The Historic Lamp Posts
Harrogate had its first gas street lamps planned in October 1847 by the Improvement Commissioners. A total of 96 locations were decided upon, for the short cast iron columns with square bases that included the Yorkshire rose in the casting. They were installed soon afterwards. This style of lamp post continued to be used for many decades – probably for about a century. You can still see examples today, to a limited extent, around the town and in private gardens. In the 1960’s they were converted to electricity, unfortunately with a small junction box at the top and with swan-neck fittings. This arrangement was not an enhancement compared to the original square Victorian lanterns with a Prussian spike, but at least the historic columns were saved.
In 2014, there was a public outcry about North Yorkshire County Council (NYCC) Highways plans to replace all the still existing historic short pattern lighting columns. Several years ago, Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) had a Highways Agency and had taken steps to ensure retention of a limited number of the columns in the town centre by rewiring to more up to date requirements. A junction box at the top of the column means that it is still electrically live even when the cut-out is switched off.
HBC found ways whereby the lamps could be safely disconnected when necessary. In Cambridge Street you will see that alternate lamps are modern ones and the cut-out is coupled with each of five adjacent historic ones. In Valley Gardens, on the footpath between Valley Drive and Cornwall Road there are 6 of the cast iron columns, some of which at least have been there since the 1920’s. Beside one of them is a short steel ‘feeder pillar’. This is a housing for the cable connections so the electricity can be switched off before it reaches the columns, several of which must be linked together. Apart from the electrical aspect, NYCC suggested that the cast iron columns are hazardous due to bits falling off or the columns failing. The only evidence I remember being produced was a photograph of a broken column that a vehicle had hit! In my visual examination of all the many columns in the town that were proposed for removal, very few had any physical damage. They had no doubt outlasted the likely life of their replacements! At a later stage in the lamp post saga, in December 2016, a report from an engineer was obtained, who saw no reason why the columns should be discarded for structural reasons. He had examined some that had been recently taken out and some that were in the process of renovation privately.
In 2014, we were fortunate enough to receive a substantial anonymous donation specifically for an attempt to save the historic lighting columns in situ. We and the public were perturbed that NYCC were destroying important historic artefacts, and we sought legal advice using part of the donation. The conclusion was that the Highway Authority has no legal obligation to respect historic street furniture, even if within a conservation area or within the setting of a listed building. In a letter from our M.P., he said that unfortunately he and the leader of HBC came to the issue late, knowing nothing about the replacement programme until a constituent contacted them after seeing the historic columns disappearing. So much for the communication skills of NYCC Highways! Both our M.P. and the Council leader were supportive of the Civic Society attempts to save them. Even at this late hour, we made strenuous attempts to persuade NYCC to keep at least some of them. The arguments against retention were several - the electric wiring of course but also structural integrity, the cost, the low height and positioning at the edge of the footway. Highways nowadays prefer lighting columns at the back of the footway. Unfortunately, Highways had organised a contractor to replace every last one of the short square base historic columns – about 900 we believe and of course replacement had already begun.
To firm up our arguments for retaining the columns we sought advice from an electrician who had some experience with street lighting. He also was disappointed that a small but significant part of Harrogate’s history would be lost, as were several of the contractor’s men I talked to, who were taking the columns out of the ground.
The square bases of the columns have a spacious void within and our electrician was sure that it was large enough to accommodate the wiring with the standard fused isolator. The next step was to engage an engineer to convert a sample column, which was donated by NYCC. I went with the engineer to Leeming Bar to collect it from a repository. He was able to cut, very neatly, a panel from one side of the column, put in a means of mounting the necessary equipment and screwing back the ‘door’. The chief lighting engineer and the member for Highways agreed to meet me at the works to inspect what had been achieved. This was discussed at length at NYCC between senior engineers and operatives, but the Highways & Transportation Officer came back with various technical conclusions as to why they didn’t want to accept our proposed solution. It was very disappointing, especially in that our work was only a prototype and could have been subject to revision in the light of the NYCC response. I replied with further solutions and arguments in respect of all their comments, but although they thanked us for our work, it resulted in no movement towards looking after our historic street lamps.
The next idea, rather a last resort, was to contact English Heritage (E.H.) as it was at the time, to talk about the listing of lamp posts, (It is now Historic England that deals with listing matters). At the time, Harrogate had just one solitary listed lamp post at St. Johns Church in Bilton. The 1848 pattern, specific to Harrogate and installed all over the town, surely deserved listing, especially if in or close to original locations, within the setting of listed buildings or in the Conservation Area.
In September 2014 we contacted English Heritage with our request that 13 of the short columns be considered for listing. As we had noted to English Heritage that there were many more such columns, we were invited to mark on a map all those that we thought should be listed. We added 9, making a total of 22. We also marked the listed buildings that were in the vicinity of these lamps. Eventually, the result in July 2016 was that 15 short pattern 1848 lamp posts were accepted for listing. In August 2016 we asked that the row of 6 in the Valley Gardens be listed, but were unsuccessful. English Heritage had earlier declined to list the 5 on Crescent Gardens around the pavilion, 1 to the side of the Mercer Gallery, 1 outside No.1 Swan Road and 3 on the Crown roundabout. I am pleased to say that (so far) all of these 16 columns are still standing as are the 5 in Cambridge Street.
HBC devoted funds to have heritage style embellishments fitted to modern lamp posts on the Stray. Although being a welcome improvement on the standard posts, loss of the originals is of course regrettable.
Just in case you thought I had forgotten to mention the locations of the 15 listed 1848 pattern lamp posts, there are 6 on Montpelier Hill, 3 on Crown Place (to the left of the Crown Hotel), 4 at Promenade Square (which includes 1 on Swan Road), and 2 further along Swan Road.
If you are keen observers of Harrogate lamp posts, you may notice that I have completely ignored the taller ones around the town. This is deliberate, but they could be material for a further article!