The Darkness of Wartime

23 Oct

The autumn evenings seem to have become much darker recently. Spare a thought for those living a century ago, when black-out orders made the nights darker still.

As Londoners (and citizens across the south-east of England) approached the first winter of the Great War, the usual darkness of the season was accentuated by strict orders around the display of lights.

From early October, Lighting Orders restricted the display of lights outside. On 9 October, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police issued an “Official Warning” about lighting in London under section 7A of the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA – which gave the Government sweeping powers in wartime):

‘All external private lighting not needed to secure the safety of traffic should be discontinued.

‘Some businesses and other establishments are still maintaining interior lighting which is of too great intensity and illuminates the road way.

‘The Commissioner of Police is advised that such lighting represents, under certain circumstances, a source of danger to the particular neighbourhood and to the community at large.

‘The police have been given directions to take the actions necessary to ensure that the orders restricting lighting are carried out both in letter and in spirit.’

Hallie Eustace Miles described the scene of the city at night under these orders: ‘One hardly knows London at night now. Scarcely any street lights are allowed, and what lights there are have been painted with some dark stuff half-way down the glass to shade them, so that if there is a Zeppelin raid over London the raiders will not be able to distinguish the lists. London looks as if it was only lit by night-lights. It is, in a way, peaceful and dreamy looking, but very weird, and it is difficult for people to find their way about.’

One of those struggling to get about in the night was Liberal MP for Hoxton, Christopher Addison, who complained that he could not see the kerb in Westminster and had to search around for it with his foot.

Many people noted the contrast between the enforced darkness of houses and streets and the blaze of searchlights. In the wealth West End, Georgina Lee described the contrast in October: ‘In Onslow Square there is about one lamp left. All lamps in the streets have to be darkened at the top by shades, so as to be invisible from the sky. All shops have to reduce their lighting to a minimum. On the other hand powerful searchlights sweep above the city and precincts from all quarters, searching for airships.’

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice - wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee's diary

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice – wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee’s diary


The cartoonist's image was not an exagerratin: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London's searchlights (and Cleopatra's Needle) during an air raid

The cartoonist’s image was not an exaggeration: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London’s searchlights (and Cleopatra’s Needle) during an air raid


In November 1914, journalist Michael MacDonagh left the Lord Mayor’s banquet to find a city both dark and quiet: ‘Leaving Guildhall about ten o’clock, what a contrast was presented by its light and colour and warmth; the dresses and jewels of the ladies; the varied uniforms of the men, to the streets of the City – dark, empty, silent. Very few of the street lamps were burning, and these were so masked that their light fell only at their feet. As I walked through King Street and Queen Victoria Street to my office I could not catch even the faintest or most distant sound of traffic. The public-houses close at ten. The town clocks are silent and at night their dials are not lighted. Big Ben has ceased to sound the quarters and the hours since the middle of last month. So all the mighty heart of London was still. But the sky was being lit up and pierced by flashing searchlights. What a thought, amazing and affrighting, that if the period of war to life and property are ever to touch us they will fall from the sky!’

It was not all bleak and frightening, though, according to Mrs Miles: ‘Nearly all the lights in the shop windows are shaded with different colours, and these many coloured lights are reflected in the street and on to the pavements; when there is rain the puddles are turned into glorified iridescent pools, and the pavements and roads are like rainbows. The shop windows too, with the coloured lights cast down upon the goods displayed, look very mysterious and almost fairy-like. So we have our compensations.’

In January 1915, Addison remarked on the increasing darkness of London’s nights: ‘The streets in some parts of London are darker than ever. I heard an amusing story yesterday about some people in Kensington who were rather astonished that their streets were lighter than others. They were not comforted by the assurance that the authorities did not mind that they might perhaps provide an attraction or German aviators and so keep them clear of the Whitehall regions!’

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus - before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus – before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

By late 1915, assisted by the reality of Zeppelin raids, Mrs Miles was more fearful of the darkness: ‘The shops now close at 6 p.m., and, as every private house shows no light, the blackness that envelopes London is a sort of nightmare. I get home as early as I can, for the darkness horrifies me. Some people are becoming accustomed to it now, and are like cats – about to see in the darkness!’

After a winter of people struggling to locate the kerb, the Commissioner for Police suggested painting the kerbs white. It was for councils to decide and some (including in St Marylebone, as their minutes record) felt that it was unnecessary as the days were getting longer anyway. When the suggestion came again in November 1915, St Marylebone had already begun work whitening the kerbs.

The black-out, of course, continued through the war. As we saw in an earlier blog post, MacDonagh described the Palace of Westminster in late 1917, which ‘instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front’, presented itself as only ‘a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight’.

Another witness to the sight in the latter half of the war was American journalist Milton Valentine Synder. Writing to his wife in Paris in February 1918, he described his arrival in London:

‘The darkness of Paris holds more than a candle to the blackness of London; it is positively dazzling by comparison. The intense gloom into which we were precipitated on our arrival last night was more than depressing; it was stifling! Riding from Waterloo to the hotel in a wheezy taxi […] I got my first impression of London by night in wartime. So impenetrable was the darkness that I did not know when we were crossing Waterloo Bridge. Then the curious sensation that there were thousands of people near you, but invisible.

‘The Strand was crowded with a double row of pedestrians four to six abreast walking slowly, talking in low tones. The occasional coarse laugh of a girl or the raucous hail of a soldier to his mate revealed the presence of the crowd and its composition – even without the aid of frequent glimmers of light as the shaded doors of the “pubs” opened to admit or exude customers – for it was not yet 9.30 P.M. closing time. A few carefully hooded lights indicated the theatres, which formerly presented blazing façades. It was not till I got inside the inner lobby of the hotel that I saw light for the first time since reaching London.’

The restoration of the lights and sounds of the night made a welcome return after 11 November 1918, a reminder through people’s senses that the war was over. Mrs Miles again:

‘Everything seems like a sort of Symbol of Peace; we can hardly believe that it really is Peace. It is so strange and significant to hear the church clock chime and strike again, and to hear the boom of Big Ben wafted to us after the long silence; we now notice sounds that we used to hardly hear before the Great War. When I see lights burning brightly from uncurtained windows, I feel as if we ought to ring up the police station, as we used to in the Zeppelin days when spies and traitors let their lights glare out upon the darkness if a raid was expected.

‘There are still the notices, with fingers pointing to “Air-Raid Shelters,” reminding us of the “Terror by Night,” which is now gone for ever, we hope and believe.’

… ‘This sense of safety is such a new feeling. It is now full moon, and, instead of dreading it as our greatest danger and looking up at it with indignant eyes, we say, “What a glorious moonlight night it is!”.’


  • Gavin Roynson (ed), Home Fires Burning, the diaries of Georgina Lee
  • Michael MacDonagh, In London During the Great War
  • Hallie Eustace Miles, Untold Tales of War-time London
  • Alice Ziska Snyder and Milton Valentine Snyder, Paris Days and London Nights
  • Christopher Addison, Four and a Half Years
1 Comment

Posted by on 23 October 2014 in Events


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One response to “The Darkness of Wartime

  1. davidunderdown95

    7 September 2015 at 5:41 pm

    No British Summer Time until 1916 either


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