“Public lighting … is so well executed in the cities of London and Westminster, as to excite the admiration of all foreigners, on their arrival at the British metropolis. Not only the streets, lanes, courts, and alleys of these great cities, but the roads in every direction leading thereto (and some for several miles), are lightes with lamps, rendering the approach safe and convenient. Before this wise regulation, murders, robberies, riots, and innumerable accidents occurred in the streets, during the obscurity of night.” from The Costume of Great Britain, published 1804.
Lights were lit each evening, generally by means of a wick on a long pole. At dawn, the lamplighter would return to put them out using a small hook on the same pole. Early street lights were sometimes candles, but the lamp in this drawing is an oil fired one. Another lamplighter duty, illustrated above, was to carry a ladder and renew the candles, oil, or gas mantles.
In some communities, lamplighters served in a role akin to a town Watchman; in others, it may have been seen as little more than a sinecure. Later in the 19th century, gas lights became the dominant form of street lighting. Early gas lights required lamplighters, but eventually systems were developed which allowed the lights to operate automatically.
Today a lamplighter is an extremely rare job. In Brest a lamplighter has been employed as a tourist attraction since 2009 to light up the kerosene lamps in the shopping street every day. There is also a lamp lighter in Wroclaw, Poland.