Victorian Police Lanterns


From man’s earliest times there has existed a need to see into the darkness, beyond the illumination of the camp fire.  A need to verify the existence or nonexistence of those things that exist just beyond our view to remain safe “from ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!”, to quote a line from a traditional Scottish poem.  As time passed and civilization developed we find that people migrated to urban centres and the “ghoulies and ghosties” were in the form of human predators.  Police services were developed and the need to see in the dark to either scare off the criminals or place him or her under the care and control for a time period to be determined at the pleasure of the Crown. 

Shedding light on the crime, night time crime being the operative period, became paramount, but how to best provide the officers with this ability.  A burning torch was probably used first, as it harkens back to the dawn of the adventurous types exploring those realms probably best left shrouded in myth.  Movies and television programs show our intrepid explorer winding his, or her, way through the passages of some long forgotten catacombs a brightly burning torch held out in front to illuminate the way.  The problem with this is that it won’t work, not for our fictitious hero or the police officers of old.  You can try this at home with a candle or a table lamp with the shade off.  Hold the light in front of you and all you see is the bright light, now move the light source off to the side and you can see much clearer.  Better yet our movie hero could hand the torch to his assistant to hold behind him so that he can see into the darkness ahead.  Probably the assistant will be the one to be eaten but then there is the old leadership attitude of, “better one of the hired help than a member of the management team’.

All of this brings us to the invention that solved many of the problems of enforcing the law after sunset, the police lantern, and in particular, the “Bulls Eye Lamp”.



Most of these lamps are not marked to any specific police service and the features collectors look for when determining the likelihood of a lamp being a police lantern are as follows.  Police lamps have a hook on the back for attachment to the officer’s belt, folding handles and a means of darkening the lamp so as not to give the officer’s location away to “persons of interest”.  As far as the amount of light these afforded the officer it is about the same as a single candle though the fish eye lens would magnify it a bit.  It should be remembered that at this time there were no streetlights or other ambient light making this the strongest light source available to the officers prior to the gas street lamps.  Even then alleyways and back lanes in those days were in darkness, the perfect hiding places for the criminal types; some things never change.


The specimen on the left shows the belt hooks, in this case two; however most police lanterns had only one usually wide belt hook. The folding handles are also shown to each side of the belt hooks.  The example to the right shows one method of darkening the lamp when lit, most of these were operated by means of a lever and the chimney was “fixed” in the lamp this one was removable and by turning the chimney the lamp could be darkened. One can only imagine how hot the chimney vent cap would get and the prospects of turning the device was probably problematic for the officer.  The light reflector can be seen at the rear of the chimney.


Older specimens often lack the cone shaped light intensifier that is most often found on the later versions. This cone not only provides more of a beam it also protects the fish eye lens, which also magnifies the light produced. These lanterns are often found with broken lenses and most often occurs with the earlier unprotected variations. With the exception of the candle burning lanterns (shown below) there is little difference between the earlier and later lamps.  The lantern above left, which is an earlier specimen, has a knob near the bottom left side of the base to move the darkening cylinder while the one on the right uses the older type darkening device that requires the officer to grasp the chimney vent cap to turn it to the dark mode.  The oldest variations have certain design elements about them that is lacking on the later specimens.  Refer to the specimen below and note the wider base flange, brass ball on the top of the chimney vent cap and this one also has the external lever (another brass ball) to adjust the internal darkening device seen on the lower right side just below the open door.



Early specimens used candles as a light source while later the fuel was whale oil and then coal oil which was processed from oil shale and bituminous coal then kerosene which is distilled from petroleum.  For the most part the two names are used to refer to the same fuel that was used in lamps and stoves. The oldest specimen in my collection, shown above, still has a tallow candle fitted inside as a fuel source.  While this is a true tallow candle, candles made from animal fat, I do not believe it to be original as the wick is woven.  The candle is inserted from below, see photo on the right, and as the candle burned “down” the officer would simply push more of the candle into the lantern. I would assume that when the officer’s shift started the candle would protrude well below the lantern’s base preventing the lamp from being set down.  This would mean having the lit lantern clipped onto his belt for a good part of the shift.  Tallow, as well as the liquid fuels that came later, all produced a sooty, greasy smoke which must have coated the uniform and cape, getting in the eyes and nose of the officer making a difficult profession even less pleasant.

With a painted truncheon, hand cuffs and a lantern to “juggle” while subduing a dangerous felon one has to admire the officer’s dedication to duty.  Gilbert & Sullivan (Pirates of Penzance) 1879 said it best,

“When constabulary duty’s to be done. To be done.
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one. Happy one.”

With that tune firmly entrenched in our minds let’s move on.


Besides the candle burner there were several different liquid fuel tanks used in the lanterns.  Each manufacturer had their own design but I have selected three from the collection to represent them all.  The tank on the left could only be adjusted from inside the lantern and possible only by  removing the tank completely.  The middle unit had an adjustment knob that protruded beyond the body of the lamp allowing the officer to advance or retract the wick to produce the exact amount of light he required. The tank on the right is from perhaps the most unique lantern of the Victorian period, the Crescent Lamp, which we will discuss later in this article. The tank in this lamp allowed the officer to pull the fuel container out of the lamp by the ring shown at the top of the tank if he found it more convenient when adjusting the wick length rather than attempting to adjust it in the tight confines of the lamp with his fingers.

Anyone with experience with the coal oil lamps of old will remember that the wick had to be trimmed evenly each evening before lighting to assure an even flame that produced as little smoke as possible.   This was not usually the officer’s duty.  Each morning the lamps were handed in and an attendant or possibly an officer on day shift was responsible to fill the tanks and trim the wicks, ready for the next night shift.



We have mentioned the chimney and I was fortunate enough to have purchased a lantern that arrived with the top vent cap broken free from the chimney.  I say that I was fortunate as the seller claimed that the lantern was in “100% perfect order” yet it arrived in the above condition allowing me to see the inner parts of this two-tier chimney vent cap.  These caps came in one, two and three tiers as can be seen in the group photo at the beginning of this article. The vent cap would help to dissipate the smoke somewhat and keep the light from shinning directly up and into the officer’s eyes.




Heights vary quite a bit but the majority fall between 8 inches and 6½ inches.  The large lantern in the photo is one of the few Victorian examples I have that is maker marked.  Hiatt & Co. are famous for manufacturing almost any police related items you might want to imagine and have been in business well into modern times.

 The Crescent Lamp


One of the rarest lanterns from the Victorian period has to be the Crescent Lamp designed by Philip Bicknell, chief constable of Lincolnshire, 1856 – 1902.  Lincolnshire, a predominantly agricultural area, is situated in the east of England.  This particular lantern is marked on the bottom as having been issued to “PC 188 Walker”.  This would suggest that this local force was a smaller detachment as larger police services had someone who cleaned the lanterns and trimmed the wicks each morning and simply issued a random lamp, since most Victorian police lanterns are not numbered, to the following night shift officers.  It would likely have been PC Walker’s responsibly for the care and maintenance of this lamp after or before his next shift.


The first feature that strikes anyone who sees these lanterns, as compared with the “usual” specimens, is that the top is flat rather than conical.  This was done, according to Richard Cowley in his book, “A History of the British Police”, to allow a cup of coffee or tea to be rested on the lantern’s top to keep the contents of the cup warm.  As we will see, this lantern while retaining the bull’s eye lens and light concentrating/protective lens cone contained several new innovations.



Unlike its predecessors the Crescent Lamp’s chimney vent cover could be removed for cleaning or repair/replacement.  Possibly the anticipation by the inventor of the smell of burning coffee or tea from an ill placed cup on the top of the lantern prompted the need to remove this part for frequent cleaning.  To remove the vent cover a retention pin at the rear of the cover (see the wire pin’s loop in the photos) was removed.


The double belt hooks on the rear of the lamp may not sound like such a great innovation however a single hook would allow the lamp to move off the vertical with the twisting of the officer’s body in the normal course of his duties, let alone when engaged in any physical altercations he may have encountered.  Just below each belt hook can be seen the vent holes allowing a flow of air into the lantern to create a chimney effect assuring a brighter burn and therefore more intense light.


The interior of the Crescent Lamp reveals more innovations. The back opens to allow easier access to the fuel tank which pulls out with the ring shown at the top rear of the tank. The tank slides in and out on tracks which keeps the tank securely in place even if the lamp itself is in a horizontal position.  This improved access also allows easier cleaning of the lens interior and the polishing of the light reflector mounted on the inside of the rear door.  The two holes above the reflector are vent holes taking the exterior air from the holes shown in the preceding photo located just below the two belt hooks and allowing it to flow up and out the vent at the top. This produces the draft necessary for combustion.


The ring for removal of the fuel tank from the lamp and the vented filler cap (left corner) with a raised tube to prevent spills in case the lamp is “off vertical” as well as a match strike located on the facing side of the tank is shown above.


The patented Crescent Lamp was made by Dolan & Co., Vauxhall London.  Today Vauxhall is probably best known for producing the automobiles of the same name, which likely accounts for the high quality of these lamps.

The next evolution in the area of police lamps would come with the invention of the dry cell battery making the coal oil fueled lanterns obsolete and prized as antiques by collectors worldwide.

Author: Brian Wolfe

  Ontario, Canada

  July, 2018



3 thoughts on “Victorian Police Lanterns”

  1. Hi, thanks for a great article. That was really useful.

    I’m planning to buy one of these as I run a Jack the Ripper tour (at night) here in London, and it would be good to show people how much light the police officers involved would have had in those mostly unlit backstreets and yards. Most of the newspaper drawings from the time show the officer pointing a strong beam of light from their bulls eye, but I’m guessing at best it was a faint glow.

    In your experience were the ‘makers’ marks painted black or left in polished brass?

    Thanks again.

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