How Tilley lamps grew to worldwide celebrity from Dalston inception

A trade stand in the 50s

A trade stand in the 50s - Credit: Cherrill Theobald

The name Tilley has become synonymous with portable kerosene storm lanterns worldwide, in much the same way that Hoover is used for vacuum cleaners. The great granddaughter of their inventor, Frederick Tilley, tells Emma Bartholomew about her family history – and how it all started in Hackney

An ad from 1925 for the Tilley radiator

An ad from 1925 for the Tilley radiator - Credit: Cherrill Theobald

Many of the older generation will have heard of a Tilley lamp – and some might still have one tucked away in the garage or loft, or even proudly on display as an antique.

The portable storm lantern was developed in the early 20th century to provide a source of light away from mains gas or electricity, using paraffin which was lit under pressure and enclosed in a glass lamp.

The lantern was developed and patented in Hackney by the Tilley family who had lived in Shoreditch since 1818 – and Cherrill Theobald, their descendent, has spent the past 50 years of her life delving into their history.

Cherrill grew up aware that her family were behind the well-known lamps, but it was through hours of painstaking research that she discovered the details. Her great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Tilley was one of the first skilled brass workers to make pipes and lanterns for house and street lighting following the construction of a gas works in Shoreditch in 1813.

Frederick Charles Tilley with his wife Fanny.

Frederick Charles Tilley with his wife Fanny. - Credit: Cherrill Theobald

By 1837, records exist showing Thomas and his son William were working for the trustees of St Leonard’s parish, where they provided lanterns and brackets around Bateman’s Row and wrought iron gates for Haggerston Church.

By the time the Gas and Light Company had built Beckton Gas Works in 1870, which supplied gas produced from to homes in north London through 48-inch gas mains, the Tilley family had progressed from being brass founders to installing lighting in the East End.

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Various family members all worked in some capacity for the company, which was now known as Tilley Brothers, and they had become wealthy.

By that point they had moved from Edward Street near St Leonard’s Church to Kingsland Road, then on to Albion Road, with a factory in Stamford Hill and a family vault in Abney Park Cemetery.

Frederick Charles Tilley with his daughter Margery

Frederick Charles Tilley with his daughter Margery - Credit: Cherrill Theobald

“I understand it was a sign of wealth the further north towards Stoke Newington you moved,” said Cherrill, semi-retired, who indulges her passion for history working part time as a geneaology researcher at probate company Anglia Research.

The family became even richer after Frederick Charles Tilley, William’s grandson, began developing lamps and other household articles that could independently provide light and heat in the 1920s. Inventions included the Tilley lamp, portable heaters, railway lights and irons.

“Frederick decided something was needed so that people living in the villages who weren’t supplied with gas mains had something they could carry around,” said Cherrill. “It was a competitive industry and there were other people, like Frederick Winsor and an engineer, Samuel Clegg, who were trying to improve gas lighting. Great-Grandpa’s ones became the well known name because they were the best, I expect.”

Through her research Cherrill discovered that working class opposition to the new invention meant Clegg was obliged to light the lamps at Westminster Bridge himself, because the lamp lighters refused to do it.

Cherrill Theobald

Cherrill Theobald - Credit: Cherrill Theobald

“People were suspicious because they thought it would blow up and cause fires,” said Cherrill.

But eventually they gained popularity.

“Tilley lamps hung in the tents when they did field surgery on soldiers during World War One,” said Cherrill. “In World War Two they were in Africa and they went as far as Australia where people were hanging on them on their veranda.

“It was global. They made a great deal of money. Great-Grandpa and his father were probably millionaires in our terms.”

After the Second World War, however, fears about the poisonous effect of paraffin fumes combined with widely available electricity reduced demand for their domestic use. A manufacturing plant was set up in Ireland and some of Frederick’s children continued to run the company there until it was sold to a South African company in the 1970s.

“People don’t have a need for these things now,” said Cherrill. “You just switch on a torch.

“But I am pleased that, from the Shetlands to Africa, Tilley lamps are still in use. Tilley products have become a huge collector’s item, with people worldwide communicating with each other about their finds and still having gatherings to have ‘light ups’ with their Tilley pieces. It’s quite extraordinary.”

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