Mr Prestwich's Improvement
Protector Lamp and Lighting Company
1873 to 2014
An extract from our new book on the history of the company to be published in 2015
Forewarned, and forearmed
Most people attribute the invention of the safety lamp to Sir Humphrey Davy. It's true that his
efforts were rewarded with greater recognition than those of his contemporaries, but his wasn't
the first lamp that worked. That honour went to an Irishman, W. Reid Clanny, in 1813. His
method incorporated a flame sheathed by water. Engineer George Stephenson, who went on to
fame as 'The Father of The Railways', was wrestling with the problem at the same time as
As mines began to be sunk ever deeper at the end of the 18th century and the start of
the 19th, the frequency and scale of mine explosions became a topic of considerable public
concern. In 1813, a series of disastrous explosions in the north east, culminating in the Felling
Colliery Disaster in which 92 men died, led to the formation of The Sunderland Society for
preventing Accidents in Coal Mines.
It was this organisation that approached Davy for help, in August 1815. He was established as
the pre-eminent scientist of the day. Thus, whilst Napoleon was meeting his Waterloo
elsewhere, he set to work. By Christmas he had a number of prototypes ready for
consideration, and by spring 1896, the first Davy Lamp was in use in the mines.
The principle was simple enough. The flame burns within a gauze cylinder that conducts away
the heat of the flame thus preventing the ignition of fire damp. But the race to produce the
ultimate lamp was just beginning: Davy's lamp had its limitations. After a short time in use,
the gauze would become too hot to handle with any guarantee of safety. In draughty seams, the
flame could be blown through the gauze, nullifying its advantages. Worse still, all that gauze
did nothing for the quality of the lamp's light: Davy lamps glimmered whereas naked flames
cast a far stronger beam.
Modifications came and went. In 1866, Royal Commission on Mines was able to review some
200 competing designs for miner's lamps. Three years later, Edward Teale patented his
improvements to Davy's original. Quite what he managed to improve is something of a
mystery as records have been destroyed over the years; but, whatever it was caused more than
mere ripples of excitement. The Protector Lamp Company was instituted precisely to acquire
the rights to Teale's patents.
Teale, on £300 a year and a profit share, became a rich man as the firm prospered. Joseph
Prestwich joined Protector in 1889. Previously, he'd been a traveller and agent for local
collieries. He dedicated himself to designing the ultimate miner's lamp. Mr Prestwich's
Improvement was patented in 1891 and amended in 1892.
By and large, Mr. Prestwich's Improved lamp is the one that miners the world over rely upon
to this day. The firm, who shared in Prestwich's patents, thrived as never before. By 1893,
Protector was renting lamps to mine owners. One transaction records that 1,000 lamps were to
be rented at '3d per day per lamp'.
By 1910, some 200,000 Prestwich patent lamps were in use every day. In 1914, the firm
produced its millionth lamp.