Those glass panels beneath our feet

I was on Trippet Lane the other day, answering a telephone call, when I looked at my feet and realised, I was standing on a piece of history. Beneath were glass panels that were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More importantly, it tells us that there is a lot more going on underneath our pavements than we can see.

These are pavement lights that were installed to illuminate the space below, usually a basement or cellar. It was a way to lighten spaces where natural light wasn’t available and a way to avoid using gas, oil, and candles. It also indicates that basements often extended underneath the pavement and sometimes beneath the road as well.

The earliest pavement light was developed in America by Edward Rockwell in 1834 using single large round glass lenses set in an iron frame. The lenses often broke and it was Thaddeus Hyatt who corrected the faults with his Hyatt Light of 1854. They had protruding iron knobs, designed to protect the glass, and even if the lenses were broken the panel would still have been safe to walk on.

They first appeared in London in the late 1880s in the form of cast iron frames glazed with cut squares of glass. In time, the glass was replaced with pressed glass prism lenses designed to transmit as much light as possible. It wasn’t long before other towns and cities, including Sheffield, adopted them too.

Pavement lights were extremely popular, but they weren’t without problems. It was the responsibility of shopkeepers to replace broken squares, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to sustain injury after catching their heel in a hole. There were stories of small children getting their foot stuck in them and in World War One, wounded soldiers were reported to have had their crutch caught in them. Discarded cigarettes dropped through a broken panel were also the cause of many a fire below.

Pavement lights waned in popularity with the introduction of the electric light but have made a comeback in recent years.

They are far more common in Sheffield than you probably realise and provide clues that there are underground secrets waiting to be explored.

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