Lee Gale mourns the disappearance of an historic piece of British street furniture
[One of the nicest people I met on the freelance sub-editing trail was Anthony Teasdale. We were both on a shift at Esquire when our paths first crossed. I knew Tony ‘from the grapevine’ as the editor of the mysterious underground title Umbrella. He’d managed to get to print a magazine concept that wasn’t too far removed from my own British Ideas Corporation – and he’d heard of me. We were like the managers of the two top teams in the Vauxhall Conference. In an ideal world, Tony’s Umbrella and my British Ideas Corporation would have existed side by side, each selling 700,000 copies, but alas it was not meant to be. We crossed the streams when Tony got me to write a few words about lighting columns. I’m probably due another street-light story at some point soon.]
How do you end up with an interest in concrete lampposts? Certainly, by the time I was four, I knew the names of most cars and I still have a poster that I drew with felt tips around 1976 cataloguing street signs and what they instructed. Lampposts – or to use the proper term, lighting columns – were the frame to the road’s artwork.
It quickly became apparent that lighting columns were not a single, standard design so I knew they must also have names. Dad, who’d been so helpful pointing out Escorts, Vivas and Marinas, could offer no assistance. All the information I could find was the company title at the base of columns. Stanton and CU (Concrete Utilities) were prominent.
During the Nineties, I watched with unease as concrete columns were uprooted and replaced by aluminium hockey sticks that were so devoid of character they were practically invisible. It was then that I realised our ornate concrete columns were in danger of vanishing without a trace. With no national repository for street furniture, I was witnessing the wholesale disappearance of an important part of British industrial design.
It was during this time that I learnt the names of lighting columns using the highly illuminating simoncornwell.com/lighting, a site which started in 1997. Have a look, it’s terrific; Simon Cornwell is the country’s leading knowledge of historical streetlighting. As my interest brightened, I started taking my camera with me wherever I went and would come across installations that had been granted, for whatever reason – usually a lack of municipal money – a stay of execution.
My favourite lighting column is the faux-Phoenician Stanton 6B, manufactured at the Stanton Ironworks in Derbyshire from roughly 1930-50. Having seen photographs of my Doncaster childhood, I discovered that the 25-feet tall 6B, holding aloft its golden-casket sodium luminaire, was my local council’s choice for major highways. From the tens of thousands that were made, around a dozen are left in Britain. There are two long-abandoned 6Bs on scrubland in Adwick-le-Street to the north of Doncaster but a new housing development nearby hints at their fate.
Derbyshire remains a treasure trove, with 14,000 concrete columns still standing within its boundary, although these are largely later-model designs from the overtly dreary Seventies. It was while travelling to Crich Tramway Village with the kids recently that I spotted from a hilltop the silhouette of not one but two 6Bs that I’d never seen before! I eventually located the columns in the car park of the 17th-century Peacock Inn in Oakerthorpe.
I asked a barman about the 6Bs but information was sparse. Afterwards, I called the council and discovered that the columns were on a narrow strip of disputed territory. The council thought the land was the property of the pub; the pub believed it belonged to the council. For this reason, the 6Bs remained, albeit unwanted and unloved… well, by most. I’ve just googled the pub and seen that it has closed due to structural problems. If you’re a Derbyshire museum, I’d get yourself down there sharpish. You might be able to save a vital part of your fast-disappearing industrial heritage.