by Nik Morton
The lamps were invented in the 1890s by a Birmingham man, Joseph Webb, primarily to destroy sewer smells and germs.
At the outlet a temperature of 700 degrees F is generated through reflecting the heat within the lamp-head’s pneumatic hood.A couple of photos can be found at 'My Images' section of this website.
First practical use
In 1894 the first experimental lamp was erected in Guest Street, Birmingham, by Deakin & Webb. The first practical use, however, was in Sutton Coldfield. The rate of extraction of sewer air makes them capable of ventilating three-quarters of a mile of sewer each.
Within ten years of their arrival in Sutton Coldfield the lamps became exceedingly popular throughout the country. Apparently this was because, in densely populated areas of high buildings, it was impractical to take a ‘stink pipe’ sufficiently high to clear the roofs.
Naturally, as street-lighting has given way to electricity these lamps are now mainly curiosities.
Over the years other methods of ventilation have sprung up, through the application of codes of practice and statutory drainage requirements. Now, the practice is to lay house connections from private drains to the sewers without the intervening interceptor trap. This enables the sewer to be ventilated through the vent pipe of the house drain.
When I researched these lamps between 1970-1972 for a couple of articles, they were already becoming a rarity. At no time were there more than a dozen in Westminster. And in the whole of the Thames area, from Maidenhead to Southend, there were only two then. One of those was in Carting Lane, outside the Savoy, and the City intended preserving it as a curiosity; in fact some years ago it was mangled into an unrecognisable mass of metal by a lorry. Nicknamed 'Iron Lily’, the lamp was restored by a team of Thames Gas craftsmen. The second – also situated in the Thames Gas province – was outside 584 High Road, South Benfleet in Essex. Most of Benfleet’s gas street-lamps were replaced by contractors and the gas supply discontinued, though the actual Webb column was to remain for conventional ventilation.
‘Stranger than fiction’
During the Second World War Falmouth’s Webb Sewer Lamp fell into disuse through the efforts of enemy action. In 1957 Marcus Cooper Ltd made a film for the BBC’s then-popular series ‘Stranger than Fiction’. This featured a lamp then situated in Dansey Place, W1. As a result of this programme, Falmouth’s Surveyor, Bryan Sweeney, instituted many enquiries with a view to reinstating the lamp, but unfortunately they were all abortive. The ventilator was sealed off in 1957 because of the bad odour and it would now be virtually impossible for the lamp to work again.
Post Mortem theatres
More bizarre, at Southend-on-Sea a number of these lamps were used to ventilate the septic tanks and also the Post Mortem Rooms in various large hospitals. Six such lamps were installed on the apex of the glass roof of Whitechapel’s London Hospital – the Pathological Block – in 1900. Burning conventional Town Gas, they consumed the foul fumes arising in the Theatre and Depository. The old depository was demolished around 1967 but, prior to demolition, it is thought three lamps remained.
The Hospital’s chief engineer said that, evidently, it was recognised in the department that apart from an emergency, any job in the PM room would wait ‘until the flame was very low’ – only then were the noxious gases adequately dispelled.
Some time ago the Webb Lamp Company suffered a fire in which most records were destroyed, so there are no accurate details as to the numbers of lamp supplied. Though it is known they were delivered in some quantities to Sheffield, Hereford, Winchester, Poole, Hampstead, Shoreditch and Weymouth.
The renowned Ironbridge Gorge Museum at Salop was likely to be the only museum to possess a Webb Sewer Lamp, presented by the Stourbridge Council; half a century ago, Stourbridge had about half-a-dozen; thirty years ago there were only two; now, who knows?
Abroad, for example in Singapore, the lamps were operated by oil lamps. They were also installed for the ventilation of drains at the Palace Residences – such as Fern Hill Palace, Ooty – where King George V and Queen Mary stayed during their visit to India.
And in Canada it was found necessary to install – below ground-level, in the base of the lamp – a chamber containing a type of Bunsen burner to prevent the outlet blocking-up with frozen condensation.
Only the North-East seaside resort of Whitley Bay seemed unusually flush with these lamps in the 1970s, possessing 17 in all! At the time Mr. D W Foster, then the town’s Surveyor, saw these lamps in other parts of the country treated in an interesting manner, by adorning them with a fairground type of decoration. ‘No doubt in these places they are regarded as historical curiosities,’ he said, ‘but I’m afraid that in Whitley Bay they are very much run-of-the-mill.’
These so-commonplace lamps could then be found by the harbour, public conveniences, and numerous road junctions – easy prey for aggressive cars – and outside colliery offices. According to Gerald Withers of Norgas House, Killingworth, most of these lamps came into use in the North-East between 1900 and 1910.
In 1970 the borough council bought up all the spare parts available at the Webb works, since they were going out of production; Webb continued to manufacture fire extinguishers. Any other parts are now likely to be obtained through cannibalisation. In 1993 moves were afoot to refurbish the ten lamps remaining in Whitley Bay and Monkseaton – to be financed by the owners Northumbria Water prior to handing them over to North Tyneside Council.
For a number of years Mr. G K Benn was responsible for the maintenance of the City of Westminster’s Sewer Gas Lamps. The actual maintenance was then carried out under contract by the then North Thames Gas Board, successors to The Gas Light and Coke Company. Mr. Benn says, ‘Very few sewers with which I’ve had any experience – and none in Westminster – could be described as dirty sewers in which marsh gas, methane or fire-damp was a problem.’ He wasn’t aware of any sewer in Westminster where hydrogen-bisulphide – a product of decaying animal-matter – was a danger to anyone, such as sewermen or ‘flushers’ working in the sewer.
The gases produced in the sewer itself are more unpleasant than lethal, like hydrogen sulphide (H2S), which exudes a similar smell to rotten eggs. It is flammable and explosive and can overcome a person in concentrated doses and even suffocate. It also has the hazardous knack of paralysing the sense of smell, other gases becoming unnoticeable.
Atmospheric conditions in sewers vary widely, depending upon the state of the sewer and the nature of the effluent it carries. Atmospheric pollution can create dangers which make the maintenance of a proper ventilation system a necessity. Even so, there is probably less maintenance required of a Webb Sewer Gas Lamp as it isn’t switched on and off either manually or by a time-clock.
One thing is certain, in Joseph Webb’s day they were made to last.
I've received some comments of interest from Chris Webb, a relation of the originator of these lamps. Chris writes:
"I read your article on the Webb sewer gas destructor lamp with great interest.
Joseph Edmund Webb was my great grandfather - the Emperor, they used to call him.
I have a few glass plate photos of the mortuary complex and other workings they were involved in, also of the stand showing the lamps and fire extinguishers in the crystal palace Greater Britain exhibition 1899. I believe the foreman who smoked his pipe in the workshops was suspected of causing the fire.
There was a version of the lamp that could make hot chocolate drinks!
I have also a new timeclock that was fitted to some of the lamps. There are over 1200 glass plate photos, even some showing troops being trained how to use the sectional beams to make bunkers, also the Wright brothers flyer and Louis Bleriot and other aircraft of the era, Edward VII coronation procession from the office window in the Poultry London. My cousin has all the technical drawings for the lamps I hope this has been of some interest to you.