Carting Lane, WC2R
Just off the Strand and adjacent to the Savoy, running down to the Thames, is a rather unprepossessing street, Carting Lane, which is known pejoratively by the locals as Farting Lane. Step out of the side entrance of the Coal Hole – my favourite pub in the Strand area and so-called because it was originally the coal cellar for the Savoy. It became the venue for a song and supper club where comical and sentimental songs were performed with Gilbert and Sullivan a regular turn – and you are in the lane.
If you look down towards the river you will see on the right a lamp with a spike on top and a glass container for the light, looking for all the world like a beached and anorexic lighthouse. But it is this light – it even has a name, Iron Lily – that is the main feature of this otherwise mundane thoroughfare because it is London’s last remaining Webb Sewer Lamp. Alas, it is not the original which was done for by a reversing lorry but a replica, faithfully restored, which is now under the protection of Westminster Council.
The Webb Sewer lamp was invented by one Joseph Webb of Birmingham in the early 1890s and the first was erected in Guest Street in his home city in 1894. Without getting too technical, methane collects at the top of a sewer. This ready supply of gas was diverted from the sewer to the lamp to power it – an early example of recycling. As with many green devices, the power derived from the waste products had to be supplemented – in this case by the ordinary gas supply. Nonetheless, the lamp shone for twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.
Smells emanating from the sewers were a major problem in the Victorian era, particularly in built-up areas where the height and proximity of buildings made it difficult to disperse the fumes effectively. The Sewer lamp was an enterprising solution to the problem because it burnt off the smells and germs from the sewer and by recycling a waste product provided a cheap and relatively maintenance free – as they didn’t switch on or off there was no need for any switch mechanisms or timing devices – form of lighting the streets of London.
It is not known exactly how many of these lamps were erected in London – the records of the Webb Lamp Company were destroyed in a fire – but large orders were certainly placed by the councils of Westminster, Hampstead and Shoreditch. Although they must have been a common place sight in parts of London contributing to the distinctive aromas of the metropolis their days in the sun were fairly short in number as electric lighting became the vogue in the early twentieth century.
Although it is an urban myth that the lamp was run entirely on the fumes from the sewers a flue did draw up methane from there to burn along with gas from the mains. As much of the contents of the sewers must have been passed by the pampered guests of the Savoy rather than the working classes of inner London, it is intriguing to speculate whether their diet imbued the methane lighting Iron Lily with a different aroma than that emanating from other Sewer Lamps powered by the effluent of souls on poorer diets. After all, if you are used to a horrible stench, something different will be all the more noticeable and, perhaps, disagreeable.
Perhaps the combination of the provenance of the supply, the name of the street and the distinctiveness of the aroma persuaded a wag to substitute F for C. We will never know for sure.