Many lovely lampposts adorn the streets of London. Let’s look at the stories behind two of them: One reminds us of Coco Chanel’s great love affair, the other of London’s Great Stink…
While walking along the streets of Westminster in central London, you might notice lampposts that seems to be sporting Coco Chanel’s logo. Is London really so posh that it had Chanel design its lampposts?
Well they do resemble her style: classic black with gold lettering. One side of the base has a large stylized W and the other side has interlocking, back-to-back Cs that are identified with the Chanel brand.
W for Westminster
The large W on the base is no mystery – it definitely stands for Westminster. But is it the City of Westminster or the Duke of Westminster?
Westminster is a city inside London that covers a large part of its center, including Westminster Abbey, part of the West End, the Northbank, and much much more. As far as we know, Chanel had no association with the City of Westminster other than her fashion house being located there in 1927.
The Duke of Westminster, on the other hand, did have a very close relationship with the French fashion designer. In 1923 Coco met Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster. He was married at the time, but neither of them saw that as a problem.
He was also the richest man in Europe, and he wined and dined Coco on his yacht and in his various grand homes around the UK. He gave her a house to set her up in business in London and showered her with extravagant gifts. Their affair lasted ten years, after which they remained friends until his death in 1953.
Coco was already using her double C logo when she met the Duke of Westminster. She had adopted it as her own a few years earlier, after seeing it in the Chateau de Cremat, a winery in the hills of Nice.
So, could the letters on the London lampposts be a reminder of the relationship between the Duke of Westminster and Coco Chanel?
The City of Westminster’s response is that it’s a lovely idea, but there’s nothing to it. They say the W is for the City of Westminster and the double C stands for City Council. As further proof, they add that the lampposts were installed in 1951, long after the Duke and Chanel were an item.
That’s a pretty good argument and it’s probably true. However, the Duke and Coco remained friends after their romance was finished and were still friends until the Duke’s death in 1953. That means that when the lampposts were installed they were still friends… so, who’s to say that the initials can’t have more than one meaning?
Carting Lane Gas Destructor Lamp
Another interesting, if somewhat less romantic, streetlamp can be found on Carting Lane just off the Strand. Go down the stairs between the Coal Hole pub and the Savoy Hotel, and you’ll see a rather mundane-looking gas lamp. London has 1500 working gas lamps, but this one is unique. It’s the only sewer-powered streetlight in the city.
The Great Stink
The story of this lamp begins in 1858, the summer of the Great Stink. London’s decrepit sewage system was overflowing and emptying directly into the River Thames and turning it into an open sewer. It smelled horrible and was spreading disease. Parliament couldn’t even meet because of the smell – something had to be done.
Joseph Bazalgette, was given the task of designing and installing a safe and sanitary sewage system for London, so he got busy laying pipes under the whole city. He did a good job of it too – his work is still the basis for the system which is operating today.
But where the new sewer pipes went up or down to follow the lay of the land, pockets of sewer gases could accumulate. To address this problem, the normal solution was to install tall ‘stink pipes’. These were simply hollow pipes that allowed the gases to escape above nose level.
However, in certain areas (such as between the tall buildings on Carting Lane) it wasn’t feasible to erect such tall pipes. This little lane ran between two of the finest and most luxurious hotels in London: the Savoy and the Hotel Cecil (destroyed in 1930). A tall stink pipe here would just deliver the smelly gases to the bedroom windows of the hotels’ expensive rooms. It just wouldn’t do.
Joseph Webb from Birmingham came up with a solution. He created a gas streetlamp that would also burn off the accumulated sewer gases. Webb’s design got rid of the smelly gases while giving off light and looking attractive at the same time. A flame generated by normal gas, drew up the sewer gases which it then heated, disinfected, and released into the air in an odorless form. He called it the gas destructor lamp.
The Carting Lane gas destructor lamp is the only one of its type left in London. It’s still standing proudly beside the Savoy Hotel doing the job it was designed to do. Because of this unusual lamp, Carting Lane is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Farting” Lane.
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This is very interesting! I will definitely look out for these next time we’re there (who knows when?!) I think there’s something in the Chanel connection, as I’ve never seen any other council express themselves in that way. Hope you’re ok during the virus. x
Thank you, Jane. I like to imagine a Chanel connection too – it’s so much more interesting than ‘city council’.
I hope things will be back to normal soon and we’ll all be able to start traveling again.
Take care and stay safe. x
Your story of Chanel’s inspiration for her famous logo reminds me of Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. I had no idea that this wasn’t Chanel’s original design. Great story! I think the men who created London’s sewage system and the destructive gas lamps were absolute geniuses. What a feat especially when design was done by hand. Incredible! Shows the ingenuity of London’s early engineers. Thank you, Margo
Oops! I posted the above comment but I hadn’t added my name.
Hi Rose. Yes, it seems that Chanel stole her logo from a chateau in Nice. 🙂 But really, we are always inspired by what we see around us.
Humans are capable of amazing things when they set their mind to something. What I admire about Victorian engineering is how things were designed to last for 100s of years.
I agree with Jane, Margo. If it was City Council would be the same style as the W and by the 1950s the interlocked Cs were recognised as the Chanel logo (pity about the Chteau de Cremat!).
Regarding the durability of Victorian engineering, it is only in our time that ‘built in obsolescence’ has come in in order to make us consume more – and this does include buildings!
Well, the logo certainly is a curious history! 🙂
And don’t get me started on modern building practices – it seems they strive for the minimum acceptable standard. I always prefer the older buildings that are sturdier, more spacious, and in my opinion, more beautiful.
Take care -Margo
I totally agree, Margo. We seem to have lost all sense of architectural beauty after the 2nd World War. Paula
Thank you for this wonderful post Margo. I do love reading your work and always leave happier and brighter everytime.
Keep up the great work.
Thank you, Sam, for your kind comments.
I hope you and your family are staying well.
All the best -Margo