As the town of Belfast grew in size, dependable street lighting became a necessity. Piped coal gas from a new gasworks completed in 1823 solved the problem for over 150 years, before being superseded by electric at the latter end of the 20th century. The gas lanterns were mounted on substantial caste iron standards, with some in narrow streets supported on wrought iron wall brackets. This was state of the art technology when introduced and Belfast was one of the first places outside London to have such a public facility. In its heyday upwards of 100 men were employed plying the streets to tend the lights both morning and evening.
Having talked to Alan Symington about his experiences as a Belfast lamplighter a job I remember him doing, I decided to preserve this little bit of history in the following verse that traces that part of his life from Lamplighter to Merchant Seaman.
A BELFAST LAMPLIGHTER (1956 – 1961)
My name is Alan Symington, from South Belfast I hail;
Before I am too old to tell, you must hear my tale.
On reaching the age of seventeen, employment I had to find;
As away back then in idle state, found people not so kind.
On looking round about me, I saw a ‘Lamplighter’ up a pole;
He told me they were wanting men and it could be my role.
I mentioned it to mother, who was near demented,
Advising that I’d cowp and fall; her intention to prevent it.
Regardless of this fear and chiding to the Depot I did go,
To meet the Head Lamplighter who wished for every globe to glow.
“You’ll require a head for heights”, said he, “Do you ride a bike?
It will need to be a good one, punctures mean you have to hike”.
I just stood there nodding, impressed by knowledge and address;
For eight pounds a week the job was mine, not a penny more or less.
On the Monday morn I reported in, so keen; fit and well
And got my Corporation coat, ‘Lamplighter’ on each lapel.
Training started right away, an ‘Old Hand’ showing me what to do,
Who stressed clean lamps were paramount; he was twenty two.
With paraffin rag I cleaned the glasses, both inside and without;
Standing back I’d peer up at them, a job of pride, no doubt.
Technology was involved as well with mantles to be changed;
Every fortnight clocks for winding and lighting times arranged.
Lamps were checked in early morn with any adjustment done,
Then later to see each light was lit, at the sinking of the Sun.
I was taught the art of handling, long ladders to places high;
Which were mostly on the main roads with Trolleys buzzing by.
One needed sense of balance to ride ladder on the shoulder;
People stared in disbelief; no performer could be bolder.
But enabling one to lofty heights, best trick was step and chain;
For ‘Standards’ in the side streets with lanterns to maintain.
This miracle of minor engineering was carried in the pocket,
Avoiding the use of ladders; less torque upon the sprocket.
From the daily exercise of biking I had the legs of a grasshopper;
With which I speedied up the poles and never came a cropper.
Ropework girls would shout, “Hi Monkey!”, so impressed by my ascent;
Smiling I would wave to them; hoping to meet them on descent.
Now Belfast’s streets were many with Depots here and there;
At Ormeau, Tates, Duncairn, the East; I served from all with flair.
Holyland, Roads Albertbridge, Ravenhill; the one to Newtownards;
A strenuous daily schedule; no time for dalliance or cards.
Then the street of Cromac; its Butchers, Pubs, and Lundy’s Store
With hardware piled on shelves all round and in behind the door.
Up the Falls to Springfield Road, but Jordanstown was the best;
A long ride twice a day and in between, a rest.
I would stash my ladders there in the old Church hall;
Always ready for friends to borrow, I can now recall.
The years flew by to sixty one when I looked beyond the land;
Into the blue where billows rolled, all sunshine, wave and sand.
So as the intrepid mariner I touched places o’er the sea;
Where lights of foreign ports, twinkled memories to me.
Of lamplighting times in flaming youth, beside my native shore;
But those lights had turned electric and the gas lamp was no more.
I could taste the tea of friendship from people whom I’d served;
Respect shown by each for all; esteem so well deserved.
Then in my dream I’d ride along even though I were afloat;
Free-wheeling down the Duncairn Hill, in my Lamplighter’s coat.