Let there be light

“There is a feeling of profound regret and dismay among those who know and have known St George’s that what is regarded as a unique feature in the beautiful and historical shrine should be interfered with.”

This was the opinion expressed by the King’s Private Secretary on learning that the Dean and Canons were considering replacing the candles in the quire with electric lights.

The suggestion of introducing electric lighting into the Chapel was first made by Canon John Dalton at a meeting on 2 December 1896. It was agreed that further enquiries should be made. Clearly those enquiries were made thoroughly and thoughtfully because it was not until March 1900 that an estimate for the installation of electric light in the nave was agreed by the Dean and Canons – they were to pay £115 17s and 6d for it.

In the next few years, electric lights would be introduced in other areas – the Chapel’s south porch, the organ loft and even some of the domestic and administrative buildings of St George’s. The offices of the Chapter Clerk and his assistant were electrically illuminated in January 1903 for £4 3s.

However, in 1902, the Dean and Canons’ Consulting Architect, J.T. Micklethwaite, wrote a report urging careful consideration before extending electric lighting into the quire. In his opinion:

“The use of Electric light in Churches is still in the tentative stage. In too many cases it has been introduced recklessly by men without knowledge of or care for the aesthetic consequences of what they were doing, and the lighting destroys the quality of the buildings when it is in use, whilst the apparatus of it disfigures them grieviously (sic.) by day. … The rich furniture of the quire calls for a treatment of the means of lighting which shall be in harmony with it.”

Following that report, the question seems to have been put to rest for more than a decade. When it was raised again in 1914, the very idea of electric lighting in the quire caused widespread alarm. Letters of opposition were sent to the Dean by eminent public figures, including the Vice-Provost of Eton, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury and King George V.

It is apparent from these letters that Canon Dalton was once again the driving force behind the proposal. Many of the Dean’s correspondents were shocked that a man with such well-known concern for the history and beauty of the Chapel should consider such a step. They were concerned that the “up to date glare of electric light” in unattractive fittings would “sacrifice all the mystery and the glamour” of the quire. According the Archbishop of Canterbury, the atmospheric light of tapers was the single thing the public most admired about the Chapel!

The Dean was reminded that Queen Victoria and King Edward VII had always strongly opposed the introduction of gas lights in the Chapel. Between December 1914 and March 1915, a series of letters from Lord Stamfordham, Private Secretary of King George V, show that the monarch’s support was waning. Having initially agreed to an experiment with electric light in the quire, he did not withdraw his permission, but made it known that he thought the introduction of electric light would be regrettable and widely unpopular. He was particularly concerned that it was going to be associated with his name.

Canon Dalton wrote to the King – with whom he had long had a personal relationship – explaining that the lack of light was a drawback to the clergy at evening services. The king replied that they had always coped in the past. However, by 1915 Dalton was approaching eighty years old and one wonders if his modernising zeal was motivated by a wish to improve visibility in his working environment. Perhaps the mysterious gloom had become rather less glamorous than impenetrable!

Strange though it seems in the present day, these arguments would not go away for decades to come. In 1932, the newly-formed association of the Friends of St George’s Chapel was asked to fund a project to light the quire. There was a “general wish” that it should return to being illuminated by candlelight, but a solution was required that would enable to lay clerks and choristers to read their music properly.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist and Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.