In the minds of mid-19th-century Melburnians, the absence of artificial light meant a tentative and confining night-time itinerary, where all manner of hidden traps - the gully, the ditch, the rut and the pothole - lay in wait for the stranger, the hurrier, the drunk or disoriented, horses, nocturnal travellers and, most potently, women. While London's streets were regularly lit by gas by the 1820s, Melbourne's earliest lighting was provided by innkeepers, who were required by law to have a lamp burning outside their premises from sunset to sunrise.
J.T. Smith is credited as having among the first oil lamps in the city outside his Queen Street theatre in 1847. In 1849 William Overton had gas lamps erected outside his Swanston Street shop. By 1851 lamps had been erected on the approaches to Princes Bridge, and in the following year the town was lit with colza oil lamps on about 200 lampposts. By 1855 lights were recommended for the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets 'in consequence of the increasing traffic'. Lights at Flagstaff Hill were also requested as 'an inestimable boon to those whose business leads them across the hill after dark'. The erection of public street gas lamps commenced in August 1857, with 414 lamp pillars erected by the end of the decade.
Ludwig Becker's 1857 painting Old Prince's Bridge and St Paul's by moonlight gives startling prominence to the gas lamp as city sentry at the town entrance. Indeed, the often-repeated phrase that a light was as good as a policeman attested to the moral power of illumination. The night-time town of the 1840s was a zone of fear for the decent citizen, given over in imagination if not in fact to nocturnal gambols, depredations, vandalism, annoyance, brawling, the parading of musicians and midnight revelry. By the early 1850s, with an inadequate police force, 'few, except when full moon, dare stir out after dark'. The early street lamps were often ineffective, and city lamps were not lit when a full moon would do. The city lamplighter often had trouble keeping all the lamps lit because of the vagaries of the technology, the unpredictable weather and the pranks of children.
By the 1870s three companies supplied gas for town lighting. In August 1879 a football match was played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground under primitive electric lighting. In July 1881 the Australian Electric Co. erected arc lamps outside its Swanston Street premises and at the Eastern Market. The following year electric light was installed in the Public (State) Library. While earlier street lighting had really only aided in navigation, electricity could almost turn night into day. By 1887 Bourke Street was renowned for its illumination, 'always bright with gas and electric light'. In 1889 lamps were erected outside Parliament House; a generating station was built in Spencer Street in 1893, and by the following year arc lights featured in the city as far north as La Trobe Street.
Melbourne in 1915 boasted 177 miles (285 km) of lighted streets, but nothing could compare with the shining 'White Ways' that city electrical engineer H.R. Harper had seen in the USA during an overseas study tour four years before. While Harper considered that the lighting of British provincial towns was inferior to that of Melbourne, he was struck by the impressive lighting of open spaces in Chicago and the almost excessive illumination of New York. Lighting was now not simply a practical aid to the pedestrian, or merely a symbol of status; it had become an integral feature of urban capitalist consumption.
Many city lanes had by the turn of the 20th century developed, according to police, into the rendezvous of drunks, prostitutes and other disorderly characters. Down on the banks of the Yarra River at Princes Wharf, poor lighting was blamed for deviant behaviour. Clientele for motor-boat cruises to the Hawthorn Tea Gardens were dissuaded from leaving the relative safety of Princes Bridge: 'Ladies and others do not care to go down the steps owing to the poor approach at present afforded'. In 1910 the National Council of Women demanded improved lighting in city parks and gardens, 'to prevent the evil which disgraces the gardens at night', lighting being 'one of the aids to greater social purity'.
The Report from the Select Committee upon the saving of daylight (1909) revealed entrenched and deterministic attitudes to night and day. The secretary of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union considered that extended daylight hours might lead to 'a temptation to the young girls to walk the streets, instead of getting rest, but she did not think it would be great, as they would always hurry home directly they left business'. The president of the Shopkeepers' Saturday Half-Holiday Association, 'asked whether darkness conduced to drinking ... answered that people naturally made for the light, as they did not care for walking about the streets in the dark'. More daylight after 5 p.m. would, it was suggested, deter young people from becoming idle street-walkers, encouraging them to engage in outdoor games rather than frequent hotels and tobacconists. Thomas O'Callaghan, chief commissioner of police, was convinced that 'The greater the number of people there are out [in the darkness], the greater amount of crime there would be', while Francis G.A. Barnard, honorary secretary of the Field Naturalists' Club, maintained that daylight-saving would 'certainly lessen the number of hours that people are able to dawdle about the streets at night'.
Hotels and financial, religious and mercantile institutions reinforced their authority and class status by sponsoring lamps outside their premises. Areas where upper-class people rarely ventured were last to be lit. By the 1880s descriptions of Melbourne cite the effective street lighting as a symbol of its urbanity and progress. From the gold-rush Melbourne of the 1850s to the suburban frontier a century later, the provision of public lighting has been driven by the competing demands of luxury, control and utility.