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Down my way: The Throop/Holdenhurst gas lamps

James Fisher tells the strange tale of the survival of gas lighting in Bournemouth

A late 1980s shot of the Old Piggery with one of the gas lamps in front of it (www.flickr.com/photos/57886228@N05/)

Not long after Bournemouth’s bicentenary, it is strange to note that a town so comparatively young has so many buildings listed by English Heritage as worthy of preservation. These range from a vernacular cottage like mine (Grade II) to St Stephen’s Church (Grade I*), with a wide variety of structures in between. The former trolley bus shed (now Homebase) is listed because at the time it was built it had the largest unsupported concrete roof in Europe. At the other end of the scale, the now disused hatches in the weir at Throop Mill are listed because they are integral to the landscape. But the oddest listing is not one but 28 artefacts; these are the gas street lamps linking Throop and Holdenhurst.
Christchurch already had gas street lights in 1850, but it was not until 1864 that the Bournemouth Gas and Water Company’s works at Bourne Valley were built. When the new pier was opened in 1880 it was spectacularly lit by sixty globular gas lamps, each of 20 candle power. Meanwhile, gas street lighting was being gradually installed throughout the town by the Town Commissioners and later by the Borough Council.
The gas lamps we are considering were, however, erected by Christchurch Borough between 1902 and 1910, as Holdenhurst was not incorporated into Bournemouth until April 1931. The lamp posts were cast by the Ringwood and Pokesdown Foundries and the lanterns were supplied by Suggas. Each lantern is fitted with its own governor and controlled by a clockwork timer manufactured by ‘Gunfire’, a Boscombe firm specialising in this type of equipment. The gas lamps were listed Grade II by English Heritage on 21 November 1994.
But let us go back to a century earlier than that. In 1890 Brush Engineering sought to supply Bournemouth with electricity and the following year the Bournemouth & District Electricity Supply Company was formed. By 1892 the company claimed that no fewer than 9000 lights had been connected to the generating station in Southcote Road. But progress was uneven and it was not until the middle 1950s that electricity was available in Holdenhurst Village. From the last years of the 19th century to the 1960s, gas and electric street lighting co-existed.
There was then a programme of replacing the gas street lamps throughout the town. The redundant lamp posts were sold off for £3 each and the lanterns for £2. Somehow (as ‘they’ habitually do) they forgot Throop and Holdenhurst. Altogether, 28 lamps were left.

A rather more contemporary close-up of the workings of the gas lamp

These are not evenly spaced, because Throop Road is so winding that they were placed so that from any one of the lamp posts you could see a light ahead of you and another behind. But gas lamps are not like bus sheds or semi-derelict weirs; they are a working part of our road system. Nor can they just be switched on and off remotely. The clocks have to be wound weekly and the times of operation altered to match the official lighting-up time. Strong winds may blow the pilot light out, the glass has to be cleaned or, if vandalised, replaced because, being ‘listed’, these lamps can neither be done away with nor substantially altered – a fact for which we should all be just a little bit grateful.

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