Rebecca’s Object of the Week

My object for this week is a tallow lamp. Also known as a tally lamp, these were used throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by miners when they were working underground. They were filled with animal fat (tallow) and then a textile wick was placed in the spout. The wick had to be kept trimmed so it did not get too hot and melt the fat too quickly.

Tallow Lamp: This lamp is on display in the National Mining Museum Scotland's 'Story of Coal' exhibition

Tallow Lamp: This lamp is currently on display in the National Mining Museum Scotland’s ‘Story of Coal’ exhibition

The hook on the lamp was used to attach it to a miner’s jacket or cloth hat, or to hang it from something once underground.  The small flame did not produce much light, but it was better than nothing! It could also be used by miners to check the quality of the air. Flames need more oxygen than people do to breathe, so if the flame kept going out miners knew to move to an area with better air.


However,  the open flame meant that tallow tamps were unsafe to use in many pits due to the presence of explosive ‘firedamp’ gases. Such gases were believed to be less common in Scottish mines and the lamps were therefore widely used across the country. Despite this risk, and the development of the safety lamp in 1815, tallow lamps remained popular as they were brighter and easier to carry.


A miner at the Lady Victoria Colliery, Newtongrange, with a tallow lamp hanging from his cap, c. 1920s. (C) Copyright Unknown. If you can provide any further information on the copyright of this image please contact the museum.

Following the invention of the carbide lamp in the 1890s, the use of tallow lamps began to decline. Nevertheless, they continued to be used in the early twentieth century.  The introduction of the cap lamp and battery in the 1930s, together with nationalisation in 1946, led to them being almost entirely phased out.

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