When I was a child my family used to take an occasional coach trip to Blackpool around October time, to see the lights. We would spend the day at the seaside, maybe one or two rides in the amusement park, a blustery walk along the pier and fish and chips on the front. As a child I rarely got to see the lights. The coach would make its way along the promenade slowly on the way home, so we could take in the spectacle, but I was invariably asleep before we had ventured much further than the car park exit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of excitement about seeing the lights and as a family from Brum on a limited income, we certainly travelled far enough to see them.
In Georgian times, before electricity, there was a similar urban fascination with light displays. London famously had a very large display in April, 1789, to celebrate King George’s recovery from ‘madness’. These early illuminations were created with the use of gas lamps and transparencies. A transparency was usually a piece of paper, often coloured and not actually transparent as we understand it, but sheer enough for light to shine through. I found the following report of an illumination in Birmingham in Aris’s Gazette of June 13th, 1814. Illuminations were a celebration, so it seems likely that this particular display would have been connected to the recent abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte in April of that year and the imminent visit to England of the Allied Sovereigns of Europe. Some of the descriptions of the illuminations more than hint at it. Whatever the occasion actually was, it must have been a very lovely sight in the pre-gaslamp streets of Brum. And no coach journey required!
“The following description, we fear, will be necessarily imperfect; some of equal interest with those described may possibly have escaped our observation:-
Mr. Powell, Swan Hotel – A very novel and brilliant display of variegated lamps. In the centre was a transparent likeness of our venerable monarch, with circles of lamps diverging to a considerable height, over which was a square frontispiece, consisting of four pillars and a capital, the pillars wreathed with lamps and by a mechanical contrivance kept in constant motion. At the base the word ‘Peace’ in large characters; the tout-ensemble had a most splendid and striking effect.
Mr. Richards, Silversmith – A large transparency representing, in the upper part, Peace, Justice and Prudence; below them Britannia crowning the bust of Pitt and trampling on the badges of despotism. On the left a cherub guarding the crown and blowing the trumpet of fame over the British Navy. Beneath the emblems of commerce, agriculture and industry.
Messrs. Beilby & Co. – Britannia, her spear and shield upon the ground, in the act of kneeling upon the latter, gratefully receiving the blessings of Peace; a lion at her side couchant and cornucopia. Motto:- ‘The blessings of Peace restored”.
Mr. King – Two transparencies, illustrative of Isaiah
The Castle Inn – Portraits of ‘The Saviours of Europe’, Wellington, Hill, Graham, Platoff and Blucher.
St. George’s Tavern – Several transparencies, with inscriptions, and a brilliant display of variegated lamps.
Nelson Hotel – Several transparencies, with a display of variegated lamps.
O. and H. Smith – A transparency with the word ‘Peace’ very tastefully formed by a combination of agricultural implements, musical instruments, cornucopia, &c.
The report also stated that Nelson’s Statue had been illuminated with ‘at least 500 lamps’ – this is the same statue that can be seen in the Bullring today, just down near Starbucks and Selfridges.
Among the many other displays reported is a rather grand sounding one at Mr. Chandler’s on Dale End, ‘A transparency representing Time bringing Louis XVIII to the throne, in the presence of the Allied Sovereigns, the Duke of Wellington and two prelates; Peace extinguishing the Torch of War; with the genius of Pitt hovering above, bearing a scroll which was inscribed ‘My Country saved’ and ‘England has done her duty’. While over on Bull Street Mr. Henry Evans had on display ‘a gigantic figure of Peace, ten feet high, with her hands extended over the Earth on which she had just alighted. Her benign aspect dissipating the clouds of war and desolation’. A rather less poetic and more pragmatic display could be seen at the bank of Messrs. Coates, Woolley & Co. on Cherry Street – a simple illustration in variegated lamps read ‘Trade Revived’. Well, this was Birmingham after all!
You can read hundreds and hundreds of newspapers online by subscription to The British Newspaper Archive, including Aris’s Gazette. Or you can head to the Library of Birmingham, floor 4 and have a look at them for free on microfilm. Birmingham’s amazing archives are under persistent threat from local government cuts. Please support our local resources in any way you can. Once they’re gone, we can’t get them back. Cheers.