Drinking fountains were often combined with lamps – no point in having a fountain if you can’t see it in the dark! The lamps of these multi-use structures can be found within canopies and also as a lamp pillar atop fountains and horse troughs.
The erection of ornate, decorative drinking fountains was prevalent in Victorian times and to a lesser degree in the Edwardian period. Initially, light was provided by gas until electricity became more commonplace during the early 20th century.
The bars near the top of the lamp(s), called yoke maintenance arms, supported the lamplighter’s ladder.
Once up the ladder, he opened a hinged pane of glass. With his pole which contained a spirit lamp, he used the hook at the top of the pole to tug on one of two chains, which hung within the lamp. One chain engaged the supply of gas and the other closed the gas supply. When the gas was lit, it made a popping sound.
The flame from the lighted gas heated a mantle which became incandescent and gave out light. When the mantles needed replacing, the light flickered so that shadows seemed to move. Gas mantles were made from a material that looked like fine honeycombed silk and were extremely fragile. Once they had been heated, they crumbled very easily.
Shortly after the Second World War clockwork timers were installed in street lamps which allowed the light to come on and off automatically. This new invention meant the extinction of the lamplighter profession. However, maintenance of the lamps, and winding of the clock mechanism, was needed periodically and still required the use of a ladder.
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by
For every night at tea-time and before you take your seat
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Marin go to sea
And my Papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you.
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight.
Written by the famed Robert Louis Stevenson. (In Scotland, a lamplighter was called a Leerie.)