Country House Amenities; Part II, Lighting with Oil, Gas and Electricity.

In the first part on country house amenities, I offered a glimpse into how these buildings would have been lit by candle.

Lamp Room at Port Eliot, Cornwall. (copyright Christopher Hutchinson 1992)

In the era before channelled resources such as gas or electricity, the humble candle offered a brief glow or an otherwise immense show of sparkle depending on the lighting necessities of the moment. The candle would still have great influence for many years with adaptations being made to holders as candle lamps as well as being used in aspects of later lighting design. Things were changing and before the end of the nineteenth century, those once dark corners and passageways were to be illuminated with great effect.



The key types of oil; vegetable/olive oil, used in simple devices such as cressets, betty lamps and crusies but the light they emitted was no stronger than that of a single candle; whale oil, the best quality came from the Sperm Whale, but was expensive; colza, used in more sophisticated devices, but remained messy stuff in the process of lamp cleaning; and paraffin/kerosene, this was a product from the distillation of mineral oil or petroleum, it was lightweight and almost smokeless giving a clear light, discovered c.1859.

Like the candle, oil was another ancient form of light provision. However, it was not used extensively in the country house because of its smell and inefficiency. By the end of the eighteenth century (patented in Britain by Matthew Boulton in 1784) the introduction of specialist cylinders and modes of combustion such as Argand lamps to many country house interiors offered a new form of lighting which would be used throughout the hierarchy of the household. These used colza oil – a variety of rapeseed oil which was less smelly than pure vegetable oils and cheaper than whale oil. Country house historian Mark Girouard highlights Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire in the 1830s which was largely lit by oil and when the family were in residence (a total of about sixteen or seventeen weeks each year) 400 burners were required and about 600 gallons of oil were consumed.

Many candle fixtures were adapted fairly quickly, but more common were the brand new fittings for oil which could be attached to walls, ceilings or placed on tables. The oil reservoir could be disguised as a fashionable classical urn or form part of the column, likewise, the pipes feeding the burner might be intricate scrolls and branches. More humble apparatus would have been the candle-holder inspired night lamps (see below) which crucially still maintained the use of portable light and were essential for the early morning servant.

Hanging Oil Lamp (Early 19th century, Manchester Art Gallery), provenance unknown

Wall lamp possibly from Chatsworth House (Early 19th century)

Visitors to country houses today may still be able to see a lamp room especially laid out for cleaning and trimming ‘cottons’ and refilling lamps. Other houses may have used sculleries for the same purpose. This routine was often done first thing in the morning, when lamps would be collected up to be cleaned and refilled ready for day and evening use. In the 1795 inventory of Harewood House, there was a ‘room where the candlesticks are cleaned’ in the basement, such rooms may well have been adapted later for storage of more modern lighting equipment.   ********Gas and Electricity

Gas lighting was introduced at a commercial level in the 1790s using coal gas but was confined to manufactories and workshops. It was extremely slow to catch on in a domestic way despite its ‘brilliance’ and glorious levels of illumination. For the country house owner in particular, the worries surrounding gaslight were fixed on the supposed purity of this resource; the temperature emitting from the burners, the damage to wall surfaces and even artworks. Add to this the contemporary uses of gas in the industrial workplace, and gaslight was ultimately seen as crude and inferior. If gas was introduced at all, it would have been in the domestic quarters. In the 1860s however, for those planning on building a country house it was advisable to consider the provision for gas lighting with a country house gasworks. This was a new world of lighting amenities and required extensive (and expensive) work if the house were to be linked up to a good supply.

A small Chamber for the retorts, a Tank for tar, a Yard for the gasometer and stowage for coals and coke, are the chief features. These he [gas engineer] will have to dispose together at a convenient angle of the Farm-buildings or perhaps of the Stabling, well removed from the House…

The Gentleman’s House, Robert Kerr (1865).

Kerr offers absolutely no estimates on cost for this aspect of lighting resource, but installing something similar at Hassobury in Essex cost a huge £814 10s 7d in 1870! Fortunately this offset the long-term costs saved in previous lighting arrangements.

          Moreover, lighting the house by gas allowed the owner to re-use several older fixtures intended for candles, especially in larger spaces such as hallways, landings and stairwells. Of course, this would also be true of electrical lighting, and many apparatus were adapted for gas first, and later electricity. The most obvious would be the wall fixtures like sconces and girandoles, as well as chandeliers; such apparatus are usually linked to the electricity supply today, and produce superb illumination of quite vast open space. At Cragside in Northumberland – the first house to be lit by hydroelectricity in 1881 – owner Sir William Armstrong declared to the editor of The Engineer,

          In the passages and stairs the lamps are for the most part used without glass shades and present a very beautiful and starlike appearance, not so bright as to pain the eye in passing, and very efficient in lighting the way… The Library […] is well-lighted by eight lamps. Four of these are clustered in one globe of ground glass, suspended from the ceiling of the recess, and the remainder are placed singly and in globes in various parts of the room, upon vases which were previously used as stands for duplex kerosene lamps.

Page from Lea, Sons & Co suppliers to Cragside in the 1890s (copyright National Trust)

          Existing houses took time to adapt, probably due to the cost of alterations and the willingness of the owner to allow electric power into the building. New houses on the other hand, made electricity a necessary part of the structure. Castle Drogo was one such place, and has already been discussed here, but more notable properties like that of Cragside proved the innovation of their owners as being integral to the foundations of the house itself. Others would follow before the end of the nineteenth century including Tatton Park in Cheshire, Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands and Lanhydrock in Cornwall.

          The use of electric light by the twentieth century heralded a completely new era, and symbolised the final outward spiral of lighting amenities in the country house. Candles and oils produced poor light on their own and had to be used in great quantities for good effect. They could be stored, cleaned and even produced on the estate. Gas light was more reliant upon outsiders to install or adapt buildings and fixtures as well as the provision of gas related equipment, but it did produce a better spread of illumination and was generally cleaner. Electricity could be produced upon the estate using existing features of the landscape, especially in the case of hydroelectricity and other turbine generators, but it would eventually be linked to a national system providing a consistent output for all. Plus, the quality of light from a single fixture could be enough to illuminate one room for extensive periods of time. There was no need for portable lighting equipment like matches, flints or tinders, fussy cleaning accessories or messy oils and dripping wax.

          Peculiar to the country house of the early twentieth century perhaps, was the desire to retain some old world

Set of light switches at Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire (copyright National Trust)

charm. So even where a seemingly small number of owners made dramatic changes to their lighting facilities, many more were seeking to disguise the purity of better illumination through those older fittings. This was more common amongst the plutocracy whose general emulation of ancient landed wealth drove them to construct romantic country piles. When the country house suffered financially throughout the twentieth century it became the turn of organisations such as the UK National Trust and English Heritage to evoke something of this ancient charm, although this time is was rather more to do with necessity than aesthetics.

          Today, lighting the country house is dependant upon the requirements of the owners. Residents of a country house would probably treat it the same way any householder would illuminate their home – for reading, for setting the mood, for hobbies, evening meals etc. For those houses open to the public, there is the need to save on running costs when several rooms have to be exhibited all day whilst also recognising issues of conservation. Consider then, the mix of issues relating to homeliness and conservation when a country house is both a public space and a family home. Thankfully the electric light bulb in its modern form can function at different levels, and the energy-saving variety are proving a welcome device in the twenty-first century.


Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House (1978).

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements (1992).

Robert Kerr, The Gentleman’s House (1865).

Pamela Sambrook, The Country House Servant (1999).

Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erdigg (1980)

Temple Newsam Country House Studies, number 4, (text by Anthony Wells-Cole), Country House Lighting (1992))

Margaret Willes and Maureen Dillon, Artificial Sunshine: A Social History of Domestic Lighting. National Trust (1999)


Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester

Victorian High-Tech – The Argory, County Armagh

The UK National Trust lighting; with electricity and with gas

Lighting the Georgian and Victorian property

Lighting the Victorian Home

Full link for that fantastic essay on Country House Gasworks

The Geffrye Museum, London.

The National Trust changes to energy efficiency 2008 (with video)