Let There be Light!


Astronomer by candlelight
Gerrit Dou (1613-75)
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Indoor Lighting in Georgian England

Sometimes it’s the simplest aspects of life in the past which are hardest to understand, other than in the most superficial ways. Take the hours of darkness. We all know that Georgian and Regency houses were lit primarily with candles, but how bright or dark was it inside a room? When you ventured outside, the light of the moon or stars was never going to be more than an occasional, and unreliable, way to see where you were going—and who might be lurking in your path.

For most of the 18th century, there were few reasonable alternatives to candlelight. As early as 1735, Dr John Clayton of Wigan revealed to the members of the Royal Society in London how he had manufactured what he called “the spirit of coal” (coal gas), captured it in an animal bladder and amused his friends by releasing it and setting it alight. However, it was another 60 years or so before gas lighting was sufficiently perfected to be usable, even as street lighting.

Oil lamps first became available in the middle of the century, but the early ones were fiddly and extremely inefficient. The first really practical oil lamp, the Argand lamp, was invented and patented in France in 1780 by Aimé Argand. It was brighter and needed much less frequent trimming of the wick than previous models. Even so, the actual light output was little more than 60–90 lux, barely a tenth of the light given off by a 40-watt incandescent electric bulb.

Poor people had to rely on rush-lights dipped in animal fat, which were about as useful as a match in providing light. The middling sort used smokey, smelly tallow candles for every day. These also gave a very poor illumination. Richer ones might be able to afford a few candles made from beeswax for special occasions. These were brighter, lasted longer and smelled much better, but they were still much less effective than any modern candle. Candles made from spermaceti (whale oil) and purified animal fats (stearin) were not generally available until the middle of the 19th century. Petroleum wax candles were still later to appear. Only the seriously rich could therefore afford anything like adequate household lighting, and then only in the one or two rooms they were currently using. Everyone went to bed carrying a single candle to light the way and to undress by. Servants were lucky to get that.

How much light could be made available?

Basically, very little by our standards today—at least without a vast number of candles being lit at ruinous expense. Of course, we are used to illumination at almost daylight levels any time we want. People in Georgian times were not, so they were probably far more accustomed to seeing in poor light. I don’t mean they saw more than we might under the same conditions; they didn’t expect any better and made the best of what they had. People’s eyes do adjust fairly well to poor light, but anyone who was short-sighted or had some other eye problem most likely struggled after dark.

A standard measure of illumination, still used in the USA, is the foot-candle. This is the amount of light falling on an object placed one foot away from a modest-sized modern candle. In our terms, it represents about 10 lux, or 1/50th of the light output of a 40-watt incandescent bulb. However, as distance from the light-source increases, illumination declines in proportion to that distance. The output of the light-source stays the same, but the light that falls on the object lessens rapidly. Move the object closer to the light and the reverse happens.

Double candle-stick rest

Double candlestick rest
Felbrigg Hall (NT)

This is a fancy way of saying that if you have only a single candle and hold it as close as you dare to your book, you will probably be able to see to read fairly well. Put the candle on a table next to you, with the book just a few feet from the flame, and you may struggle unless the print is large (which was one reason why many early printed books have largish type on big pages). Dine with only a few candles on a large table and you’ll find it hard to see what you’re eating, let alone a diner at the other end of the table. Walk to the other side of even a modestly proportioned room, and you may not be able to see even your outstretched hand with much clarity.

Making the most of the light you could provide

Chandeliers were both ornamental and a (relatively safe) way of bringing together a great many candles in a given space. The cut and faceted glass added sparkle and helped reflect the light out into the room.

Mirror-glass in the 18th century was expensive and difficult to make; so much so that mirrors were often used and reused in updated frames until the silvering on the reverse decayed too much. Yet go into most large Georgian houses today and you’ll be struck by the wealth of mirrors in all the main rooms. These were not a sign of vanity, but a simple necessity to make the most of the output from every candle used. Reflected light may not be as bright as the original source, but it is a long way better than nothing. Light was too precious to be wasted.

Candle magnifier

Candle ‘magnifier’
Felbrigg Hall (NT)

In the same way, you may see wall-mounted candle-holders with shiny back-pieces or shaped and polished reflectors. For really close, detailed work, one or more candles could be placed in a glass bowl like a fishbowl, where the curved glass would focus the maximum amount of light at a suitable distance for sewing, say. Another way was to place a glass bowl filled with water in front of the light source. The convex bowl and the water within would both magnify and focus the light to a modest, but significant effect. Sit several ladies doing their embroidery around either of these and you have—“a sewing circle”.

Fire! Fire!

Fire was an ever-present hazard. A single dropped candle, or one placed too close to curtains or bed-hangings, could cause a blaze that would destroy the whole house. Outside the largest towns, there were no firemen provided by your insurance company. Fire-fighting was based on self-help.

fire engine

18th-century Fire-engine
Felbrigg Hall (NT)

At Felbrigg Hall, a long line of leather and metal fire-buckets are hung near the servants’ hall ready for use. The house also has a primitive, 18th-century fire engine, which was hand pumped. If a fire did break out, neighbours might come running to add their efforts and whatever fire extinguishing devices they had to yours. But with no piped water supply, attempts to quell the flames would generally come down to a line of people forming a bucket-chain from the nearest lake or pond. Filling buckets from a well would be too slow to be of any use at all! Even so, neither the buckets nor the fire engine could have been effective against anything but the feeblest blaze.

Space to move about

Poor lighting and fear of fire also helps explain why Georgian houses contained so little furniture. Inventories of the time hint at nearly bare rooms by later standards. What furniture people possessed was often placed primarily around the walls. Even dining and other tables might be made to fold and be stacked out of the way when not in use. If Georgian rooms had been as cluttered as later Victorian ones, the occupants of the house would have spent much of their time bumping into the furnishings as soon as the sun went down. More effective oil lamps, followed by gas lighting, are to blame for that pervasive Victorian clutter!

Across a crowded room …

So, when you write how your romantic Regency hero sees his future love one evening across the room and is instantly smitten by her matchless beauty, remember that, in reality, he might well have found it quite hard to make out any of her features at all, even with his quizzing-glass. That is, unless they were in a grand house on a special, festive occasion, and the rich host had called for as many candles as possible and damn the expense!

For most normal, everyday circumstances, our Georgian forebears lived in quite small, rather bare rooms. Dining and other evening social activities would also be small-scale, even intimate, as much due to the poor light as anything else. Four people playing whist at a small table was possible. Eight people sitting around a table would have found it easy to hear what anyone was saying, but probably quite hard to see facial expressions clearly, save for those of their immediate neighbours. It is a clear sign of the importance of social contacts in 18th-century England, that people of the middling sort and above still engaged in as much social activity as they did.

Even getting to your friends’ house could be fraught with danger on a dark night. As I will show in the next post on this topic, to go out after dark was an adventure in itself.

Do you enjoy historical fiction?

Book-Cover-4-SmallThe Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, might well be for you. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.

Check it out here.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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1 Response to Let There be Light!

  1. amorettea says:

    My mother used to have a 16 candle candelabra that was placed in front of a mirror in the dining room when ever the power went out. I can remember playing cards but you sometimes had to squint or hold your cards toward the light to see. I have also hosted ‘re-enactor’ parties and we always end up turning on the electric lights after a while because it is so dim!

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