Cefn Mawr – Lamplighters by Alun Salisbury

Alun Salisbury recalls growing up in Cefn Mawr and meeting lamplighter Reg Hayes.

I was born in 1938 and brought up in Cefn Mawr, where I lived with my parents and elder brother, Leonard, in a house on Morris’s steps off Well Street. Following the Second World War and ‘blackout’ it was exciting to see the streets lit by gaslights, a sight I had not seen before.

I remember that one lamp in Well Street was so positioned, on Morris’s warehouse, that it illuminated both the street and ‘our’ steps which were used by many as a shortcut to or from the top of Cefn.

It was always a welcoming sight to see the lamplighter cycling along Well Street with his lighting pole/torch balanced on his shoulder. We would watch in anticipation as he stopped at each lamp and, manipulating the pole, turn the gas tap on or, if it was a globe light, pull or push the attendant wires attached to the external tap above before inserting the flame from his torch into the lamp. Once ignited, the mantles quickly became incandescent throwing light over a large area often illuminating the faces of the nightly, gathering group of coalminers sitting on their haunches at the bottom of ‘our’ steps, one of which was my father. The group was waiting to catch Theo’s bus for the nightshift at Bersham Colliery. Sometimes we would catch the glint of shining metal, accompanied by the clanging of tin-ware as Thomas the Tinsmith, after leaving his small workshop at Rock Hill, approached the group armed with his day’s labour – armfuls of tinplate water bottles and snapping boxes all tied together with string. These, he would hand to the bus driver for sale at the pithead. It is many years since I have seen either a water bottle or one of these food boxes, but I am sure that there must be examples in existence somewhere in the Cefn Mawr and surrounding areas.

With the street lamps lit and area illuminated, we would play games in the security and comforting glow from the lamps.

Lamplighter Reg

Little did I realise that many years later, when I joined Wales Gas at the Rhos and Cefn Mawr Undertaking, that I would have a close working relationship with one of these lamplighters – Reg Hayes. Reg became my mentor and taught me my gas fitting skills and finer points in the adjustment of gaslights for optimum performance. Reg, with his brother and others, maintained all the gas burning equipment in people’s homes including the street lamps of Acrefair, Bont, Cefn Mawr, Froncysyllte, Garth, Newbridge, Rhosymedre and Trefor. A huge area when one considers that all lamps needed turning on and off each night. It was whilst at Cefn Mawr that I came across an acetylene, lamplighter’s torch that I salvaged.

In 1969, I left Cefn Mawr in pursuit of my career with Wales Gas, but in 1976, I visited Reg at his home in Russell Street and took the torch along as a discussion point. When he saw it, Reg immediately identified it as the torch used by him for many years. Reg based his claim to ownership on a small repair, made in copper to the burner stem; ‘I remember making that repair, some 30 years ago,’ Reg explained.

Seeing the potential of a good story, I persuaded Reg to let me contact Wales Gas Public Relations department, with a view to them writing a story of Reg and the torch for publication in their in-house newsletter – Nwy News. All parties agreed and I was tasked with locating a working gas lamp for Reg to light. I discovered one in the garden of Mr John Lomax, former North area distribution engineer, and Group Chairman for Wales Gas, Wrexham, who kept it in his garden in Bangor-on-Dee.

I am grateful to British Gas for allowing use of the following editorial and photograph showing Reg lighting the lamp. The editorial appeared in the March 1976 edition of Nwy News. Reg was 77 at the time:

‘In those days I worked at Rhosymedre Gas Company. You did a bit of everything in a gas company then, and one of my jobs was to light the street lamps. There were three of us working in the Cefn Mawr area, which was known to be the best-lit area for miles around. It was possible to read a newspaper 20 yards away from a lamp! One day the late Sam Evans called. He had broken his torch when he fell off his bike. Sam borrowed my torch to finish his round and the next day I mended his with copper and kept it as my own.’

Seeing the torch after so many years revived many memories for Reg, who started as a ‘lead boy’ – getting the 12-foot lengths of main ready to be laid – early in the 1920s.

‘I left the works at about 3.30pm on a winter’s afternoon. I had to light 60 lamps over a distance of about four miles. By 5.30pm I would be finished. But then at 10.30pm I would go and turn them all out. You could use the torch to knock the gas tap off as well as lighting it.’

The torch works by mixing carbide crystals or powder with water in the hollow handle. A steady drip of water onto the crystals produces acetylene gas. This passes up the tube and ignites to produce a clear, steady flame. The acetylene torch superseded an oil-burning torch, which proved to be very unreliable in adverse weather conditions. Only on very wet and stormy weather would cause the acetylene flame to go out.

However, the torch soon became obsolete with the introduction of automatic mechanisms and Reg no longer had to make his rounds twice every night. He did not lose all connection with street-lamps though, for even after his transfer to Rivulet Road, Wrexham, in 1966 he maintained the few remaining gas lamps in the area. This included a lamp in Norman Road, Wrexham, run off sewer gas.

Since his retirement in 1969, Mr Hayes may no longer light gas lamps in the street, but he still has gas mantles in his home giving off a soft warm glow to remind him of his days as a lamplighter.

War

I have fond memories of my time with Reg and well remember him describing an incident that happened during the Second World War. ‘Bombs were falling on Monsanto Chemicals and we were concerned at the close proximity of our gasholders’ to Monsanto, when the inevitable happened. Following an explosion, a piece of shrapnel pierced our gasholder causing a major gas escape. Grabbing repair materials, I hastily climbed the gasholder ladder, and made a temporary repair, otherwise we would have lost all gas pressure.’ This would have been a particularly hazardous repair because, apart from the risk of explosion from the uncontrolled gas escape, there was the added risk of being overcome by the insidious effects of carbon monoxide, which was a constituent of the manufactured gas used at the time.

Natural gas

April 1 1969 saw Wales Gas introduce natural gas to the homes of its customers for the first time. Most will remember the gas conversion programme 1969-73 when it became necessary for all gas appliances to be converted to burn North Sea – natural gas, as opposed to the manufactured gas used at the time. Having joined the Wales Gas Conversion Team my job, as Field Technician, was to devise methods for converting old or obsolete appliances to burn natural gas where no manufacturers’ conversion kit was available. Naturally, my colleagues and I came across many interesting appliances in this category, but none more so than the day I was called upon to convert the last remaining gas lit lighthouse in the British Isles, located at the end of the harbour mole, Porthcawl. The Harbourmaster’s brief was that the light must be visible 10 miles out at sea. Drawing on my knowledge of natural gas and skills and training on gaslights I had learnt from Reg, the conversion proved to be straightforward.

Since my retirement, I have taken up motorcycling again, after an absence of 42 years out of the saddle. Every Thursday, I meet up with chums and regularly ride from my home in Cardiff to Porthcawl for coffee on the promenade. On passing the lighthouse, I often give an affectionate nod to the light in memory of Reg.

Written by Alun Salisbury. Updated 2014