Streets of darkness
When wandering along town or city streets, you can often spot objects that are leftovers from a previous way of life, including the strange-looking ‘link extinguishers’ outside a few houses in London and elsewhere. Before gas street lighting became widespread in the early decades of the 19th century, urban streets were extremely dark. Even on moonlit nights, the moon might be darkened by clouds, while the buildings on either side would cast deep shadows. For anyone out in the streets at night, there was not just the obvious hazard of being attacked by thieves, but a constant risk of accidents through not being able to see the way.
A link extinguisher in London on an entrance pillar (left) and in a close-up view (right)
The solution for many people was to hire a link boy – a boy or young man who carried a flaming torch called a ‘link’ to light the way for the traveller. The origin of the word ‘link’ is uncertain, with possible derivations from a medieval Latin word for wick or from a Greek word for portable light. The term ‘link’ was used by Shakespeare, indicating that this method of coping with dark city streets had a long history.
Most people hired link boys only when they needed them, but the wealthy had servants in livery, generally young men, who could act as link boys and as bodyguards. They carried not just torches but also wooden staffs and weapons. Wealthy households installed link extinguishers outside their front doors for their servants to put out their torches once they had reached home. Hired link boys did not extinguish their torches, but moved off in search of another customer.
Using a link extinguisher fixed on the railing in front of a town-house
If you find a link extinguisher that is still in its original position, then that building is probably more than two centuries old, and it was most likely the home of a wealthy family.