Across society, artificial light was costly, relatively dim and sparingly used, particularly in the home.

Access to brighter light and new technologies like gas light was dependent on wealth. Because of this, light was a symbol of power and authority, and good quality light in the darkness was a novelty for many people. As such, illuminations were truly awe-inspiring occasions.

Lighting the home


The cheapest option for lighting the home. Rushes were gathered from marshes, soaked and the outer skin peeled off and then dipped in several layers of animal fat. Held in an iron pincher, a rushlight burned for around twenty minutes and provided similar light to a candle.

Prominent figures of Georgian high society gather around a table, illuminated by a candle that represents Queen Charlotte.

Above: George Cruikshank, The Royal Rushlight, 1821, Courtesy of UCLA, Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.

This satirical print shows Queen Caroline as a rushlight held in a typical kitchen candlestick.


Tallow candles made from sheep, cow or pig fat were the most common. They were temperamental, smelly, burned unevenly and the wick had to be trimmed regularly while burning. Candles made from costly beeswax were available only to the very wealthiest and to the church. Candles were taxed from 1709 – 1831. 

John Bull stands in front of a window display in his home; candles strung up in rows, beneath a sign celebrating a lasting peace.

Above: Charles 'Argus' Williams, John Bull Visited with the Blessings of Peace (detail), hand-coloured etching, 16 October 1801, British Museum, 1868,0808.6964, purchased from the estate of Edward Hawkins.

Candles, probably made from tallow, are displayed in the window of John Bull’s home.

Oil Lamps

These were found in most households. The simplest were pottery vessels filled with fish oil. Wealthier people could use vegetable oil or other animal fats including whale oil, a product of Britain’s lucrative whaling industry. From the 1780s, Argand oil lamps were available, with a glass chimney providing a much brighter light, equivalent to ten candles, but these were fairly expensive to buy and run.

A page from a publication detailing the functionality of small household oil lamps, with diagrams.

Above: Page featuring a diagram of an Argand Lamp (bottom left) from The Chemistry of Artificial Light, Houlston and Stoneman, London, 1856, fig. 24, Public Library of India.

Street Lighting

The era of modern street lighting began in London in 1736.  An Act of Parliament was passed setting the rates by which householders and institutions in the City of London would fund street lights. Other areas of London followed suit and by 1739 there were over 4000 oil lamps in the city, making it one of the best-lit urban areas in Europe at the time. Most other towns and cities around the UK adopted uniform street lighting during the eighteenth century. The oil lamps needed to be lit individually by lamplighters and were fitted with reflecting devices to increase the light produced. One visitor to London in 1782 wrote that ‘even on the most common and ordinary nights, the city has the appearance of a festive illumination’.

A street of Georgian London, filled with people and carriages enjoying a public illumination. Stretching into the distance, the street is lit by gas lamps.

Above: Joseph Constantine Stadtler after Augustus Charles Pugin, The House in Portman Square of His Excellency L.G. Otto, Minister Plenipotentiary from the French Republic to the Court of Great Britain as it Appeared on the Night of the General Illumination for Peace, the 29 April 1802 (detail showing street lighting), hand-coloured aquatint, published 12 May 1802.

This image shows oil lamps hanging at regular intervals on a London street.

In 1807, London’s Pall Mall was one of the first streets in the world to be lit by gaslight. Brighter, whiter and cheaper than oil, gaslight was quickly adopted for streetlighting around the UK and by the 1820s there were over 4000 gas lamps in London. Lamplighters were still required, and the supply of coal gas depended on the dangerous labour of miners extracting the coal and of the people employed at gasworks. These were usually located in poor areas (which tended to be less well lit), where they belched out smoke, contaminated soil and water and posed a constant risk of explosion.