They were nicknamed ‘fart lamps’ in Edwardian times and caused quite a stink in their day.
Today they’re easily mistaken for old-fashioned lamp posts.
They may be disguised as street lighting but they’re actually gas sewer ventilation lamps.
They were designed to relieve the foul smelling fumes from a town’s sewage system. But there’s more than meets the eye to these obnoxious lamp stands.
For years I’ve been puzzled by the strange, lime green gas lamps of Whitley Bay and Monkseaton which are dotted around random locations in my local neighbourhood.
It turns out that the lamps are rare survivors of street furniture which was once common across Britain.
Their designer was a Birmingham inventor called Joseph Webb who called them ‘Destructor’ or ‘Exterminator’ Lamps. I love their evocative name!
I was intrigued by them and had to find out more about these strange Edwardian curiosities…
A bit of research revealed that old Victorian sewers were often poorly ventilated and badly laid-out.
There was a risk of hazards and explosions from methane and stagnant gases which could build up.
Imagine the scene… an ordinary person taking their daily walk blown up by a sudden blast from below their feet. The unsuspecting victim would have been covered by debris and excrement!
There were also fears that diseases might spread through the sewer system.
The ‘destructor’ lamps were the perfect solution – and fulfilled a dual purpose. They could ventilate the sewers – and the excess methane gas could be burned off to create street lightning. A genius idea!
The lamps were easy to maintain and their “excess gas” was used to provide street lighting. In many ways it was an early example of renewable energy.
Mr Webb’s first experimental lamp was tried out in 1894 in Guest Street, Birmingham. But their earliest practical installation took place in Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands. The lamps were an instant success.
Between 1914-1935 the gas sewer lamps popped up all over England. They were particularly popular in densely populated towns and cities where it was impractical to build tall ‘stink pipes’.
But by the 1950s they were superseded by new technology and modern plumbing systems. Sadly, they became forgotten relics of an earlier age, and many were dismantled or scrapped.
The ‘Stinky Lamp’ Tour
Today there are only a few examples of the lamps in England, but a few have survived, thanks to conservation and restoration work.
One of the areas flushed with success at saving its lamps is North Tyneside where I live.
Seventeen lamps were installed in Whitley Bay and Monkseaton between 1900-1910. It’s remarkable that 10 of the lamps still survive today.
Conservation work began in the 1970s when the council bought up spare parts from the Webb works which was going out of production. The surviving lamps were refurbished to their full glory.
I was determined to track them all down!
My first port of call was Spanish City in Whitley Bay where three of the lamps can be found close together near the seafront. Their red and green design recalls the jaunty fairground feel of the original Spanish City amusement park.
The first is on a busy road traffic junction where most people stroll past hardly giving it a second look.
Another is positioned directly on the main promenade and provides a convenient perch for the local flock of starlings. It dates from 1900.
A third lamp is further can be spotted further up the road near a cafe on Marine Avenue where it is easily mistaken for an old lamp post.
As I stumbled upon more of the lamps, I was puzzled about why they often appear in small groups.
My research showed that they were built at high points in the sewer system and were linked to the underground sewer. This explains the clusters of ‘stinky’ lamps.
Each lamp was capable of ventilating about 3/4 mile of sewer, a remarkable engineering feat.
The gases produced in the sewer were often more unpleasant than dangerous.
One of the foul smelling substances emitted was hydrogen sulphide which smells like rotten eggs. This gas can also be extremely flammable and can even result in suffocation, if inhaled in high doses.
West Monkseaton – a ‘hot bed’ of gas lamps
Stopping the Stench
I was curious to know if unpleasant smells still escaped from the sewer system even when the lamps were operating at full capacity.
Did the locals ever have to cover their noses when there was a disgusting smell being forced out?
I discovered that Mr Webb’s original experiments hadn’t always been successful and his prototype lamps had run into a few problems.
One of the issues was the stench. If there was insufficient methane in the sewers to keep the flame alive 24 hours a day, the lamps would flicker and go out.
If the gas built up again, a subsequent surge in methane gasses would be released. This would make the nearby streets smell of bad eggs!
Webb solved the problem in 1895 when he designed sewer lamps which were powered by town gas. This allowed a continuous flame to burn 24 hours.
There was another bonus… as the gases passed through the lamp into the air, smells and bacteria were destroyed by the heat
Searching for the Lamps
My next challenge was to find some of the lesser-known lamps in my local patch… a perfect lockdown project.
My gas lamp ‘trail’ took me to several unexpected locations including a housing estate in West Monkseaton, a shopping street, and a crescent near Whitley Bay Ice Rink.
One of the most visible lamps is located outside the fish and chip emporium on Front Street in Monkseaton.
If only the customers knew the street lamp’s smelly history!
Other lamps are scattered around modern housing areas where they stick out like proverbial sore thumbs.
Deneholm in Monkseaton is one example where a random, old lamp sits on a pavement next to a Metro bridge. I love the way that it feels so out of place in the modern world.
After yet more research, I located a solitary lamp on the corner of The Grove, a smart residential street in Monkseaton.
Around the corner, there’s another green lamp on St George’s Crescent, a leafy street with expensive houses.
In their heyday, these lamps were powered by the town’s ordinary gas supplies which heated the filament up to around 700 degrees Fahrenheit.
This heat drew the methane and other gases from the sewer system, ventilating and extracting the gas – and illuminating the surrounding streets.
I wondered if the locals know that they’re living on ‘stinky street’?
Take a closer look at the lamps and you’ll spot some clues about their origins.
But you’ll have to get down on the ground and tip your head sideways.
On the lamp’s base there’s a cast iron plaque reading “J.E. WEBB’S PATENT SEWER GAS DESTRUCTOR LAMP”.
The Harbour Lights
My biggest surprise was discovering a small group of the lamps in Seaton Sluice, a couple of miles up the coast from Whitley Bay.
These ‘fart lamps’ are dotted around the picturesque harbour – and again they’re easily mistaken for old street lamps.
The main difference is that they aren’t green but painted in a beige with olive coloured bottoms.
The J.E. Webb logo is the giveaway sign that they were made by the same company.
Another lamp on Albert Road by Seaton Sluice’s village green is sadly missing part of its top section and finial… and looks a little worse for wear.
Further up the road in Hartley village, I was surprised to find an early sewer gas lamp which has been classed as a ‘listed building’.
This cast iron lamp is located slap bang in the middle of a 1930s housing estate.
It dates from late C19and was also made by Webb Lamp Co Ltd. It has the same moulded base, fluted shaft, and a circular head with a domed cover.
The Gas Light Age
These lamps were very much of their era which I refer to as ‘the gaslight age’.
They were hugely popular throughout England in Edwardian times and during the 1920s and 1930s. And they weren’t confined to Tyneside and northern England…
London had large numbers of them with examples in Westminster, Hampstead and Shoreditch.
The “Great Stink” of 1858 caused a terrible stench in London with people being overcome by the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent.
This public health crisis led to the building of the city’s Victorian sewer system. The gas lamps were installed to work in tandem with the new network.
Today only one gas sewer lamp remains in London, and is bizarrely located at the back of the glitzy Savoy Hotel.
It’s perhaps ironic that London’s only stink lamp is located on Carting Lane by one of the city’s poshest hotels . Londoners have nicknamed the street “Farting Lane”!
A few years ago a lorry accidentally reversed into the lamp, knocking it over. But the lamp has now been restored and you can seek it out, if you’re in the vicinity of The Strand.
Sheffield in Yorkshire has one of the biggest collections of the old lamps. The city once had more than 80 of them. Twenty five remain today.
There is also evidence that the lamps were used by hospitals and post-mortem theatres in London and Southend-on-Sea in Essex
Many of the lamps disappeared long ago, but it’s good to see that North Tyneside is flying the flag for their restoration. Its jaunty lime green sewer lights are a distinctive feature of the street scene.
A stroll around the lamps brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “enjoying the sea air”!
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