Savoy Theatre and the Fairy Lights

Above: Plaque on the rear wall of the Savoy Theatre. It is to be seen in Carting Lane.

The fact that the Savoy Theatre in the Strand became the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity is itself an interesting fact. This article relates to a lesser-known fact about the theatre. Its that time of the year once again so here’s a story about fairy lights.

Those who decorate their Christmas tree with strings of electric lights, or decide to run a set of lights around a window or some other object probably now use ‘solid state’ lamps – also known as ‘Light Emitting Diodes’ or LED lamps. You may also have a string of little lamps, which each screw into tiny lamp-holders, that you purchased some years ago. They probably make an appearance at Christmas – for sentimental reasons – and are usually referred to a ‘fairy lights’. The name may even be on the box in which they were bought. Just because these older lamps are just small bulbs that screw into little holders, what have they to do with fairies? Well, this is a technical story about little lamp-bulbs that relates directly to Christmas and also relates to London.

It is generally believed that the inventor of the electric lamp was Thomas Alva Edison, in the US. In fact, he was not the inventor in the traditional sense – although he certainly created the first commercially practical incandescent light. Over in England, there was a physicist – Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (or Swann) – who was also working on the same idea. In 1850, Swan created a lamp source by enclosing carbonised paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb.

A few years later, Edison began serious research into developing a practical incandescent lamp and on 14 October 1878 he filed his first patent application for ‘Improvement In Electric Lights’. Only a few years separate the two revolutionary inventions and, from them, we have all benefitted from the marvels of the incandescent lamp.

Getting back to the story of fairy lights, we need to return to Joseph Swan who was born in Sunderland in 1828 and who later lived at Gateshead. The story relates to Swan but it was at the Savoy Theatre, in the Strand, that the term ‘fairy lights’ was first used. Opened in 1881, the Savoy Theatre was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity, fitted out with 1,200 incandescent light bulbs created by Swan.

The theatre owner – Richard D’Oyly Carte – became a very rich man. To explain how rich, it is only necessary to say that the profits from the theatre paid for the construction of the Savoy Hotel next door. A year after completing the electric lighting of the theatre, Swan was commissioned once more by the owner to create miniature lights for the lead fairies to wear as they danced on the opening night of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’.

Iolanthe was the first show to premiere at the Savoy Theatre. The show opened there on 25 November 1882, to a warm reception, and ran for 398 performances, the fourth consecutive hit by Gilbert and Sullivan. Two casts rehearsed simultaneously because the opera opened on the same night in London and New York City. It was a historic first for a theatre production.

Above: One of the original coronets with three little lamps mounted on it.

The dresses incorporated tiny electric lights powered by small battery packs hidden beneath the folds of the costumes. Some of the little lamps were sewn into each dress and another three were set into small coronets worn on the heads of the dancers, also wired to the battery. The effect was sensational. Nobody had ever seen such a sight before. It created quite an impact in the audience and, because the little lamps were worn by the dancers, they were christened ‘fairy lights’. The name, as you will have realised, has remained in use for many decades.

It should be added that only a year after the opening of Iolanthe, Edward Johnson, a colleague of Swan’s US rival Thomas Edison, became the first person to put fairy lights on a Christmas tree. It was done as a publicity stunt but it was soon copied in many places and became a Christmas tradition.

-ENDS-

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