Highway history: post, water, gas and electricity

Whole AONB

From : Valerie Belsey

A lot of what we see in the fabric of the streets has to do with the provision of public services. There are those items for the provision of water, sewage, drainage, gas and electricity.  Most public services providing all of us with these essentials date back to the Public Health Acts of 1875. Anything which happened before that was often provided by local benefactors, usually a local land owner.

Advances in communications and educational standards brought a variety of letter boxes and telephone boxes both in our towns and villages and out in the countryside.

Wells and Water Works

It was not really until 1875 with the passing of The Public Health Act that safe forms of drinking water and sewage provisions were given to everyone. Those ironmongers who supplied gulley channels and manhole covers used them to advertise their wares.

In the country 'buddles' and easements were essential drainage channels which were made along the side of the road and looked after by the parish lengthsman, an office which has returned to the South Hams again.

Early gulley covers were often placed at right angles to the kerb. The coming of the bicycle changed this.

Humble, everyday water supplies were provided by the many village pumps and stand pipes such as the one at Ringmore.

Some have legends attached to them such as the Wishing Well at Kingswear near the Lower Ferry. Then there is the beautiful little Marwell (St. Mary's Well) at Ringmore with its obvious religious connotations.

Individual wells recommended their waters for the curing of blindness and physical conditions.

Electricity and Gas Supplies

Gas was the first service to come into some homes and make life easier for everyone who still depended on candles and whale oil lamps lighting up their evenings.  Companies were set up, along with coke suppliers, and at Yealmpton there is a manhole cover reading P&S Gas Company limited, the Plymouth and Stoke Gas Company.

There are many lamp posts belonging to the gas lamp era in the style of Sugg, the company which was involved in supplying the first gas lamps in Pall Mall in 1807. Note the oak leaf design on each corner of the lamp and the cross arms for the lamp lighter to rest his ladder on when he climbed up to light and extinguish the gas mantle.

Electricity supplies came into towns and villages at the turn of the twentieth century but were slow to be brought into many rural areas, which explains the lamp post dedication at South Pool.

The electricity box in Modbury High Street has served as a PLP (Public Leaning Post) for many years too.


Telephones came to us through the Post Office and there are still some covers which advertise this. The standard K6 telephone box was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott who designed St. Pancras Station, and the church at Galmpton too.

An elegantly pointed finialled telegraph pole in Yealmpton is the last survivor of what was once a whole row along Chapel Lane.

They also used to carry red and white plaques with the initials PME on them. This stood for Primitive Multiple Earthing – but things have been made safer now.

See more in this section »

Highway history: post, water, gas and electricity

Post Boxes

Pillar boxes in towns were introduced in the 1850s. However, in 1857 smaller letter boxes were tried out  in some villages in Plymouth by the Surveyor of the Western District of England. None survive but you might spot one in an archive photograph of your village. Examples of the standard Victorian wall box are easy to find, after all she reigned for a very long time but Edwardian ones are few and far between.

The Ludlow style post box with an enamel plate shows the royal cipher for George V1 but after 1952 the design changed. The 'Telegraph from here' sign is also a rarity. Look out for surviving small rounded lamp box in the AONB towards Plymouth.

Download the Highway History checklist from this page: Highway History

Researched and written by Valerie Belsey, (former Historic Highways Monument Surveyor at Devon County Council) for South Devon AONB Unit, January 2011.


Back to top ^