How Did Candles Light Up Post-War Cambridge?

Richardson Candle Group
St John's Street and North Trinity Street, Cambridge

Listed: 2013
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for Richardson Candle lamp posts 

Cambridge is the last city in the UK to retain its own custom-designed lighting stock from the post-war period. If you wander into the heart of the historic city and walk along Trinity Street or glance up at the walls of buildings like Queen's College or the Guildhall, you'll notice some striking tubular lamps.

The story of the bespoke lanterns began with the loathing their designer - the eminent architect Sir Albert Richardson - had for the modern street lighting that was being proposed in the 1950s.

Sir Albert Richardson

During the first half of the 20th century Cambridge's street lighting was still mainly run on gas. By the mid-1950s the high price of this fuel made it an inefficient way to light the streets, and the city council decided to adopt an electric solution. The designs of two manufacturers of street lighting - British Thomson Houston (BTH) and REVO Electrical Company - were short-listed and given a trial. However, both lighting schemes were deemed unsuitable.

Rather than choosing an 'off-the-peg' catalogue design, the city surveyor approached the Royal Fine Art Commission for expert advice. They suggested the well-known architect and president of the Royal Academy, Sir Albert Richardson, who disliked modern street lighting; he reputedly called a newly installed concrete street lamp outside his home in Bedfordshire a 'monstrosity'. In 1957, Richardson was commissioned to design the new street lighting for Cambridge.

Vistas and silhouettes

Sensitive to the strong perpendicular lines of the Cambridge townscape, including the iconic King's College Chapel, Richardson took the REVO Festival lamp as his inspiration and produced a simplified, more slender model with smoother lines and less embellishment. He stated:

"The lighting in a city should be regulated by the city itself, by the condition and formation of the streets, by the buildings and houses and certainly with regard for vistas and silhouettes."

The candles were limited to the city centre and soon became accepted as part of Cambridge's historic street scene. Despite the damage to some of the columns by traffic and the pressure to replace them for a more efficient modern system during the late 20th century, nearly half of the original Richardson candles have survived. These lamps, which have far outlived their originally intended 25-year life, are unique to Cambridge and today are all Grade II listed.