You might not be aware of an ancient piece of legislation that affected the way many of Sheffield’s old buildings, and new ones for that matter, were built. The Ancient Lights Law was the right of a building or house owner to the light received from and through his windows. Windows used for light by an owner for 20 years or more could not be obstructed by the erection of another building. This rule of law originated in England in 1663, although was superseded by the 1832 Prescription Act.
If a neighbour attempted to infringe upon this by building a structure or planting trees, the owner had the power to sue them for ‘nuisance’.
The law led to the placement of ‘Ancient Light’ signs under windows that were protected by the ordinance, and today some of these signs can still be found on buildings around London, although I’m not aware of any in Sheffield.
In the 1920s, an Ancient Lights expert, Percy Waldram, proposed a method that would, ideally, standardise, the amount of light people could claim. He suggested that ‘ordinary people’ required one-foot candle (a measure of light intensity) for reading and other work.
In Sheffield, the design and construction of many of our old buildings was dictated by rights to light. One such, the Telegraph Building, on High Street, had to be built in such a way as not to affect light to properties on the other side of the street.
We’ve also covered the old Mulberry Tavern, on Mulberry Street, which took the owners of the ‘new’ Victoria Hall to court because its construction had affected light inside the pub.
And there have been other cases.
In 1900, Mappin and Webb objected to the building of a property on the other side of Norfolk Street because it would have affected light coming into its ground-floor showroom.
The Sheffield Cathedral extension in the 1930s prompted discourse from occupiers on St. James’ Row, as did the building of Central Library from the Lyceum Theatre and Masonic Hall.
The power that property owners have, to demand ample daylight, is still a relevant debate. However, modern planning laws usually prevent disputes afterwards.
Interestingly, the Ancient Lights doctrine never caught on in the United States where it was deemed restrictive of new commercial and residential developments and thus limiting urban growth.
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