The Family History of the Kray Twins Part 5: The London Tribe of Lamplighters


John Kray had gone to the house of George and Caroline Goulborn at 25 Coleharbour Street Bethnal Green, after the death of his Father and the collapse of his nuclear family. He shared the rooms with George and Caroline and their two young daughters, and the lower floors were occupied by the Burnett family. The house would have been a plain three story building built in the 1820s, so relatively new.

John being slightly older than his brother was taken by the Goulborn brothers into the Gas Lamp Lighter’s trade. The Lamplighter’s was a respectable trade; gas lighting was widespread throughout London having been around since 1807 making a big change to the feel of the City. The old oil lamps were gone, replaced by thousands of bright gas lamps; London sparkled like a diamond, it shone like no other city in the world. The lamplighters would be out at dusk with a short ladder over their shoulder and a lamp in their hand. You can picture John Kray, twenty one years old, walking his rounds, between lamp posts in Bethnal Green at dusk, the ladder would go up against the lamppost, up he would go with his lamp to turn on the fishtail gas burner, apply his lamp to light it, close the glass, then down and off to the next one till his round was done, the faster he got round, the sooner he could leave work for the evening. A fairly straight forward job if you were careful not to blow yourself off the ladder by allowing too much gas to build up before applying the lamp, but a miserable one in the wind and rain. The next morning he would be up at “Sparrow’s fart” before dawn to do the same round again, this time up the ladder to turn off the gas, the skin on his fingers and thumbs being hard and calloused through contact with the hot metal and glass of the street lamps.

The Lamplighters were a close knit, and hereditary group, this was enabled by the growth of Gas Lights across London in the early 1800s which meant that as their families grew so did the demand for their labours, and the numbers of beats (as they called their routes) and it was a male only profession in Britain, passed from Father to Son, or to other members of the family as in the Krays’ case from their in-laws the Goulbourns.

They would congregate in groups, men working for the same Gas Company keeping company with each other in a local tavern that would be their “headquarters” at the end of their rounds. Here they would smoke their clay pipes, “wet their whistles” with beer, and swap stories of the rounds, and past and present Lamp Lighters, the most experienced, older men leading the group. They formed a “London Tribe” but unlike many they had a reputation for honesty, and acted almost as unofficial night watchmen, lighting up the dark corners and alleyways, banishing the darkness, and those who would skulk in it, by the act of light brining, and indeed their mere presence in the dark out of the way places, they also managed to do away with Link Boys, or “Glym Jacks” who carried lighted lanterns or torches for pedestrians in towns at night for a farthing a trip, however these were not always what they seemed, and could turn out to be “Moon Cursers” who would lead travellers to an ambush by their accomplices on nights when there was no Moon, and therefore when the Glym Jack’s services were much in demand. They died out with the coming of the Lamplighters as a trade.

The various families of Lamplighters would intermarry, according to Dickens betrothing their children in infancy to each other, form precessions at old Lamplighters’ funerals speaking slightly drunken orations, and upheld ceremonies and customs that went back through the generations. The older Lamplighters would have known the oil lamps, whose cotton wicks needed trimming and refilling with Whale Oil by day, then the round in the evening to light them again. They considered it a more skilled trade before the coming of Gas Lamps to Pall Mall and the London Bridges, as the old skills of maintaining the lamps were no longer required, and you couldn’t blow yourself off your ladder with an oil lamp!

Despite the changes in technology, the Lamplighters kept up their traditions and appearances, taking to the streets in white top hats, brown Holland jackets and trousers, the button hole of the jacket stuffed with wall flowers, and blue neckerchiefs. On a new beat they would whistle or sing from the tops of their ladders as they lit the lamps in the evening, so that the residents on the round would take notice and “stand them something to drink” as acknowledgement of their essential role as light bringer in the neighbourhood, the lamplighter’s shadow profiling them each night as familiar and comforting sights looming on bedroom walls.

At Christmas they would don their Sunday best and travel their rounds regaling the inhabitants with Lamplighters songs outlining the trials and tribulations of a Lamplighter’s life in the hope of receiving a “Christmas Box” (the price of a drink) in return.

It must have been a life that suited John Kray as he stayed in it for nearly thirty years, steady work, not highly paid, but with plenty of free time, the downside was that it was a job without prospects for the ordinary man, as long as you were prepared to do the same thing everyday, and proved reliable, you would have employment, but there was little or no chance of bettering yourself within the trade, as the job was owned by the gas companies, you could never build it up as your own business, the age of the wage slave had truly arrived. To John, having seen the effects of his father’s early death on the family only saved from destitution by the charity of the Goulborns, and the fate of his mother, condemned to Charity Shelters, the street and finally the workhouse, the certainty of a regular wage, even if only enough to keep a roof over your head and bread on the table, would have brought its own contentment.

In 1851 John Kray married Elizabeth Nurton, and went on to have nine children. They stayed in Bethnal Green with John going about his business as a Lamplighter, and lived for many years at 3 Providence Place Bethnal Green, the area in which they lived was almost exclusively inhabited by English Cockneys, (as opposed to other ethnic Cockney tribes such as the Irish, Scots, and Jews) virtually everyone in the streets in which they lived were born and bred in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch and Whitechapel. At this time Bethnal Green had been heavily settled by people who had moved out of from the shadow of the Tower like the Krays, it was a less harsh environment, still working class, still poor, but with a less claustrophobic crowding of people, and without the rampant casual crime that stalked the alleyways nearer to the city centre.

Pubs and music halls started to replace the Gin shops and penny dives, where players on stage would dress in caricature of the moneyed classes, the “Swells”, where caricature Policemen would fight with caricatures of the starving poor of Whitechapel, and poor but honest street girls would be placed in moral, and sometimes mortal peril by the lustful and greedy Swells, to be rescued at the last minute by their burly Costermonger or Soldier sweethearts to the roars of approval from the audience. This was the fantasy world that the working class could escape to, where the poor and “honest” would triumph over the rich and wicked, in complete denial of the truth that they saw around them everyday in the streets.

John died around his 60th year, he had been a very prominent character in the the working class community in Bethnal Green, and was even lauded by the Lord Mayor of London in 1860 at the Guildhall for risking his own life to save a fire victim, when, alongside a Police Constable Crewe of the City Force, John from the Central Gas Company was given a vellum testimonial and a half sovereign each, for: “The prompt and effectual means adopted by them in raising a rope to Thomas Fink, and thereby enabling him to lower himself from the fourth storey of the premises 25, Lime Street, City whilst on fire.”  John’s ladder and climbing skills no doubt to the fore.  After his death he would have left little if any money, a wife, ten children, all adults or very nearly by then, and his vellum scroll as testament to an eventful, and even heroic life in the London Tribe of Lamplighters.

Published in: on January 8, 2011 at 8:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My Great-Great-Grandfather, John Fenwick Downes was also a Lamplighter in Bethnal Green in the mid to late 1800’s. Perhaps he knew John Kray?

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    • They were a tight knit group Andy, and the Krays were well known in the area, so it’s quite possible.

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    • I come from a long line of John (Jack) Fenwick Downes. My Father is JFD, my grandfather JFD and so on ..perhaps we are related ….my family settled in Walton on Thames but were all over London

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