Robin Longbottom examines how Keighley was the envy of many as gas street lighting came to town

TODAY we take street lighting for granted and few of us fully appreciate it until we find ourselves in an unlit village in the Dales or perhaps Scotland.

Street lighting was first introduced to improve safety for those travelling through towns on dark nights. Street robbers, pickpockets and footpads roamed the unlit streets during the 17th and 18th centuries making it dangerous for people to venture out after dark.

Few towns and cities had any street lighting before the beginning of the 19th century and those that did relied on oil lanterns that produced little more than a dim glow. With the discovery in the 18th century that gas could be made from coal, the prospects of lighting our streets became a reality. In 1813 Westminster Bridge in London was one of the first public places to be lit by gas lights. In 1816 Preston in Lancashire was the first town outside London to have gas street lighting and other towns quickly followed suit, including Keighley.

On April 12, 1824, the Keighley Improvement Act received royal assent and it gave the town’s commissioners the authority to erect a gas works to supply streetlamps. The act initially limited the gas lighting to “all such parts of Keighley within one mile from the spot where the Old Cross stood…on the north-east corner of the Devonshire Arms Inn”, but this was later extended to the whole parish. Work started almost immediately, and land was purchased in Coney Lane, at Low Bridge, on which to build the gas works. Towards the end of 1825 the works was up and running. It comprised a retort house in which to heat the coal and generate gas, a condenser to cool the gas and remove the tar, a purifying plant, and a gasometer for storage. Gas pipes had been laid in the streets and lamps erected and lit. The total cost was in the region of £9,000 which had been “borrowed at the common rate of interest”. The costs were to be covered by an additional levy on the local rate.

As the network extended and production increased surplus gas was made available to private users, including industry and households. By 1843 the revenue from private sales enabled the commissioners to dispense with levying the additional rate and so provide street lighting at no cost to the ratepayer. In addition, the profits also covered the cost of employing the nightwatchmen, who patrolled the town, and half the cost of the fire brigade. Other towns looked on enviously and Huddersfield, a town twice the size of Keighley, commissioned a special report in order that it too could justify a publicly-owned gas works.

The demand for gas in Keighley grew and within 50 years the works in Coney Lane were unable to cope. Therefore in 1873 the Keighley Local Board purchased nineteen-and-a-half acres of land in Thwaites from the Duke of Devonshire to site a new works. It was formally opened on December 5, 1876, by Benjamin Septimus Brigg, chairman of the Local Board. When a commemorative plaque was unveiled with Brigg’s name on it, James 'Pie' Leach, a local character, exclaimed that he thought that it was a “tombstone and that he had got into the churchyard by mistake”. Brigg, good humouredly, responded to the effect that he had been ill recently, but not that ill.

The light from early gas lights had originally been emitted by open flames from burners in the lamps, but this was improved with the invention of the ‘mantle’ in the 1890s. However, despite improvements, the town’s gas lights gradually gave way to the electric light, with the exception of three stations on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway that are today the country’s largest consumers of gas for lighting purposes.