lengthy delays to repairs or it becomes too costly or unsafe not to.’ 

The council said it has consulted with Historic England to ensure that any replacement LEDs are made to closely replicate the light quality and look of gas lamps.  

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, council cabinet member for city management and air quality, said: ‘We thank everyone who has commented and contributed to the debate on this very serious and impassioned matter. 

Gas lamps give off a distinctive mellow, yellow light which is different from the type given off by modern LED versions. Above: Gas lamps line a street in Westminster

Gas lamps give off a distinctive mellow, yellow light which is different from the type given off by modern LED versions. Above: Gas lamps line a street in Westminster

A gas lamp is seen in St James's Square, Westminster, when it was being removed in the 1930s

A gas lamp is seen in St James’s Square, Westminster, when it was being removed in the 1930s

The Sun Tavern pub is seen last year, with a gas lamp outside it

An image taken more recently shows that the lamp has been removed entirely

Before and after: Photos taken by Westminster resident Nick Taylor show how a gas lamp fitted outside the Sun Tavern pub in Westminster was removed in 2020

An original gas lamp in Covent Garden before it was replaced

The electric replacement

Mr Taylor’s images revealed how lamps in Covent Garden were replaced with electric versions which were intended to mimic the traditional look of the originals

‘We have listened closely to the heritage bodies, gas lamp enthusiasts and residents who have given their views and now propose to change our proposals to reflect the concerns expressed. Public safety has always been our prime consideration, but we also acknowledge the strong heritage issues at stake.

‘We hope that by keeping the 174 gas lights shining across Westminster, we can both keep our streets safe and preserve our precious heritage. 

‘Converting the 94 unlisted gas lamps to LED will make a positive contribution to reaching the Council’s zero carbon target by 2030.’

However, whilst welcoming the authority’s acceptance that their original proposals were untenable, Mr Bryars’ and Mr Honey’s Gasketeers raised questions about the council’s new plans. 

How do the Westminster gas lamps work? 

All the lamps operated by Westminster City Council are powered by mains gas.   

Whilst it is difficult to date them exactly, the earliest ones were probably installed in the late Victorian era, during the 1890s. 

The lamps are fitted with clockwork which needs to be wound approximately every two weeks so that they come on at the correct time.

A flame known as a pilot light, which is always burning, does not produce the light seen by Londoners.

 Instead, the light is generated when a piece of metal mesh, known as a mantle, is heated. The gas flows through the mantle and is then lit by the pilot light. 

When the mantle becomes extremely hot, it lights up to produce the distinctive yellow glow that has been loved by tourists and Britons for more than a century.  

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A statement read: ‘We cautiously welcome the news that Westminster City Council has dropped plans to electrify all of its remaining gas lamps. 

‘We have been overwhelmed by the extraordinary outpouring of support from every imaginable quarter. 

‘Not just people who live and work in Westminster, but people from all around the world – a reminder that London is a world city, and Westminster’s heritage belongs to everyone. 

‘We’ve heard from architects and historians, cabbies and tour guides, we’ve had support from across the political spectrum, from our local MP to the GMB Union, and most of all we’ve been backed by people who just love their city. 

‘It turns out that gas lamps are a surprisingly emotive subject.’

Taking aim at the council’s warning that some saved lamps may be electrified in the future, the Gaskeeters added:  ‘That is not good enough. It leaves the door open for the piecemeal removal of gas lamps at a later date when nobody is looking. 

‘We want a firm commitment from the council for their long-term preservation. The wording of which lamps are safe is also ambiguous. We can’t even tell if the specified “unlisted lamps” are to be saved or decapitated.’

The Gasketeers also raised questions about the timing of the council’s decision, given that the consultation only closed this week and received so many responses that should  have been examined before any moves were made.   

They said: ‘How has there been time to go through them in detail? How has the decision been made about which lamps to keep, and which to axe?’

Calling on the council to provide a list of the lamps that are set to be replaced, the Gasketeers added: ‘Of course, if all 275 gas lamps accounted for 0.0088 per cent of the borough’s carbon emissions, then 94 lamps account for 0.0030 per cent. 

‘It’s getting silly. And if 174 lamps are to be maintained, it makes more sense to retain all 275. 

‘What unique problems afflict the lamps which are under sentence? And maintaining a critical mass of lamps – to support the skilled lamplighters – is vital.

‘We’re glad that the council now acknowledges that their original position was untenable, but the devil is in the detail. The London Gasketeers will not be disbanding any time soon.’

Doubts about Westminster Council’s claim that the gas lamps are not environmentally friendly were first raised last year.

Brian Harper, a former Ministry of Defence engineer, told MailOnline the lamps can be retained at ‘low carbon and high efficiency’.

The council had also argued that the lamps are ‘increasingly difficult to maintain’.

Mr Harper previously persuaded council bosses in Malvern, Worcestershire, to keep the region’s historic gas lamps after proving they could be made more efficient and less costly to maintain.

He said the refurbished lamps generated cost savings of around 80 per cent and that gas usage was reduced by up to 60 per cent.

His group, which is unofficially known as the Malvern Gaskeeters, improved the lamps in his area by changing the way they work.

Gas lamps - which revolutionised life when they were first installed in London in the early 19th century ¿ also feature in films including Mary Poppins and the Muppet's Christmas Carol (pictured)

Gas lamps – which revolutionised life when they were first installed in London in the early 19th century – also feature in films including Mary Poppins and the Muppet’s Christmas Carol (pictured) 

Westminster resident Tim Bryars, who runs a bookshop with his wife in Cecil Court, Westminster, approached MailOnline last July after council contractors 'dug a hole' next the gas lamp outside his business. Above: Mr Bryars poses with the lamp and the filled-in area of pavement

Westminster resident Tim Bryars, who runs a bookshop with his wife in Cecil Court, Westminster, approached MailOnline last July after council contractors ‘dug a hole’ next the gas lamp outside his business. Above: Mr Bryars poses with the lamp and the filled-in area of pavement

Gas lamps are a distinct part of London's history and feature in hundreds of illustrations, such as the one above, which depicts a jolly dancing scene

Gas lamps are a distinct part of London’s history and feature in hundreds of illustrations, such as the one above, which depicts a jolly dancing scene

There are around 1,500 gas lamps in London overall. Above: An illustration showing gas lights on Lombard Street in the City of London

There are around 1,500 gas lamps in London overall. Above: An illustration showing gas lights on Lombard Street in the City of London

Gas lamps which were not under threat include ones within the Parliamentary estate, which is part of the Palace of Westminster and not controlled by the council. Above: Gas lamps are seen in New Palace Yard in 1905

Gas lamps which were not under threat include ones within the Parliamentary estate, which is part of the Palace of Westminster and not controlled by the council. Above: Gas lamps are seen in New Palace Yard in 1905

There are also hundreds of lamps in the Royal Parks and Palaces that were not going to be not be affected by the council programme.  Above: Gas lamps are seen outside Buckingham Palace

There are also hundreds of lamps in the Royal Parks and Palaces that were not going to be not be affected by the council programme.  Above: Gas lamps are seen outside Buckingham Palace

Photographs taken in the 19th century show gas lamps on the Embankment and Shaftesbury Avenue

Photographs taken in the 19th century show gas lamps on the Embankment and Shaftesbury Avenue

Whilst the lamps in Westminster have a flame known as a pilot light which is always burning, Mr Harper changed the Malvern lights so they worked with spark ignition – similar to a domestic cooker.

The clockwork inside the Westminster lamps – which needs to be wound approximately every two weeks so that they light up at the correct times – is another alleged justification for changing them for electric versions.

However, Mr Harper said the mechanism can be replaced with an electronic control system so that they do not need regular maintenance.

The light from the lamps is produced by a piece of metal mesh known as a mantle. The gas flows through the mantle and is then lit by a pilot light or spark.

A flame then envelopes the mantle and raises it to a temperature where it lights up to produce the distinctive yellow glow that is loved by tourists and Britons alike.

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