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London in 1839

Part Seven - Lighting, Sewers, Fires

Lighting :-

The whole of London is now well lighted with coal gas. In 1694 it appears that the City was partially lighted with lamps. By the act passed in that year under which the Orphans Fund was created, the sum of £600 per annum was assigned towards that fund as arising from a lease granted for 21 years by the corporation, of certain lights to be used in the City ; from which it maybe inferred that the city authorities in those days derived a revenue from granting the privilege of lighting to private parties, who must of course have taken their remuneration from house-holders. At the expiration of the lease here mentioned viz. in 1716, an act was passed by the municipal parliament repealing all former laws upon the subject, and ordering that for the future every housekeeper should hang out a light from his door with sufficient cotton-wicks to burn from six o'clock in the evening until eleven of the same night which hour the streets were consequently left in darkness. The housekeepers were at liberty to discontinue the lighting of their street lamps between the seventh night after each new moon and the third night after it arrived at the full - an instance of economy which is still practised in many of the provincial towns of this kingdom. Every housekeeper who should omit to hang out the necessary light on all other nights was fined one shilling for each offence. This system proved to be exceedingly troublesome and unsatisfactory ; and after a few years a company was established which in return for a payment of six shillings per annum, which it was authorised to demand from each householder rated for the support of the poor within the city, engaged to provide a sufficient number of lamps and to keep them lighted from six o'clock until midnight. The company further engaged to pay to the Orphans Fund the yearly sum of £600 above mentioned. The insufficiency of the light thus provided may be inferred from the numerous depredations then committed in the city by highwaymen, who, riding into the streets after nightfall, perpetrated their outrages with impunity. This evil rose to such a height that government found it necessary to offer a reward of £100, a large sum in those days, for the apprehension of every highwayman in the city of London or within five miles of the same. After these evils had been endured for some years a further and a more effectual improvement was introduced. The contract just mentioned was cancelled, and an act of parliament was procured in 1736, authorising the corporation to set up as many glass lamps as should be necessary, and to keep them lighted throughout the year from the setting to the rising of the sun. To defray the cost the corporation was empowered to levy an annual rate upon every householder proportioned to the value of his house. This system was found to answer well, and continued in operation until the introduction of gas-lighting. During the 70 years that intervened London enjoyed the reputation of being the best lighted city in Europe, but no person, unless he can remember the nightly appearance of the metropolis previous to the adoption of gas-lighting, can be sufficiently aware of the value of the improvement, nor of the degree in which it operates as a measure of police. The lamps are now lighted by various joint-stock companies possessing large capitals, and which are content to derive a low rate of remuneration for the lighting of street-lamps, in return for the opportunity of supplying shops and private houses, which pay more liberally. The first established of these gas companies received a charter of incorporation in 1812 ; it has three stations, one in the Horseferry-road, Westminster, another in Brick Lane, Old Street, and the third in the Curtain Road, Shoreditch. Several other companies have since been established; the more important of these are, the City of London, the Imperial, the British, the Independent, and the Equitable gas companies ; these supply among them inure than 60,000 lights over a field extending from Bow on the east to Brentford on the west, and from Edmonton on the north to Brixton on the south.  Their aggregate incomes for these lights, derived from parishes and private consumers, exceed a quarter of a million of money per annum : of this sum the corporation of London pays about £10,000.

Sewers :-

The sewers of the metropolis and adjacent districts, comprehending a circle of ten miles, measured from the Post-Office, are divided into seven trusts, and placed under the management of as many boards of commissioners, viz.:-

1. The City and Liberties of Westminster.
2. Holborn and Finsbury division.
3. Blackwall, Poplar, and Stepney division.
4. The City of London.
5. The Tower Hamlets division.
6. From the river Ravensborne, in Kent, to the river Mole, in Surrey.
7. Regent Street division.

There are no means of ascertaining the aggregate length of the sewers throughout these divisions. Those under the commissioners for the City of London are about 15 miles in extent, and form only a small part of the drainage of the whole metropolis. Sewers were first constructed in London in the reign of Henry VI, under an act (6 Henry VI, c. 5) passed in 1428. This act was amended by parliament in the reign of Henry VIII ; and the law relating to sewers passed in the twenty-third year of that reign, is still substantively adhered to by two of the seven boards of commissioners, the fifth and sixth of the above list ; the other five boards are regulated by local acts. The expenses attending upon the construction and management of sewers in the different districts are repaid by means of rates levied upon the householders at the discretion of the several boards of commissioners. In the City of London the rate cannot exceed 4 pence in the pound on the rental. Much dissatisfaction existed some years ago in regard to the efficiency of the sewerage in different parts of the metropolis. Drains which had been adequate to the drainage and cleansing of a district in former times were rendered by degrees wholly inadequate, through the increase of the population. Much has of late years been done to meet this objection ; the subject has been investigated by a Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1834 ; and although there are still some obscure corners where the health and comfort of the inhabitants might be improved by a better attention to the sewers, it may be fairly stated that the drainage and the removal of impurities from London are, upon the whole satisfactorily accomplished. The sum collected in the City of London district for sewers-rate in 1838 was £12,214, 8 shillings and 1 penny.

Fires :-

An important part of the police of a city consists in the measures taken for the prevention and extinction of accidental fires. After the Great Fire of London, in September, 1666, an order was issued forbidding any person to proceed in rebuilding his premises until some general plan should be devised for rebuilding the city in such a manner as should prevent the recurrence of a similar misfortune. The chief improvements introduced at that time consisted in widening the streets and employing bricks for building the houses instead of wood and lath and plaster, which had previously been very generally used. The regulations adopted on that occasion were extended and improved from time to time by various acts of parliament until 1774. In that year an act was passed (14 George III c. 78), commonly called the Building Act, repealing former acts, regulating the mode of building so as to render houses  ornamental, commodious, and, by providing party-walls of a certain thickness, secure against the accidents of fire. Under this act it was further rendered incumbent on churchwardens to provide one or more fire-engines in every parish, to be in readiness on the shortest notice to extinguish fires and also to have in constant readiness ladders to favour the escape of persons from burning houses. It was further made incumbent on the churchwardens to fix fire-plugs at convenient distances upon all the main water-pipes within the parish, and to have keys to open the same, so that the water might be instantly made available. Graduated rewards were also established by the same acts to persons bringing the first three parish engines for the extinction of a fire. These measures have since been greatly aided by the various offices for insuring property against fire which have maintained, at their own charge, numerous fire-engines and corps of firemen. The legislature on its part gave facility to the officers by granting protection against impressment into the navy to those firemen who were chosen from among the watermen and lightermen employed upon the Thames. Until a recent date each of the insurance offices maintained its own engines and corps of firemen independently of all other similar establishments. A few of the most extensive made an arrangement among themselves in 1825, by which their engines and firemen were placed under the orders of one superintendent but it was not until 1833 that the fire-offices of London became generally united for this purpose under one uniform system, each office subscribing towards the expense of the establishment in a certain agreed proportion.  Under this arrangement, which is superintended by a committee of delegates, one from each of the associated offices, London is divided into five districts, three on the north and two on the south side of the Thames, viz :-

North 1. From the eastward to Paul's Chain, St Paul's Churchyard, Aldersgate Street, and Goswell street-road.
North 2. From the above district to Tottenham-court-road, Crown Street, and St. Martin's Lane
North 3. Parts to the westward of the foregoing.
South 4. From the eastward to Southwark-bridge road
South 5. From Southwark-bridge road westward.

The force employed consists of a superintendent, 5 foremen, 10 engineers. 9 sub-engineers, 31 senior firemen, 35 junior firemen and 6 extramen, and the number of engines in constant readiness is 33, which are kept at 20 different stations in various parts of the metropolis : two are floating-engines, kept on the river, one moored off King's Stairs, Rotherhithe, the other off the Southwark Bridge. One-third of the men employed are constantly on duty day and night, at the engine-houses, and the whole are liable to be called upon whenever a fire occurs. The superintendent who must repair to the spot, wherever it may be, when a fire breaks out, has power to employ any additional number of men that may be wanted. The firemen are uniformly clothed, and have their heads protected with helmets made of hardened leather ; they are provided with the most approved apparatus for the suppression of fires, the rescue of human life, and the saving of property ; including ropes and lengths of scaling-ladders capable of being readily connected to any required length. The advantages attending an organized force of this description must be apparent. We have no record of the number of fires that occurred previously to its establishment in the metropolis, but a record has since been kept from which the following particulars are taken:


Number of fires

Wholly burnt

Severely damaged

Slightly damaged

Fires in which lives were lost

Number of lives lost