Bright lights, small city

Beware the darkness, children, for there be monsters We love to characterise the dark as something to be feared, the territory of nightmares, of ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump. In our collective psyche it belongs to the creatures on the edges of our imagination, to the sinister characters hidden within our society, to nefarious deeds carried out in the shadows. For, as one dramatic journalist puts it in 1882, “darkness is the mother of all evil."

Not actually relevant to lighting at all, but the closest thing I could find to horrors hiding in the dark. Image: J. Garland.

That characterisation of darkness as a home to all the bad things we can conceive of, be they real or imagined, probably has its roots in some far distant corner of our psychology, but is, I think, exaggerated now by the contrast between the dark and the near constant state of illumination in which we carry out our daily – and nightly – lives. It’s one of the things that we take for granted the most in the 21st century, our access to light wherever we are, whatever time of day it happens to be (especially those of us who live in cities). The absence of sunlight for half of our day is no longer the hindrance to our lives that it once was: it neither prevents nor restricts us from doing what we want to do after the sun has set. If anything, darkness is merely a minor inconvenience that only becomes something more when we’ve forgotten to buy light bulbs, or the power goes out, and we’re reminded that our almost permanently lives are not actually, in fact, the natural state of affairs.

The use of bright electric lights on our streets and in our homes is a relatively recent innovation, as many of you will know. Electric arc lamps were in use from the 1870s onwards, including in New Zealand where the first occasion of their use seems to have been a soccer match between Te Aro and Thorndon in Wellington (not even a rugby game, what a blow to our national identity!; Swarbrick 2012). Towards the end of the decade, Sir Joseph Swan first demonstrated his incandescent light bulb in England in 1878, followed by Thomas Edison’s long-lasting light bulb in 1879. Although other versions of the incandescent light were invented prior to this (there is a surprising amount of controversy and obfuscation out there regarding the invention of the light bulb), it wasn’t really until the late 1870s that the use of this kind of electric light became a commercially viable and practical option for illumination (Friedel and Israel 1986).

The carbon rod from an arc lamp found in Christchurch and a diagram of how arc lamps worked. If you're interested, there's more information here. Image: J. Garland

Here in New Zealand, electric light was quickly adopted, but took a long time to gain a real foothold in many areas. The early 1880s saw a number of places demonstrate or install electric lighting, including Parliament in 1883, the Savoy Theatre in Christchurch in 1883, the Ross and Glendinning Woollen Factory in Dunedin in 1882, the Press offices in Christchurch in 1885, and Lyttelton Harbour, where a trial system of electric lighting was installed in May 1883 (Aspden 1986, Otago Daily Times 22/05/1883: 3). And of course, in 1888, Reefton became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lighting, powered by the Reefton power station and the nearby Inangahua River (New Zealand Herald 5/10/1888: 5).

The proposed scheme for lighting Lyttelton Harbour with electric lights in 1883. Image:

Interestingly, many of the early attempts at electric lighting in New Zealand seem to have been in Christchurch, but the streets of the city weren’t lit by the “caged lightning” until the early 20th century (although the possibility was discussed as early as 1888; Star 24/01/1888, Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 4/07/1882: 2). Before that, 19th century Christchurch was lit mostly by oil or kerosene lamps and gas lighting, although even those took a while to implement on a city wide scale. The first lamp posts of any sort weren’t erected on the city streets until 1862, for example, 12 years after the settlement was officially established. Presumably, during the intervening dozen years, people carried lights with them or just tripped over and walked into things a lot. As Te Ara puts it, “citizens regularly fell into streams and open sewers or banged into wandering stock and other obstacles”, a situation which must have been uncomfortable for both citizens and stock.

When those first lamp posts went up in Christchurch, they were filled with kerosene. Sixty-two kerosene lamps were installed in 1862, one for every year of the century (which, despite the symmetry, seems an odd way of determining the extent of your street lighting system; Anderson 1949: 90). These would be lit every night by hand: in 1864, a contractor offered to do so for the small price of 9 and a half pence per lamp per night, while in Lyttelton, in a particularly Dickensian state of affairs, the lamps were apparently cleaned and lit by “mere children” carrying a heavy ladder (Lyttelton Times 1/11/1864: 416/12/1868: 2). Unsurprisingly, no reference to cost was made in that case.

In December 1864, after much discussion in the local newspapers on the subject, the first gas lamp was lit (Anderson 1949: 88). Soon after, the remaining kerosene lamp posts were converted for gas lighting and by 1876 there were 152 gas lamps lighting the city street (Heritage New Zealand, Humphries 2012). The city would continue to be lit by gas – both inside and outside – until 1918, when the gas supply for the streets was finally turned off and electric lighting finally dominated (after decades of discussion about cost; Heritage New Zealand).

In possibly my favourite finding from all of this research, the illumination offered by these street lights – and all forms of 19th century lighting – was described in units of ‘candle-power’. In 1894, one account defends the efficacy of the street lamps in use in Wellington, describing them as fulfilling their intended “20 candle-power”, while the magnesium lighting system proposed for the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865 was described as giving a light “equal to that of 80 stearine candles” (Lyttelton Times 21/12/1865: 2).

A street sign advertising candles, including the brilliantly named "Five medal British sperm" ones. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

The illumination of the tunnel is an excellent reminder that there were other forms of lighting available to the 19th century individual or community. The magnesium light that they used took the form of wire, burned by hand initially since they didn’t have the appropriate lamps, which gave off a “most brilliant light” and was suggested as a likely candidate “to supersede gas for lighting towns.” Other lights used or discussed during this period included arc lamps (mentioned above), acetylene lamps (introduced towards the end of the century) and variations on the typical oil or gas lamp. One Christchurch engineer, Mr J. Hadley, manufactured his own light fuelled by gas made from a combination of tallow and resinous gum, described by contemporaries as being “of excellent quality, burning steadily, without the slightest offensive odour” (Lyttelton Times 18/09/1861: 4).

The proposed scheme for lighting the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865. Image:

Unfortunately, there’s very little archaeological evidence of these early forms of lighting to be found. One very notable exception is the Canterbury Club gas light, as it’s known, which still stands on Cambridge Terrace outside the, you guessed it, Canterbury Club. It was erected around 1900 and, despite a small electric interlude in the 1990s (not a bad name for a band, electric interlude), continued to be lit with gas in the 21st century, which is pretty brilliant (pun intended; Heritage New Zealand). This lamp, and  the occasional arc lamp carbon rod, continues to be the only remaining physical evidence we have for public street lighting in Christchurch. Everything else we find is associated with the use of artificial light inside structures, be they public buildings or private residences, something that we’ll talk about in next week’s post.

The Canterbury Club Gas Light, still standing on Cambridge Terrace. As a side note, in the 19th century, publicans and hotel keepers were required by law to keep a light - like this one - burning outside their establishment throughout the night. There are several accounts of people being prosecuted for failing to do this, many of whom defended themselves with "I can't help it if the light goes out while I'm sleeping." Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s any number of things to be said about the progress of street lighting in Christchurch, from the way it reflects the transition of the settlement from ‘swamp to city’ to the social beliefs and behaviour driving the need of the community to illuminate their public spaces (darkness is the mother of all evil, indeed). What stands out the most to me, though, is the rapidity with which the city trialled, if not implemented, the new technology (the early 1880s!) and the innovation with which individuals like Mr J. Hadley adapted that technology, even if just to find a way of making gas from tallow. As with so many other aspects of life in Christchurch (and New Zealand), to view the city as a passive recipient of new technology does a disservice to the individuals whose ideas and entrepreneurial spirit made the city what it is today.

Jessie Garland


Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser.  [online] Available at

Anderson, J. C. 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson & Williams Limited, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Aspden, R., 1896. "Centenary of electricity in NZ - Bullendale 1886-1986. In New Zealand Engineering: The Journal of the Institution of Professional Engineers in New Zealand, Vol. 41: 5, p. 6-7.

Friedel, R. and Israel, P. 1986. Edison's electric light: biography of an invention.  New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. pages 115–117

Humphris. A, 2012. 'Streets and lighting - Street lighting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at

Otago Daily Times [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

Swarbrick, N. 2012. 'Rural services - Electricity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at