Let there be (electric) light


From darkness through starlight, oil and gas to electricity for stations and rolling stock. . . . . .



A GWR 1854 Culm Valley branch line coach lit by one rape oil lamp dropped in from the roof through the lidded “chimney” on the roof. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection

The Great Western Railway (GWR) Paddington station was first lit by electricity at Christmas 1880. The Anglo-American Brush Electric Corporation had been asked to provide 34 lamps with the necessary equipment. During 1881, GWR Chairman Sir Daniel Gooch noted in his diary that while it was a good light, it was a bit temperamental but he was sure that the difficulties would be overcome. They were, and by 1886 Paddington station was completely lit by electricity. However, the Great Eastern Railway had beaten the GWR to it as Liverpool Street station had Farmer-Wallace electric arc lighting installed in 1879


By the late 1870s, gas lighting by stored compressed gas started to appear in railway coaches. In 1884, Queen Victoria noticed that gas lights had just been fitted in her coach, immediately took a dislike to it and demanded the return of her favourite oil lamps. Two new Royal trains in 1897 tied to be first lit by electricity. They were those of the GWR and the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. On 21st June 1897, Queen Victoria made her first journey from Windsor to Paddington for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in her new GWR six-vehicle train. There were corridors and gangway connections and all coaches were fitted with the vacuum brake, steam heating, electric light, an electric bell push in each compartment and sliding doors running on roller bearings.


The GWR 1900 Cork boat train was the first to be lit by electricity for ordinary passengers. Dynamos with battery storage provided the current. This first new five-coach set of 55 to 58 feet long coaches started work on the Paddington to New Milford (Milford Haven) route. These central gangway coaches were the first to have electric lighting with electroliers which were controlled by the guard to “full” or “half on” settings. They were also the first to have the communication cord running in tubes inside the coach under the cantrail except over the doors from where they could be pulled.



One of the electrically-lit GWR Milford boat train coaches of 1900/1. To pull the communication cord, the window was dropped down to allow the passenger to reach up to the cord outside at the top of the door

By 1907, the GWR was busy publicising its new sleeping cars for the West of England services. They were described as 70 feet long with two six-wheeled bogies. Quiet running was assured by a special design of double door. Each compartment had steam heating with a regulator and electric light with a “full”, “glow” or “off” setting.



The GWR started to use gas for lighting passenger coaches from 1884. This 1932 “Cordon” gas tank wagon seen at Swindon in 1962 was typical of those used to carry gas from the works to stations for refilling the tanks of coaches, restaurant and kitchen cars. Photo: Mike Peart



Following the collision at Hawes Junction in 1910 which caused a serious fire and 12 fatalities in gas-lit carriages, the Board of Trade wrote to railway companies in February 1911 suggesting they should adopt electric lighting as soon as possible. After the 1913 Mallerstang collision where there was again a fire in gas-lit coaches in which 16 people died, the Railway Inspectorate asked companies for their numbers of gas-lit coaching vehicles as of 31st December 1910 and 31st August 1913. The GWR reported 5,721 gas-lit vehicles in 1910 and 5,634 by 1913. They had 336 electrically-lit vehicles in 1910 and 624 by 1913. They also reported 59 oil-lit vehicles in 1910 and 44 by 1913. The London & North Western Railway, the London & South Western Railway and the South Eastern & Chatham Railway all reported much higher numbers of electrically-lit coaching stock. So, in 1913 the GWR had 89.4% of gas-lit vehicles and this had reduced to 67% by the end of 1928. The 1928 figures for the GWR were 6,207 vehicles lit by gas; 2,431 lit by electricity and 588 lit by oil, making a total of 9,226. The high gas and oil figure was explained by the GWR as its survey return included older vehicles used on branch lines, those kept in reserve for holiday peaks, and stock designated as coaching stock but which didn’t carry passengers. Sadly, there had been little progress by 1915 which saw the worst disaster at Quintinshill when three heavily-loaded gas-lit trains collided creating a blaze that caused 227 fatalities and many more injuries.



The electrically-lit First Class Waiting Room at Paddington in 1912. Photo: National Railway Museum

As a forerunner to today’s First Class Lounges, back at Paddington station by 1912 four new clusters of incandescent electric lamps were illuminating the first-class waiting room. The floor was covered with a bordered square carpet with a linoleum surround. A leather-topped oblong table was in the centre of the room with leather upholstered chairs and settees with heated pipes underneath provided around the sides. Framed scenic photographs and advertisements decorated the walls. Two writing tables were provided with ink pots filled with ink, pens “that will write”, stationery cabinets and GWR publications. The room was heated by an anthracite stove with two coal scuttles of fuel standing ready.


In 1945 the GWR announced that they were turning out new post-war coaches 64 feet long that would enhance passenger comfort. The most striking innovation was the use of fluorescent lighting which hadn’t been used before in main line railway coaches “to give an even daylight effect without glare or shadow over a whole compartment.” London Underground had first used this form of lighting experimentally in October 1944. Then in 1946, the GWR staged an exhibition at Paddington of some of its post-war recent innovations in coaching stock. A third-class coach which had fluorescent lighting, as did another refurbished composite coach, were coupled up to two other renovated coaches with ordinary lighting with tungsten filament light bulbs – unfortunately a favourite for removal by travelling vandals! Strangely, some coach gas lighting endured until the early 1950s.


Mike Peart


Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961 and its Honorary Secretary for several years.













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