There has been an enormous growth in public lighting over the last 70 years. The Second World War had just finished; during the conflict the blackout had meant there was no street lighting permitted. Astronomy was not uppermost in the majority of people’s minds during the war, but the absence of light pollution must have produced ideal conditions for stargazers.
I am too young to remember the blackout, but when I first became aware of my surroundings it was still possible to look up at the night sky outside my home and see the stars twinkling above me. In the 1950s only the towns had street lights, so all the villages were plunged into darkness after nightfall. Small rural communities did not expect their nighttime to be bathed in light, and the idea of illuminating empty roads in the countryside would have seemed bizarre.
Having been to visit our relations at Kings Lynn it was always a delight for me to return to Norwich at night. After leaving the West Norfolk town the only place to have a few lights was Fakenham, so after many miles of darkness it was magical to look down on the lights of Norwich from the crest of the hill in Drayton. How things have changed! Now the street lights go for miles along the road, through Drayton and Taverham too, and there is no delightful view of the bright city lights. In those days the lights of Norwich were largely mercury vapour lamps, which gave off a greenish tinge. The 60s saw the change over to sodium vapour, whose orange light was less attractive.
After travelling through the centre of the city we left through the village of Trowse on our way to Poringland. Trowse was adjacent to Norwich and was highly unusual for a village at that time in having street lights. This was no doubt a kindness provided by Mr Colman, a modern facility for his workers who largely populated the village. These street lights were still, in the 1950s, old-fashioned gas lights however, which had to be lit by the lamp lighter. This was a man with a ladder who went round every evening to light the lamps, and again in the morning to turn them off. The light the gas mantles shed was even more attractive than the mercury vapour lamps of the city.
The only rural communities to have any permanent outdoor lighting were those lucky enough to possess a railway station. There the platform would have oil lamps, and this form of illumination lasted until the majority of villages lost their stations in the 1960s. Otherwise the only permanent lighting in the countryside was indoors, and this was mostly provided by candles until the arrival of electricity. The occasional oil lamp might be held in the hand of someone who had to venture outdoors, where a candle would soon have blown out.
In the towns and cities where there was street lighting in the 19th century the lamp posts were made of cast iron. This was true of gas lamps and it remained true of electric lights when these arrived. The cross member at the top was made of wrought iron, and this is nicely demonstrated by the photograph of St Benedict’s street at the top of this page. I mentioned towns and cities, because by the time villages and rural main roads began to get street lighting the construction method had changed to reinforced concrete. The main advantage of this from the council’s point of view was that these did not require painting. Cast iron lamp posts have now all but disappeared in this country, but in Beziers in Southern France they still have cast iron lamp posts decorated with climbing art nouveau foliage. I think there are still some mild steel ones about here in England.
Street lighting is now so pervasive that the whole globe appears like a gaudy bauble from space. There has been a reaction to this, and attempts have been made to reduce the unnecessary lighting in the dead of night, in residential areas at least. There the illumination serves no purpose when the inhabitants are fast asleep. Needless to say, this eminently sensible suggestion has met with vocal opposition from those who fear marauding night-dwellers, who would do vile deeds in the hours of darkness.