by Ben Johnson
Lurking around the back of the world famous Savoy lies an ingenious – if not slightly nauseating – piece of Victorian engineering; London’s last remaining sewage lamp.
The Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamp was invented in the late 19th century by the Birmingham inventor Joseph Webb. In London the lamps were used for two main reasons; firstly to burn off the smells and germs from London’s sewer system, and secondly as a low cost, low maintenance way to keep London lit up at night.
Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer, with the gas then being diverted into the lamp on the street above. The lamp remained lit 24/7, powered at least partly by an almost unlimited amount of waste from guests staying at the nearby Savoy Hotel.
Interestingly, the effluence from the sewers was not actually concentrated enough to fully power the lamps. Instead, the lamps were “dual powered” by ordinary town gas supplies which heated the filament up to around 700 degrees F. This heat then drew the methane and other gases from the sewer system, in turn ventilating up to three quarters of a mile of pipe!
Although there aren’t any accurate details of how many of these lamps were supplied to London (a fire at the Webb Lamp Company some time ago destroyed all records), it is thought that Westminster, Hampstead and Shoreditch all placed large orders.
What we do know is that the only remaining Webb Sewer Lamp in London is located on Carting Lane, just off The Strand. Unfortunately, a reversing lorry accidently knocked over the lamp some years ago, but it was subsequently restored by engineers from Thames Gas and is now protected by Westminster Council.
For more information visit Nick Morton’s brilliant article on the Webb Patent Sewer Gas Lamps.