Are you worried about the proposal to turn our street lights off late at night ? If so, you would have been very unhappy in the early 1800s, when there were no lights at all ! But then in 1834 the Witham Gas Light and Coke Company was formed. They bought some ground at the corner of Mill Lane and Newland Street, and a gasometer from Neath in South Wales, and built the works. So in 1835 it was reported that “the town of Witham was brilliantly lighted with gas for the first time, and much delight was manifested … A band paraded the town during the evening, and an excellent dinner was partaken of at the works by the trustees and inspectors”. The first 26 street lights remained in use for nearly a hundred years, and gradually more were added.
Some years ago, several people told me about their memories. Mrs Baker said “I remember the gas man used to come and light the lamps on a bicycle. I can remember as plain as anything.” Mr Newman recalled that “they used to cycle round and put them on at four o’clock in the afternoon … and pull the chain to bring the light on, and he’d come round about ten o’clock at night and put them out again.” Mr Keeble remembered that “boys would climb up the lamp-posts and put the lamp out.”
Mrs Ashby had moved to Witham from the village of Shalford in 1914 when she was three. She said “Of course, we’d never seen street lights or pavements before. My mother couldn’t get me in. I was walking up and down with what children used to call mail carts, you know not like ordinary dolls prams, up and down this pavement. You know I was so thrilled with it. She couldn’t get me in. I was walking up there in the dark.”
The lights were not lit at all for five nights whenever there was a full moon. And they were unlit continuously for three months during the summer. I don’t think these two ideas have been suggested for 2012.
In 1912 a threat to the Gas Company appeared on the horizon. This was electricity. Some nearby towns had already been using electric street lights for several years. In Witham there were meetings and arguments about the matter for a very long time. Finally in 1929 the Council agreed to have three electric lights at the main street corners, and in 1931 they decided that all the lights should be electric.
The Gas Company still had plenty to do providing for domestic lighting and cooking. To promote itself, it put on cookery demonstrations like the one in 1939 where “the Menu for the first week will be puddings for all seasons’”.
For street lights though, electricity proved to be brighter, easier, and usually cheaper than gas. Mrs Ireland told me that when the new lights first reached Chalks Road, you could have seen a mouse run across the road !
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in March 2012