I spent the evening trawling through old engravings of Leith, and think I’ve found what I was looking for. The oldest picture (that I can find) showing street lamps in Leith! These five oil lamps are shown in the vicinity of the King’s Wark on the Shore, in a 1790 print by Dominic Serres.
This search was stimulated by a conversation which enlightened me with a curious tale that involved the Leith streetlamps in days of yore. It got me thinking, what were the earliest streetlamps? According to “Leith Through Time” by Jack Gillon and Fraser Parkinson, there is a description of Leith Walk having 40 lamps in 1799 after its upgrade to a road for carriages following the North Bridge being opened and the primary horse and carriage route moving from the Easter Road to Leith Walk.
The Edinburgh World Heritage foundation commissioned an excellent report on the old Edinburgh streetlamps. Although it is principally concerned with the World Heritage area of the Old and New Towns, we can at least get the an idea of the particulars of what early lamps in Leith would have been like from it. A contemporary colour image of a London lamp lighter is shown with his assistant in 1808. The lamp is a glass globe, with a ventilated, wind-proofed cowl. Suspended in the globe is the lamp itself, a small glass dish of oil with a floating disc, with basic lenses from crown glass “bullseyes”. The lamplighter is passing the assistant the oil dish to refill from his jug.
Here’s a similar Georgian lamp frame on Leith Walk today, the crosspiece under the holder for the globe was for the leerie (lamplighter) to prop his ladder up on. When you see these old lamp frames with a ring to hold a glass lamp globe and no source up the centre for gas or electricity, you can be sure these are for old oil lamps. These lamps burned oil, specifically what was known as “train oil”. Which is odd as trains as we think of them now weren’t a thing in the late 18th century; that’s because it’s a corruption of the Dutch traan, a word for fish oil (levertraan in Dutch is cod liver oil, in German it is lebertran). However this is no oil from a fish, specifically it’s oil from a whale!
Leerie, leerie, light the lamps, Lang legs and short shanks. Tak’ a stick and break his back, And send him through the Nor’gate!An old Scottish childrens’ rhyme, recorded by Robert Chambers in 1826
An 1820 minute of Edinburgh’s lighting committee explains; “…the Contractor shall furnish the lamps with a sufficient quantity of the best Greenland whale oil and two wicks of sixteen threads of the best Oxford cotton“. The best oil was Grade 1, from the top of the cask. Edinburgh and Leith had a ready local source of such oil from the Leith whale fleet, which was active around the late 18th and early 19th century, but apparently the city sourced it’s municipal lighting oil from Hull.
The city’s lamp contractor was Smith & Company on George Street. The lamps were to be “trimmed daily and the globes to be cleaned at least three times in the week.” Even the finest train oil gave off soot; one of the early lighthouse keepers’ tasks was to polish the soot off of the reflector of the oil lamp (see below). The lamps were to be filled to burn until 3AM, at which point they would burn out and extinguish themselves, although the commission recognised “let the same quantity of oil be put into 2 two lamps and both equally trimmed by the most expert and experienced lamplighters, the one will continue burning from half an hour to an hour longer than the other“
If the name Smith and the association with Georgian lamps is ringing a little bell, that is because Smith was Thomas Smith, the adoptive father of Robert Stevenson – the patriarch of that great Lighthouse-building and lamp and lens-making dynasty. Smith himself was also a builder of some of the first Scottish lighthouses as the chief engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board and was an early pioneer of lighthouse lamp and lens improvements.
Coincidentally, the Smiths and Stevensons lived at 15 Baxter’s Place, which is the top of the route of Leith Walk, with their works a short walk away at Greenside. So it is perhaps no coincidence this fashionable new stretch of the city got some of his finest street lamps so early.
But the reason for this entire thread is less about the lamps themselves, but more because of the curious tale of the week in the winter of 1799 when the Leith street lamps kept going out and leaving the Walk “ever and anon into a more or less eclipsed condition“.
In 1799, Russian warships anchored in Leith Roads off of Inchkeith, part of a squadron from the Baltic Fleet under Vice Admiral Pyotr Khanykov. Britain and Russia were at this time allies in the War of the Second Coalition against revolutionary France and Spain, and the Royal Navy’s North Sea Squadron under Admiral Duncan was co-operating with the Russians on escorting convoys in the North Sea.
The Russian fleet was in a poor state compared to the Royal Navy, and frequently put in to port to repair and seek medical attention; there was an agreement at the time that sick sailors could be brought into Edinburgh for treatment by the Royal Infirmary. The Russian 66 gun man-of-war Iona* under Captain Piavzov arrived in Leith Roads on 19th November from Texel following the failed Anglo-Russian invasion of the Frissian Islands. The newspapers noted she was not fit for sea and she proceeded to put a significant part of her crew ashore with fever and other ailments and buried her dead on Inchkeith.
(* = the contemporary newspaper reference says Jonas, but I am going to assume this was a typo or translation error, as no such ship existed in Russian service, and in Russian I am told that Iona and Jonah are one and the same)
There appears to have been little in the way of contact or hospitality between the Russians and locals; a contemporary account describes a party rowing out from Leith to the Iona only to be completely ignored by the officers and men of the ship and coming away with a very negative opinion about Russian naval efficiency, decorum and cleanliness. The Anglo-Russian naval cooperation agreement was faltering at this time and Russia would shortly quit the alliance, but before leaving, the Iona allowed parties of men ashore into Edinburgh on the pretext of sight-seeing. Possibly they had more carnal reasons for wanting to be on land…
For the better part of a week that December, the street lamps of Leith Walk would mysteriously go out each night, even though they were cleaned, checked and the oil levels trimmed daily sufficient that they should burn until dawn. It was finally discovered by a night watchman that the Russian sailors staggering home down the Walk from the drinking dens of Edinburgh were climbing the lamp posts, removing and extinguishing lamps and drinking the contents of train oil. Why they should go to this effort is potentially revealed by the reference of a late-Georgian cookbook which tells us that the sailors in question were Kamtschadales. What we would now refer to as Kamchadals; these are the inhabitants of Kamchatka in the far east of Russia, descendants of the indigenous peoples of those parts. To them the train oil was a home comfort; just imagine these sailors, some 10,000 miles sailing from home, utterly homesick, in poor health and morale coming ashore and finding that the street lamps of Leith Walk were full of what they considered to be a fine delicacy. Of course they couldn’t but help themselves!
The thing about unpressurised oil lamps though is that they are a rubbish source of light. The Commissioners, on inspecting their lights, found “the great proportion giving light so very feebly“, so it was hardly surprising that when gas lamps came along there was a rapid switch. Gas (town gas, from coal) arrived in Edinburgh in 1818 when the New Street gas works was opened by the Edinburgh Gas Light Company. You can still find some of their covers embedded in Edinburgh pavements. Leith got its gasworks in 1837, on the corner of Baltic and Constitution Streets. Like New Street, it was the arrival of the railway bringing in coal straight from the Lothian coalfield that had made this possible and not just economical but profitable
So next time you’re strolling along some of the Georgian bits of Leith, like Ferry Road, you might look up and think of the time the Russian sailors drank all the lamp oil and left the place in darkness.
And if you’re wanting to go and find even more Georgian oil lamp holders in Leith (and who wouldn’t?) someone’s already identified and catalogued the remaining lot of them in this handy Flickr album.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
[…] We can see lots of gas lamps in all three photos; those on North Bridge in the first picture are the clearest. The first such public lights were introduced into Edinburgh in 1819. The cross-piece on the stalk is for the leerie’s (lamp lighter’s) ladder. The gas spigot comes straight up through the standard. The first lamp has its glass bowl and chimney, the other is missing. At this time gas lamps did not use mantles, so the light given off was not particularly bright; but was a huge improvement on the “train oil” lamps that had come before. […]
[…] Out of focus in the front of shot is the cross-piece of a lamp holder, cast with the name of the Leith Harbour Commissioners who were responsible for quayside lighting. It has the form of an oil lamp bracket, but has a small gas spigot so has been converted. The glass bowl and the cowl are missing, have they been vandalised? The original lamps on the Shore were some of the oldest public street lighting in Scotland and have their own interesting history, including the story of the drunken Russian sailors who drank all the lamp oil and caused a week-long blackout …! […]