Sewer Gas Destructor Lamps

Sewer Gas Destructor Lamps

Work to repaint the five Sewer Gas Destructor Lamps in Seaton Valley was completed on 11 August following the agreement by councillors to fund the work at the Full Council meeting on the 28 July.

There are five Gas Sewage Lamps in Seaton Valley that are all Grade II Listed.  One is in front of Avenue House in Seaton Delaval, three are on Collywell Bay Road at or near to Seaton Sluice harbour and the forth is in Hartley Square that was part of Old Hartley.

The lamps were installed in Victorian times to take away the gas build-up in underground sewers. Old sewers were not always laid on sufficient grade or on true line resulting in the accumulation of dangerous and highly inflammable methane gas that increased the chances of explosion.

To prevent the build-up of stagnant gases, holes were poked into the sewer and free-standing vent pipes were installed to allow the foul gases to escape over the heads of pedestrians and the levels of adjacent homes. But some of these problematic sewers were located in areas where homes were multi-storied making vent pipes ineffective.

In the 1890s, Joseph Edmund Webb of Birmingham invented and patented a device called the “sewer gas destructor lamp” to deal with the problem of putrid sewer gases. These lamps looked and behaved like ordinary gas lamps that were once a common feature on streets around the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe as well. Webb’s idea was to vent methane gas up and out of the sewer mains through the lamp post to the burner at the top where it would be consumed by the flames.

Webb expected the lamps to be fuelled entirely by sewer gas effectively turning a nuisance into functional street lights. However, it was soon realized that the system didn’t work as expected —there was not enough methane to power the lights. The flame would die quickly and subsequent unburned methane release would create a nauseous condition in the area.

Cllr. Susan Dungworth pictured next to the Gas Lamp at Collywell Bay Road

Webb quickly modified his design so that the lamps burned town gas like ordinary gas lamps did, but they were still connected to the sewers below. The heat generated by the lamp head created an up draught which pulled gases from the sewer through lamp column to the 370 degree centigrade flame, where it burned together with the town gas. A single lamp was said to be capable of venting up to three quarters of a mile of sewer. The gas lamps not only removed methane but they also helped to sanitize the sewer air by burning dangerous microbes.

The sewer gas lamp turned out to be so effective that they were installed all around the UK in towns and cities including London, Sheffield, Winchester, Durham, Whitley Bay, Monkseaton, Seaton Delaval and Seaton Sluice.  The lamps remained lit all round the clock.

Sewer lamps became obsolete with the change in plumbing practice. Today, sewage gas is vented out above the roofs through the buildings’ plumbing system.

The lamps have been painted Mid Brunswick Green, which is likely to have been to original colour of the lamps when they were installed.  When the paint was scraped back from the lamps, there were visible traces of green paint on the metal base.

Cllr. Susan Dungworth, Hartley Ward Councillor and Chair of the Council said, “The lamps look amazing back to their original colour.  We are so fortunate to have these fine examples of Victorian engineering in Seaton Valley.  Although none of the lamps are still working, they are an important part of our village’s history.  Repainting the lamps will help preserve these historical assets for future generations”.

The painting work was carried out by Tynemouth Decorators Ltd, who also painted the Sewer Gas Lamps around the North Tyneside area.

Pictures of the five Sewer Gas Lamps can be viewed below: