In the square in front of St Michael’s Church in Southampton, close to the Tudor House, stands a magnificent gas street lamp dating from around 1821. The story behind this lamp and others like it, including the one in front of the Dolphin Hotel, is an interesting one.

Before 1820 the streets of Southampton were illuminated by oil lamps with their numbers continually being increased to improve the street lighting.

This did not succeed as expected for the contractors were not particularly reliable. Some lamps were lit late or extinguished early and others not lit at all. There were also complaints about the quality of the light from some lamps.

A remedy was needed and a Mr Wheatcroft volunteered to lay gas pipes and illuminate the town with gas.

The idea was accepted at a town meeting but investigation into work he may have done elsewhere proved fruitless so the Town’s Pavement Commissioners were instructed to place a contract with an experienced company and the work was put out to tender.

The contract was awarded to Barlow Brothers who then needed to find a location for their gas works and gasometer for the storage of the gas produced by distilling coal.

The original proposal was to locate it on the Western Shore near where Westquay shopping centre is today. Fear of an explosion so close to the town meant that this and other sites were opposed until a spot well away from homes was finally agreed in Northam.

The town had recently returned two Whig Members of Parliament, one of whom was William Chamberlayne of Weston Grove who wished to endear himself to the town and strengthen his political support so he proposed that he should pay for all the lamp posts needed for the new lamps. He was later to become Chairman of the Gas Company.

His offer was accepted and the grateful townsfolk set about raising money to erect a monument to show their gratitude.

A handbill was produced in August 1821, saying that several banks were receiving donations for the purchase of a column with an inscription thanking Chamberlayne for his generosity.

The money was raised and a magnificent column was cast by Charles Tickell at his Mill Place foundry in Millbrook.

The column was nearly 50 feet tall with an urn on top which held a gas light and was initially located at the junction of New Road and the Above Bar.

In 1825 the Hampshire Advertiser reported that the column was neglected and remained unlit.

One gentleman offered to raise funds for its maintenance and lighting the lamp but the situation did not improve so it was moved in 1829 to the Town Quay under the supervision of Mr Garrat where it was thought the light would be “...of great utility to shipping on our river”.

The Harbour Commissioners were charged with maintaining the column but found this uneconomical and stopped lighting it with the consequence that it was proposed to move it to the East Marlands where it could illuminate an area frequented by robbers and thus afford the public some protection. However, in 1865 it was moved again this time to a site between the Strand and Hanover Buildings in the Houndwell.

In 1957 it was moved a short distance to the roundabout in front of Debenham’s store, now closed but then known as Edwin Jones.

In 2000 it was finally moved to its present location in Houndwell Park during the park’s millennium refurbishment project.

As for the street lights, there were still concerns as Barlow Brothers proved as unreliable as their predecessors. Lights often remained unlit in the backstreets and others not lit until very late.

The Pavement Commissioners resolved this matter in 1824 by levying the gas company with a charge of one shilling per night for each lamp that remained unlit.

This apparently did the trick and Southampton became one of the earliest towns in England to have gas streetlamps. Both the Column and the gas lamps are Grade II listed.

Godfreey Collyer is a tour guide with .