Victorian vents and Roman roads

Gas lighting

Westminster City Council has announced that it has halted controversial plans to convert the central London borough’s gas lamps to LED versions, something that the council said was necessary to tackle global warming and cut down on maintenance costs (see ‘Sherds’, CA 383). Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said that work was being suspended so that the council could ‘take time to talk to local people and conservation groups’, though any idea that this might lead to a reversal of policy was undermined by her comment that the aim was ‘to ensure that where new electric lights go in, they are as faithful to the original as possible’.

Sadly, therefore, it seems that Dan Cruickshank, who has led the campaign against the replacement scheme, might be premature in claiming a ‘a victory for common sense’. Dan went on to say that the light cast by gas lamps is a powerful stimulus to the imagination and that ‘architecture lives by light – light matters’.

Stench pipes

Sherds will report on any further developments, but in the meantime, let us turn to the letter in CA 384 in which John Buglass drew attention to another form of gas heritage that is often overlooked: tall tubular items of Victorian and Edwardian street furniture variously known as stinkpipes, stenchpoles, or stench pipes, designed to vent sewer gas. Some years ago, Sherds suggested that the world needed a Stench Pipe Society to record and campaign for the conservation of these underappreciated examples of engineering heritage, and recently an organisation called ‘Our Hut’ published a book, Inventive Vents, celebrating ‘the vital structures that allow the vast city that lies beneath our feet – of tunnels, sewers, bunkers, and other underground spaces – to operate’.

right Thomas Heatherwick’s sculpture, known as ‘Angel’s Wings’, in Paternoster Square in London provides ventilation for an underground electricity substation.
Thomas Heatherwick’s sculpture, known as ‘Angel’s Wings’, in Paternoster Square in London provides ventilation for an underground electricity substation. IMAGE: Our Hut.

Our Hut is a charity dedicated to using the built environment as an educational resource, on the grounds that it is democratic and open to all – we are surrounded by it and it makes an excellent starting place for discussions about heritage, conservation, aesthetics, design, function, materials, technology, and our sense of place and community. Inventive Vents has a clever way of engaging younger people with scatological anecdotes, in the style of Horrible Histories. Thus we are told that the innocuously named Carting Lane, to the west of the Savoy Hotel, was known colloquially as ‘Farting Lane’ because of the smell of sewer gas.

Now, as a nearby plaque explains, it is the location of London’s only surviving Sewer Gas Destructor Lamp. Invented by Birmingham engineer Joseph Webb in 1895, these provided cheap street lighting by burning the methane given off by sewage pipes, like the 82-mile network designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s that runs beneath Victoria Embankment at the bottom of Carting Lane. This example still works, burning a mix of mains gas which heats the filament that then draws methane from the sewer system; each lamp ventilates up to three-quarters of a mile of pipe.

Sculptural vents

The book showcases a wide variety of ventilation shafts that are often disguised as public monuments: Eduardo Paolozzi’s metal sculpture in Pimlico is designed to ventilate an underground car park, and the bronze statue of James Henry Greathead (1844-1896) that stands in the middle of Cornhill outside the City of London’s Royal Exchange doubles up as a ventilation shaft for Bank underground station (which is rather appropriate because Greathead invented the tunnelling shield that was used to create much of London’s tube system). Decorative grilles beneath the nearby statue of the Duke of Wellington and his horse serve the same function, as does the grille alongside the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, venting the A4 road tunnel that passes beneath.

London’s Paternoster Square has an enigmatic Corinthian column, crowned with a flaming golden urn, that mimics the columns forming the portico to nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. It does double duty as a monument to the Great Fire and the Blitz, but also serves to take carbon monoxide fumes from the underground car park below the square. In the same square, Thomas Heatherwick’s stainless-steel sculpture known as ‘Angel’s Wings’ provides ventilation for an underground electricity substation.

In Westminster, outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, two circular brick structures resembling well heads were built in the 1950s to provide fresh air to the emergency telephone exchange built beneath the paving as part of a secret tunnel system to be used by the Government in the event of a nuclear attack. Strictly, we are not supposed to know this – it remains a top-secret installation.

Beneath York

Something else we do not know in detail is what lies beneath the winding streets at the centre of the city of York, but that might soon change.

above Person-propelled rigs will be used to scan green spaces around the city of York as part of the ‘Roman York beneath the streets’ project.
Person-propelled rigs will be used to scan green spaces around the city of York as part of the ‘Roman York beneath the streets’ project. IMAGE: York Archaeology.

A new, 30-month-long project called ‘Roman York beneath the streets’ (the initiative is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is a partnership between the universities of Cambridge and Reading, York Archaeology, and the York Museums Trust) aims to create a single database for everything archaeologists and historians know about the buried city. Volunteer-run research projects, an art initiative, and a project for schools will run alongside the project.

In all, the team aims to survey some 20km of streets, the first time a project on this scale has been undertaken in the UK. Those behind the mapping exercise are hoping for a dry summer, because radar can only penetrate down to the water table, which is high for much of the year in York. A further complication is the fact that York’s streets scarcely sleep – they are packed with visitors during the day and the city has a lively night economy, including guided ghost tours.

Even so, the project’s leader Martin Millett, who is Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, hopes to learn much more about the layout of the Roman city ‘without having to dig a single trench’. Professor Millett has ambitious plans to answer a number of research questions, covering topics such as the character of the settlement surrounding the city’s legionary fortress; the evidence for enhancement associated with the periods of imperial residence (AD 208-211 and AD 305-306) and, following York’s promotion to colonial status in the early 3rd century, the nature of land-use in the immediate environs of York through the Roman period; and the extent and character of occupational change in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. If this project succeeds, surely every settlement will want to follow.

Good news corner

There is good news from Hull regarding the future of the ‘Three Ships’ mural designed by Alan Boyson, one of Britain’s leading post-war muralists, which featured in the ‘Co-op Architecture’ article in CA 382. Though work is set to start shortly on demolishing the landmark former Co-op building on Hull’s Albion Square, the giant mosaic attached to the façade is to be saved. Made of a million pieces of Italian glass, the 66ft by 64ft mural depicts three stylised trawlers spelling out ‘Hull’ with their masts. Local heritage groups had been campaigning for its retention, and were buoyed up by Historic England’s decision to list the mural at Grade II in November 2019 – a rare example of a public work of art being listed, rather than a building. The curving steel frame to which the mural is attached will now be retained and kept in situ throughout the demolition, before being incorporated into the new office and residential building being constructed immediately behind.

Meanwhile, walkers are celebrating another victory for common sense after Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) announced the abolition of the deadline of 1 January 2026 for registering rights of way in England (the deadline had already been abolished in Wales). This reflects the Government’s new-found zeal for encouraging ‘active travel’ (commonly known as ‘walking’) in the interests of public health and wellbeing. The guillotine, which has been strongly opposed by campaigners such as the Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society, was introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) and threatened to extinguish historic rights of way that had not been officially registered, including much-used urban paths and alleyways.