The Carting Lane Sewer Lamp - London's last methane burner
When the sewerage system upon which Londoners still rely was first put in place at the end of the 19th century, a series of street lamps were installed above to help with ventilation, and to burn off noxious fumes. One still remains on Carting Lane, just off the Strand, next to the Savoy Hotel.
With the arrival of enclosed sewers came a new problem - ventilation. Engineers proposed various ideas for ventilating the sewers, and one of those schemes included lamps that would burn off the gases from the underground world while illuminating the streets above.
Patented by British engineer Joseph Edmund Webb in the 1890s, the so-called 'sewer gas destructor lamps' were designed to extract gases from the pipes and burn them off at high heat. Methane was collected by a small dome in the roof of the sewer, with the gas then being diverted into the lamp on the street above. The lamp remained lit 24/7, powered at least partly by an almost unlimited amount of waste from guests staying at the nearby Savoy Hotel.
An 1896 notice in The Standard newspaper boasted that the lamps worked by an extractor pipe that 'communicates with the sewer and conveys the sewer gas direct to the lamp, where it is subjected to a temperature of 650 degrees to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, thus cremating all the germs and nauseous gases and producing more perfect combustion, whereby the light is much increased.' This didn’t always work especially well, and revised versions also relied on a town gas mains supply, too, to keep a flame perpetually flickering while still also drawing methane from the sewer.
Soon, the lamps lined streets in several cities, in England and beyond.
Most of these lamps are now gone, but you can still find one just off the Strand, not far from Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden in Carting Lane, on the west side of the Savoy Theatre and hotel. It's at the bottom of the steps next to the Coal Hole pub. You’ll find the dark-coloured, elegantly decorated lamp on the right-hand side, near a fence-mounted plaque that identifies it as 'the last remaining sewer gas lamp in the City of Westminster.'
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