Creatures of the night, The Sunday Review, Independent On Sunday, 2005

Creatures of the night, The Sunday Review, Independent On Sunday, 2005


You see a simple lamp-post. Lee Gale sees an illuminating piece of design history. Here he shines a light on his eccentric passions, visits a secret street-lighting museum and tracks down a twin-armed concrete classic in Purley

The Sunday Review, Independent On Sunday, 2005

Causewayhead Road, which heads to the Wallace Monument just outside Stirling, is a disappointment. This salubrious stretch of the A9 has had its street-lighting columns changed from the classic, concrete Springbank C with its glorious arc bracket and orange, low-pressure sodium luminaire – a veritable cobra reaching over the road to present us with a casket of gold – to soulless, steel hockey-sticks. It’s a disaster and, because it’s pouring with rain, there’s nobody around to shout at.

But, as daylight fails, a gear-slamming sortie round the poorer Stirling district of Raploch yields pay dirt. Along Drip Road there are two lines of Springbanks standing proudly, as if to salute their final year of illumination. Bang on cue, my camera battery runs out, causing more anger. But then the lights start to flicker to life and the spectacle of those strawberry start-up hues makes my heart glow again. It feels like I’m visiting a dying grandparent.

Stirling Council’s street-lighting department has only been keeping records of its columns since 1990 so the heritage of this spun-concrete stalwart is a mystery. “Springbanks are still standing through a lack of money,” team leader Peter Nowek explains. “Many of these concrete columns have lasted 30 years beyond their expected lifetime – some have lasted 50 years. From a design point of view, you can’t argue with that, although nobody’s said they particularly liked them until now. We’ll be replacing the final few over the coming months.”

For a nation so keen on all facets of design, it’s unfathomable that there’s no place in our affections for lamp-posts and the lights, they hold aloft. We flock in our thousands to pay homage to an unmade divan by Tracey Emin but shun the higher points of lighting column eccentricity. There are no public museums for street furniture, nor is there a national collection.

Once, lamp-posts were made to be admired as vibrant symbols of their age. Now, local councils opt either for a standard Victorian style with tear-drop lamp – a fad started in the late-1970s to give town centres a more traditional atmosphere – or more commonly the barely-perceptible thin black pole. We’ve stopped noticing lamp-posts because of their design.

“You’ve got several effects pulling in different directions,” explains Clive Lane, twice president of the Institution of Lighting Engineers and the secretary and treasurer of the Lighting Column Technical Forum. “You’ve got ordinary, mundane street lighting, where economics rule the roost. You then have heritage areas where they can receive special grants. Normally you’re talking about £130 for a simple street-lighting column. Blackpool has columns curving out over the street, arcing from ground level, but you’re increasing the price 10-fold when you do that.”

Most modern lighting columns are not fit to rub Brasso on the base door of a Springbank C. Back in the 1950s when the world was awhirl with the Jet Age, designers of everything from cars to grannies’ spectacles were swept along with the excitement of high-speed air travel. Fins were in and this filtered down to the humble lighting column.

During this crazy, US-influenced period, the main suppliers of concrete lamp-posts in this country were Stanton, based in Stanton-by-Dale, Derbyshire (now absorbed into the French-owned Saint-Gobain Pipelines) and Concrete Utilities of Great Arnwell, Hertfordshire (today known as CU Phosco and a front-runner in steel-column construction). The two companies were bitter rivals – in the 1950s, CU supplied Erewash Borough Council with free columns to erect outside Stanton’s factory. Both firms churned out millions of lighting columns to be sold around the world.

CU Phosco’s HQ is still in the same location as when the company started out in 1923. The managing director William Marques, grandson of Australian founder Charles Marques, allows me a peek through ancient Concrete Utilities sales catalogues. They’re treasure troves.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea was to get noticed,” Marques says, opening a brochure. He’s not wrong. A CU Avenue 4D “Special” featuring a pair of angelic wings could be the finest lamp-post ever made. Its curves are effortless, mesmerising – but only Hackney and Morecambe councils bought it. Beneath a photo reads the inscription: “To hold its Beam above a Broad Highway – In graceful lines, an ornament by day”. God has these columns in Heaven. “They’re the last we’ll see of swan-necks and arc brackets,” Marques says, before turning to a page that shows a crocodile-esque, hugely-futuristic Highways X column – another incredible piece of workmanship. And so the afternoon goes…

But that’s not the end of the entertainment, as Marques fastens up his jacket and guides me outside. Surrounding the offices on all sides is the largest private collection of lighting columns in Britain. “We started it in 1973 to commemorate our 50th anniversary,” Marques explains, leading the way around the 60 posts. “But we haven’t added anything for a while. Some columns are by this company; some are not. Most are buy obscure little foundries, and I think the oldest one is from the early 19th century.”

Names of lost firms spring out, as if from gravestones: Eagle Foundry, Salford; J Bradshaw & Sons, Bolton; E Woolley, Accrington; Baker Inn Foundry, Bedford… one even has a base made from an old cannon cast.

“We don’t advertise the museum and we don’t show people round any more,” Marques adds, slapping a pillar that once stood on London’s Mile End Road. “After 20 years’ good service, we thought enough people had been to see them. There used to be the odd school visit but I can’t imagine children will be interested in this sort of thing now.”

There are 7,100,019 lighting units in the UK. A typical column, from the pavement up, consists of: a base, in which the workings are stored; the shoulder, where the base narrows into the main structure; a vertical shaft to achieve the required height; a bracket, which holds the lantern in a horizontal position; and the luminaire, the lamp itself. Some old columns also have “ladder arms”, horizontal struts that hold a ladder while fixing or cleaning the lamp. Modern street lights have a photocell on their roof that reacts to changing light conditions. A hundred years ago, each column had its own internal brass clock that told a light when to switch on and off. Later a block of lights would be run from a master lamp-post, which meant they would all spring into life at the same time (make a wish!). More commonly today, each light works independently.

The main problem for lamp-post designers has long been dogs. “There is a subjective appreciation of the problems of ‘canine urine’,” explains Clive Lane. “One is corrosion, which can go down into the soil and affect the column’s root. The other, which operators were more worried about, was the fact that doors used to be lower, only six inches above the ground, and that area could be coated with urine. Tests were done on the destructive nature of dog urine and now doors are supposed to be a minimum of 300mm above ground level and preferred at 600mm.

“In lectures I do, students often respond and say, ‘It must depend on the size of the dog.’ I then make a joke and say, ‘Well in actual fact no, because we’ve done some tests which have indicated that the bigger the dog, the further away it gets and therefore the point of impact is the same,’ which is completely true, but nobody had to do tests to come up with that.

Due to the longevity of some columns, there are plenty of rarities in urban nooks and crannies than tend to be overlooked by street planners, and a handful of dedicated enthusiasts know where to look. Among the elite is Simon Cornwell, a software engineer from Cambridge. He has an encylopaedic understanding, as his website is testament. Much of his spare time revolves around locating early pieces: he owns 150 lanterns and 12 cast-iron columns.

“If you’re new to the subject, there a two places of interest,” Cornwell suggests. “First of all, Cambridge has the last Group-A fluorescent installation I know of in the country. The Richardson Candles were custom-made for the city by REVO in the late 1950s. Being unique has ensured their survival, but the lighting by modern standards is dim. Cambridge is a dark city by night. Then there’s Central London; lots of gas and custom lanterns in the centre. The interesting places after that are the single streets forgotten by a lighting engineer, or one or two columns on the A22.”

While on the train from London to Brighton, I see a stream of Stanton 6Bs, which are similar in appearance to Stirling’s Springbanks. The short-bracketed show-offs with faux-Phoenician headdresses climb along a quiet, suburban street in Purley to the brow of a hill then disappear. It’s proper middle-class country, full of gated properties and retired building contractors. The following morning, for a fleeting second on the same train, I spot an ultra-rare 6C twin arm – twin-arms mean two lamps. My word! A call is made to Croydon Council.

“We have one double-arm 25ft concrete column,” confirms Jim Palmer in the street-lighting department. “I’m just about to replace the bracket because it’s badly cracked. It’s in Old Lodge Lane on the junction of Hartley Down, half a mile from Purley Station – is that the one you mean?”

This could be the final twin-arm 6C in existence. Up close, there’s an old Labrador quality to the golden concrete and, like all aged dogs, the 6C is undeniably grey around the muzzle. Twenty feet up there are tell-tale symptoms of age and tiredness. Concrete is thinning, chunks have fallen away. Round the corner on Hartley Down, a black, steel lamp-post already in place signals the change to come. For now, and for a few final months, its grand old neighbour will steal the limelight.