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Letter 802

Joseph Wilson Swan to John Hancock (c. June-November 1878)

Swan writes from Paris while visiting a science exhibition. He comments on the new form of electric lighting in the streets and hopes that he can be instrumental in furthering its development. Swan also thanks Hancock for his recent pleasurable visit to Oatlands, Surrey.




7 Avenue de Trocadéro


Jos. W. Swan


[no date]

Dear Mr. Hancock,

Mr Clephan has not proved a true prophet — for here you see I am in Paris.

I had a most pleasant journey the weather being exceedingly fine & my travelling companions in every way agreeable. As we travelled on towards Paris yesterday it seemed like a rapid change of season towards early Autumn, the weather was so much brighter & the temperature so much higher than it [p.2] [was]in London when I left in the early morning of the same day. When I reached Paris I found the streets filled with holiday folk lightly dressed — the moon shining down upon them from a perfectly cloudless sky.

As I passed through the long broad streets towards my hotel the Electric Light flashed upon me twice on my way from different streets. After I had dined I went out & saw a very large space lit with the same light. [p.3] A space of 100 yards long by 20 yards wide — it was made brilliantly light by 9 Electric lamps.  It was the Jablokoff  lamp2 which was used & I found it gave a much more steady light than the older form of Electric Lamps give.  Never the less it was quite evident to me that Electric lighting was very far from having reached its final stage — altho[although] even now it is useful in exceptional cases. I trust I may have some share in the work of developing into a generally practicable form this valuable means of producing artificial light.


I have just breakfasted and am now going out to pay a visit see the exhibition.3

Allow me, before I close this, to express to you my sincere thanks for the kindness you showed me & for the pleasure I experienced during my stay at Oatlands,4 please give my Compliments to your sister with my best thanks to her – also –  I trust she is no longer suffering the acute pain that she was suffering when I left & that the other effects of cold have passed away.

Believe me | dear Mr Hancock | very truly yours | Joseph W Swan [signature]





1.  Sir Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914) was a physicist and chemist born in Sunderland, England. Swan was the first to construct an electric light bulb, obtaining a patent for the carbon filament incandescent lamp in 1860.
After years of experimentation he patented a new light bulb in 1878 and formed his own company in 1881, The Swan Electric Light Company.

Newcastle upon Tyne pioneered electric lighting with Mosley Street being the first street in the UK to be lit by Swan’s incandescent lamps on the 3rd February, 1879. Swan was a good friend of John Hancock and a member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. He presented some of his lamps to the Society in 1889 to illuminate the Annual Conference of the British Association being held in the Hancock Museum. Afterwards, parts of the museum were permanently fitted with electric light including the entrance hall, Ladies Room, Council Room and two front staircases.

2.  The first electric street lighting employed arc lamps, initially the ‘Electric candle’, ‘Jablochkoff candle’ or ‘Yablochkov candle’ developed by the Russian Pavel Yablochkov (1847-1894) in 1875.

3.  The exhibition Swan visited was most probably the Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris from the 1 May until the 10 November 1878.

Swan mentions the Yablochkov candles which were used to illuminate the Avenue de l’Opera and the Place de l’Opera to great acclaim creating an excitement about the new technology.

4. Oatlands in Weybridge, Surrey was originally the home of Hancock’s great friend William Chapman Hewitson (1806-1878). When Hewitson died in May 1878 Hancock inherited the house and used it as a second home, often visiting with his sisters Mary Jane (1810-1896) and Ellen.

Hewitson purchased a plot of land, in 1848, on the Oatlands Park estate, originally the seat of the Duke of York. He commissioned his old friend John Dobson, a well respected Newcastle architect, to design his new house in the Victorian mock Tudor style. The grounds surrounding the house, sloping to Broadwater Lake, were landscaped by Hewitson and his life long friend John Hancock.

He lived contentedly in his rural retreat for thirty years, bequeathing the house to Hancock on his death. Sadly, the house was demolished in 1951 and new houses built on the site.