Maurice Dessertenne- “Eclairage”, in Nouveau Larousse Illustré, tôme quatrième E-G. Shakespeare would not have had all of these lights, but the ones labeled 15th-17th century would have been around during his lifespan of 1564-1616. They are numbers 25-28 for certain, and possibly some like 29. Source
Gas lamps are almost synonymous with Dickens’ image of England from the 19th century, but for William Shakespeare, walking the streets was a dark endeavor. The use of exterior lamps for the lighting of streets and walkways at night did not come into use until late in the 18th century. For William Shakespeare, while candles, early lanterns, and rush lights were all available for Shakespeare to use for getting around from place to place and lighting his work space as he wrote any one of his plays, there was a different way of getting around outside at night, which is what we are going to explore this week when we ask: Did Shakespeare Have Street Lamps?
We know that getting around at night and even lighting up the streets specifically to enable those travelling after dusk was a concern for London during Shakespeare’s lifetime, because several sources report the Mayor of London in 1417, Sir Henry Barton, declared that anyone living near the streets was to hang up a lantern outside on the winter evenings between Hallowtide and Candlemas (that’s about October through February).
Despite the order, it seems not many people followed it, which meant you had to use the most common method of getting around at night during Shakespeare’s lifetime: You hired a Link Boy.
A Link Boy was a kid, usually an urchin not otherwise attached to family nor gainful employ, who were paid to carry a light source and help travellers navigate the streets at night. They were quite common in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and persisted in popular use through the late 18th century.
Shakespeare even references Links, as they were called, in Henry IV Part 1. Falstaff is joking with Bardolph about how shiny his face is by jesting on the comparison between his shiny face and a light carried by link boys:
“Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern.” (Act III, scene 3)
The most common payment for linkboy’s services was about one farthing, and the light he carried could be anything from an oil lamp to a candle, but the most common light was called “pitch and tow.” Pitch was the tar like substance that kept the “tow” or fibrous hairs of the plant used to make a torch, from going up in flames once it was lit. The tar burned longer and kept the fibres from going up in smoke (literally), to provide a light source for navigating dark streets.
A link boy lights the way, 1827. Source
While discussing modes of transportation will have to be the subject of another episode, it’s worth mentioning here that Link boys often functioned like headlights for the very popular Renaissance sedan chair. These chairs were boxes, carried by men hired to be the chair carriers, (frequently called chairmen), and they walked along with these litters to escort passengers from one location to their destination. As the passengers were often dropped at the door of their intended destination, houses frequently were equipped with an external snuffing apparatus designed to allow a linkboy to extinguish his torch upon arrival. I could not find a source to tell me what that meant the linkboy then used to return to his home after his service concluded. I suppose it’s possible the boy waited to be paid another farthing to return the passenger to their original spot? If you know what happens to the link boy, please comment on this post.
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Much like pig latin, there was a special language invented among theives in 16th century England called thieves cant, and they called Link Boys “Glym Jacks” or “Moon-curser”. There is a connection between thieves and link boys, as by reputation link boys were often questionable in nature. It was possible a link boy would lead you into a dangerous situation or down a wrong alleyway where you would be robbed. It was important anyone hiring a link boy already be familiar with the route they wished to take so as to keep from getting taken down a dark alleyway and being robbed, or worse.
Throughout the REnaissance and the life of William Shakespeare, being a link boy was considered a low-status position. The expression “unable to hold a candle to someone” came from the idea that link boys were the lowest in society, so if you weren’t even able to hold a candle to someone it meant you weren’t even good enough to be their linkboy.
Those are all the ways I found to light the way home during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Do you know of more? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next week!
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