Colchester’s Cast Iron Lampposts
A survey in 2019 by Robert Mercer established that Colchester had 300 unique cast iron lampposts, plus around thirty more bought in from sources outside of the town. (you will find a link for the survey at the bottom of the page) The Colchester cast iron lampposts were made for the Borough Council by a number of Colchester Foundries during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. The pattern, or wooden former used to produce these castings was owned by Colchester Borough Council and passed to the foundry which had the current contract to supply castings for the street lighting. Originally these would have all been for gas lights, but in due course they were converted to electric lighting. At the time of the last survey by Ewan Russell in the late 1970’s and early 80’s the total number was 555.
Clearly numbers have diminished considerably over the intervening years and more have been lost since the time of Robert Mercer’s Survey; with around thirty more likely to be replaced with modern galvanised steel posts because they have been judged to be unfit for conversion to the new LED lighting units, currently being installed across Colchester and Essex.
The prevailing view amongst highways engineers both locally and nationally is that cast iron lampposts have had their day, because they are ‘not commensurate for current standards.’ However this has not resulted in any plans for the large scale replacement of cast iron lampposts in Essex, as has been the case in many regions. The majority of Colchester’s cast iron lampposts have been successfully converted to LED lighting, which gives them up to forty more years of life. But it has resulted in there being no repainting program for the remaining cast iron posts, leaving some in a very sorry state (as the accompanying photo clearly illustrates) and the others giving many of our Victorian and Edwardian streets a neglected and untidy appearance.
It is for this reason that John Salmon (under the auspices of Colchester Civic Society) set up a program of repainting. Having begun in Roman and Castle Road in the summer of 2020, where the Residents Association were already collaborating with County Highways to help maintain pavements and trees in their conservation area; this collaboration was extended to the maintenance of the cast iron lampposts in these streets. Essex Highways provided the top coat and undercoat and Colchester Civic Society provided insurance coverage for the volunteers carrying out the work of stripping and repainting. Tools and equipment were bought using funding from ward councillors locality budgets and nineteen cast iron posts were repainted.
A number of methods were tried in order to prepare the posts for repainting at first. But the use of a small angle grinder fitted with a wheel shaped wire brush proved to be by far the most effective method and this has become the established method in all subsequent projects.
The Irvine Area Residents Association picked up the batten in 2021 and organised the stripping and repainting of another nineteen lampposts in Athelstan, Irvine Capel and Audley Roads. Essex Highways provided additional top coat and undercoat, with everything else, including primer purchased by the Civic Society with funds provided from locality budgets by Borough Councillors from Castle and Christchurch Wards and also by the County Councillor for Abbey.
During 2022 a third round of stripping and repainting was carried out by teams in Studd Lane, Beverley Road, Queens Road, Victoria Road and The Avenue.
An update on The Cast Iron Lamppost Project in 2023 from John Salmon.
As many of you will know by now Colchester Civic Society is running a project for the stripping and repainting of Colchester’s cast iron lampposts. This began in 2020 and has now just completed it’s fourth year, with lampposts in Errington Road, Wickham Road and the Avenue being stripped and repainted by resident volunteers who put in the time and effort to renovate the lampposts in the street where they live, using equipment provided by Colchester Civic Society and paint supplied by Essex Highways.
Volunteers in Morant Road, Gladstone Road and Hamilton Road had also hoped to make a start on renovating their cast iron lampposts. But for a variety of reasons this has not yet happened.
In Hamilton Road the reason for this is that during the recent conversion of Colchester’s street lights to LED, not one of the road’s four cast iron lampposts was deemed to be fit for conversion. We estimate that in total around thirty cast iron lampposts across the town have not been converted (around ten percent of the total remaining). In a few cases this was due to the post being found to be structurally unsound and these were immediately cut down to make them safe. However in the majority of cases, including all the Hamilton Road posts, the problems were with the swan neck brackets or the electrical control boxes, not the cast iron posts; meaning that it could be possible for new light fittings and distribution boxes to be fitted to the existing cast iron posts, instead of being replaced with new steel posts. This is something that has been done in previous years and several of the Roman Road and Castle Road cast iron lampposts were given a new lease of life in this way.
With this in mind I contacted the director of maintenance and operations at Highways to enquire what their plans were for these cast iron posts. I was told that they had ‘not yet come to a decision and that the outcome will depend on the latest results from the structural and electrical testing. We all know that they are very much out of favour with the lighting professionals and power providers, for good reasons (they are not commensurate for current standards). If they need to be replaced, this would be done as sensitively as possible, new column with embellishment kit and painted black.’
I was then put in me touch with the project manager in charge of the conversion to LED across Essex and a meeting was arranged. While we toured the cast iron lampposts of the town, it became clear that there was no consideration being given to the possibility of extending the life of the cast iron posts and the thinking conformed very much to that already outlined by the Director. The intention being to replace the unconverted cast iron posts with black painted steel posts along with swan necks and embellishment kits much like those that have been used in the Dutch Quarter. He also pointed out that a number of unpainted galvanised lampposts had previously been installed as replacements for the cast iron posts and that he was concerned about the inconsistency here and would recommend this be remedied in some way. Possibly by having them painted black.
Concerned that galvanised posts would quickly suffer from peeling paint and look a mess, I was assured that this would not be the case with the new replacements, because the painting is now done as part of the manufacture and is expected to last around the same time as the posts themselves, which is around fifty years. I was also told that this is not necessarily a problem with the existing galvanised posts either, provided they have been installed for more than a year and are rubbed down before painting, in order to clean off the salts which have risen to the surface.
This was reassuring in that there was now some consideration being given to the type and appearance of street lights being installed, at least in the conservation areas; where previously fine Victorian and Edwardian Streets had cast iron posts interspersed with a number of different styles of unpainted galvanised steel posts, equipped with a variety of light fittings. However I remained unconvinced that replacement was necessarily the only viable option.
In the meantime Hamilton Road resident and civic society member David Molloy was working along similar lines. David set about looking at the possibility of attaching new swan necks and control boxes to the existing cast iron posts and discovered that in Penarth in South Wales the town’s civic society had persuaded their Highways authority to abandon plans to replace all 300 cast iron posts with galvanised steel as part of the roll out of LED street lighting. The remaining posts were repainted and fitted with new Victorian gas style LED lanterns and traditional style ground sited feeder pillars (these replace the large control boxes which are mounted on the top of many of our cast iron posts).
So here was a case where very similar cast iron posts were being given a new phase life with new light fittings. Contacting Penarth Civic Society led to being provided with information from Vale of Glamorgan Council about the equipment they had used and the companies who had supplied them.
With this information, David set about procuring prices for both the lanterns and a traditional style swan neck, along with the ground feeder pillar. He also made a freedom of information request to try to establish the cost of the new galvanized steel posts which Essex Highways were likely to use as replacements.
Hopeful that we had found a way that the life of the cast iron columns could be extended indefinitely we submitted a proposal to Essex Highways outlining two ways in which those cast iron posts that have not been converted to LED could be fitted with new swan necks or traditional gas style lanterns for a price we estimated to be lower than complete replacement.
Our proposal was passed to the Project Manager for the LED roll out and in a second meeting with him he explained that he had looked at our proposals and calculated that the cost of implementing these would be higher than the solution he had already outlined to me. He was therefore going to recommend replacement of the cast iron posts to senior management and that if they wished to take up our proposals they would have to find the additional costs from outside the budget allocation for the LED conversion program.
As far as we know this is where things stand today. Whether the final decision has been taken I do not know, but do not expect it to go against the recommendations of the project manager, especially at a time when all areas of council funding are so tight.
On the plus side we do still have many of our original cast iron lampposts and Essex Highways have made it possible and indeed been helpful in facilitating our restoration work. In addition they are assured of another forty years of life, which is the projected life of the new LED units and provided that the swan neck brackets do not fail or some other calamity befalls them.
Since our restoration work began we know of two restored cast iron posts which have been demolished by motor vehicles, the most recent being one in Beverley Road, which was hit by a car swerving to avoid a fox. Another was demolished in a similar overnight accident in Castle Road; and three more in Roman and Castle Road were knocked down by delivery vehicles prior to the start of the our work. If you become aware of any other cases such as this, then please do get in touch with the Civic Society using the email address provided below, so that where the lamppost is in a conservation area, we can request the replacement conforms to conservation area standards.
Our work will resume next year with the teams in Morant Road and Gladstone Road intending to make a start. There are however many more of Colchester’s historic cast iron lampposts which would benefit from restoration. If you are interested in getting involved in this work then please do get in touch using the civic society email address email@example.com . John Salmon
Before and after images of a cast iron lamppost in Castle Road.
There are many many more of these historic cast iron lampposts in need of renovation in the late Victorian and Edwardian streets of Colchester and Colchester Civic Society would love to hear from you if you are interested in getting involved helping with this (just email firstname.lastname@example.org)
It may seem a daunting prospect, especially if you do not already know others who are interested. But as this account from Jonathan McLeod in Victoria Road tells us it can quickly take off.
“Initially I put a message on our Victoria road WhatsApp group asking if anyone wanted to join me renovating the lampposts along the road. I had eight people message me saying they were interested and so I set up a special WhatsApp group for our team.
I then allocated the lamp posts to individuals/Couples. I wrote down guidelines on how the lampposts should be painted.
I then put a plastic storage trunk outside the front of our house with a combination lock attached and put all the paints and brushes etc in the trunk.
I asked everyone to come round and showed them how to use things. From then on they just helped themselves whenever they needed anything. We all kept each other informed of our progress via the WhatsApp group. It worked very well and meant that people just fitted in the work as and when they could. “
WE hope to extend this repainting of cast iron lampposts as widely as possible. If you or anyone you know is interested in getting involved in this work, then please get in touch. You can contact John Salmon directly on this address email@example.com
The survey below details the location and type of the remaining cast iron street lamps, including information on the Colchester Foundries who made the castings for Colchester Council.