“Say, can a greater wonder e’re be found / Than light conveyed by syphons under ground?”
Gas Lamp Lighters Address. Broadside with two poems, illustrated with woodcuts, 500 x 375 mms., with imprint of E. Billing and Son, Printers, 186, Bermondsey Street. [London], c. 185-. [Call number: (Ex) Broadside 408] Purchased in 2008.
Seeking a gratuity at the Christmas season, the gas lamp lighter greets his customer with verse and pictures. His work is heroic, as the verse points out, achieving far greater wonder than steam power (“hurl mankind full fifty miles per hour”) and the “electric stream” (“transmits in moments news to distant land.” (In 1849, a telegraph line was laid under the English Channel connecting Dover to Calais; it took a number of years for locomotives, first introduced in 1804, to reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Coal gas — a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, etc — first illuminated Pall Mall in London in 1807. )
Delighting the eye are two large pictures:
At top, “The merry dance, the gay and festive throng/ Beneath the boughs of misselto’s bright green/ To jolly Christmas only can belong/ For now’s the time superior pleasures seen….” Certainly this must be Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball. (The original John Leech illustration first appeared in the first edition of Dickens’s masterpiece A Christmas Carol, London, 1843).
At bottom is “View of the Gas Works,” the centerpiece of a triptych flanked by images of dandy “Gasmen” in top hat. This large scene is derived from the 1821 print “Drawing the Retorts at the Great Gas Light Establishment, Brick Lane.”
Between the upper and lower large scenes are depicted further wonders. At middle left, above a scene of the birth of Christ is “The Gasometer.” At middle right, above the scene of the Crucifixion is “Drawing the Retorts.” (A gasometer or gas-holder is a large container for holding gas. “Drawing the Retorts” refers to clearing spent coal from the distilling apparatus.) The parallelism is most subtle — at left, images of promise and supply; at right, images of exhaustion and work done. ‘Tis a curious double message about who is the worker of wonders: God and /or man?