Monday, 16 March 2009

Notes of an unwritten article, erroneously published


Some time in or before 1956, John Betjeman noted and recorded the existence of five privately owned lampposts in London, all of them along the Strand. The private ownership of light is an intriguing concept; it evokes a sense of unnecessary greed, perhaps recalling Delos David Harriman’s bold ruse in Heinlein’s 1949 novel The Man Who Sold the Moon, and yet historically it is perhaps not so remarkable. The fact that Betjeman comments on it at all, is as a subtle jibe at the LCC for their installation of new public lighting around the city. These five remained as oddities – survivors – “all of them” he writes, “are well designed and none of them in concrete.”
It is that side of Betjeman that seems somewhat curmudgeonly. Though concrete posts did not survive well, the implication that privately owned lighting was by its nature better, underplays the invaluable importance that public lighting schemes in the 1950s had on this country.
Private lighting is by its nature, largely piecemeal in its approach, with few noteworthy exceptions. In 1824, Paris was fitted with 11,205 street lamps, their lighting franchised out to enterprising individuals who would be made responsible for the illumination of twenty-five lamps during a forty minute period. Such extensive programmes were never seen in this country, however. Here, privately owned posts were the responsibility of individual shopkeepers or homeowners, and so their operation was rarely consistent.
Of those posts that Betjeman records, it would be interesting to know how many are surviving. Certainly the first, which stood by St. Clement Danes, seems to have gone. From his description of the post, I take it to have been at the end of Milford Lane, where The Graphic had originally positioned its premises in 1860. The Sun Engraving Company acquired this building some time around 1932, during a time of massive expansion. The company itself is of interest; aside from producing such popular publications as the Picture Post, Radio Times and Woman’s Own, it was at the forefront of developing colour photogravure in this country, building upon the work of that the Rembrandt Intaglio Company (which they bought in 1932) had pioneered at Lancaster, by running three single-fed colour machines in tandem.Milford House where the company had its city premises, was severely damaged by bombing in 1944, though astoundingly work continued there for the rest of the war years, printing government propaganda thanks to a repair grant which allowed the upper stories to be rebuilt. Such flimsy construction that it was, and the company having built a large print works out in Watford in 1952, they must have abandoned the site sometime around Betjeman’s observations and it has since been replaced by a large 1970s office block.