Chimney Sweep

In ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ an Ode to the Fuel Lamp

The beloved nanny at the center of the original 1964 film will return, this time played by Emily Blunt.

But Mary’s original companion, Bert, a chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke, has been replaced by Jack, a lamp lighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Some fans of the original might be disappointed if Bert ceded screen time to Jack. But as a historian of Victorian science, I was delighted to see a bygone industrial technology – the gas lamp – taking center stage.

‘Artificial Suns’

The first public street lights were first installed in the 18th century and used fish oil and wicks.

The reflector lamp, invented in Paris in 1760, became a popular update of existing oil lamps. With multiple wicks and silver-plated copper reflectors, these lamps can cast light downwards and to the side and amplify the glow.

These lamps were hailed as artificial suns – a new technology that could turn night into day.

But it still wasn’t good enough. Compared to today’s lighting, they hardly radiated a flicker. “If you stand directly below,” grumbled a contemporary, “you might as well be groping in the dark.”

As the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch explains in his book “Disenchanted Night”, Gas heralded a new era in street lighting technology. The first gas pipes were made from the barrels of old musket guns and the lamp housings were coated with lime oxide, which glows white-hot in a gas flame.

The result was a lamp that burned much brighter than its predecessor.

London’s Monthly Magazine reports: “One branch of gas-lit lamps provides a higher light intensity than 20 conventional oil-lit lamps. The light is beautifully white and brilliant. “

Victorian magazine The Westminster Review wrote that the introduction of gas lamps would do more to eradicate immorality and crime from the streets than any number of church sermons.

The first gas lighting systems were installed in a foundry in Birmingham in 1802, England’s 18th-century version of American Silicon Valley. As part of King George III’s birthday party. London’s Pall Mall became the first place lit by a gas lamp in 1807.

In the decades that followed, thousands of gas lamps went on across London and in cities around the world.

The professional lamp lighter

However, more lamps required more work. Every evening every lamp had to be lit manually; Every morning the flame had to be extinguished manually.

Groups of lamp lighters meandered through the city streets, using long poles to ignite the gas. Gas lamps could be spirited, so lamp lighters also had to clean and repair the lantern glass, which could break and attract dust and soot.

The lamp lighter soon found its way into popular culture. Charles Dickens’ first comedy, “The Lamplighter,” debuted in 1838.

The Scottish writer RL Stevenson popularized the Scottish term for lamp lighter – “leerie” – in his poem “The Lamplighter” from 1885:

My tea is almost ready and the sun has left the sky;

It is time to take the window to watch the vault go by;

For every evening at tea time and before you sit down

He comes up the street with a lantern and a ladder.

In 19th century England, lamp lighters had a far better reputation than “Dusty Bobs”, the name for chimney sweeps like Bert.

Chimney sweeping was a hopeless craft. Since children often climbed up and down sooty chimneys on this job, Victorian labor reformers viewed him with horror.

Lamp lighters, on the other hand, were paid better and praised for illuminating darkened streets and making people feel safer.

The romance of the gas lamp

By the 1870s, gas lamps were forced to compete with a newer form of street lighting: electricity. The electric arc lamp first illuminated streets in London in 1878; In 1881 there were more than 4,000 in operation. The United States quickly adopted arc lighting, and by 1890 over 130,000 were in use.

However, it took decades for electricity to finally take over gas in most UK cities. Electricity was expensive and many city dwellers thought the light it emitted was too bright.

In response to the challenge of electricity, inventors like engineer William Sugg pushed for improvements to gas lamps to increase their reliability and performance. In 1881 Robert Louis Stevenson published an essay entitled “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in which he complained about the “ugly blinding glare” of electric light.

The British Commercial Gas Association has published a book called Daylight by Night, which uses photographs and watercolor illustrations to show the magical quality of a city lit by gas at nightfall.

Sugg, Stevenson, the gas companies and others were able to temporarily delay the triumphant advance of electricity: Historical magazines such as Municipal Engineering indicate that there were still over 100,000 gas lamps in London up to the 1930s, starting with the powerful lamps mainly used for thoroughfares small low pressure lamps in the outskirts.

There are around 1,500 gas lamps left in London, most of them on world-famous London streets such as Whitehall and Regent Street, near Kensington and Buckingham Palace. These lamps have withstood electricity, lightning, and urban renewal, and their survival testifies to the care of generations of lamp lighters and the admiration of a nostalgic audience.

Meanwhile, the cycling lamp lighter with its pole and ladder has become an iconic symbol of Ye Olde England, along with Hansom Cabs, Big Ben and the bells of St. Paul’s. Mary Poppins Returns production designer, John Myhre, incorporated all of these symbols into the film to give it the unmistakable London of the 1930s, although the lamps shown in the film are more like those of the 1880s.

Today a team of specialists is lighting and maintaining the gas lamps that have remained in London.

You no longer cycle from lamp to lamp. Instead, they whiz through the city on motorized scooters.

Jennifer Tucker is an Associate Professor of History and Science in Society and at Wesleyan University. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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