Rex Needle: How Bourne got lit up for Christmas

Ted and Dot Kelby switch on the Christmas lights in 1968
Ted and Dot Kelby switch on the Christmas lights in 1968

The Christmas lights have become a tradition in Bourne yet they are a comparatively new feature of the festive season because they have been with us for less than fifty years.

In times past, there were no illuminations although shopkeepers did the best they could first with oil lamps and then with gas lighting. In fact, Christmas past in Bourne had a distinctly Dickensian flavour, the shops full of festive fare, particularly for the table. Butchers hung their meat and poultry on the front of their premises to attract customers while other traders gaily decorated their windows with groceries, sweetmeats, drapery, millinery and other goods to entice the housewives out shopping for the family celebrations.

But the anticipation did not start quite so early as it does now and lasted no more than a few days and today many believe that Christmas has become too commercial and certainly the latest marketing techniques have given shops and other retail outlets a higher profile, not least through the introduction of modern illuminations.

Shops in the early 19th century had no safe means of lighting their windows at night and street lamps did not arrive in the town until 1878 when they were installed by the Bourne Gas Light and Coke Company.

By 1885, Bourne had the reputation of a well-lit town with 56 public incandescent gas lamps at various points along the four main streets and in 1898, the parish council, which controlled local affairs from 1894-99 and had footed the bill for street lighting, asked the gas company to ensure that the lamps were turned on every dark evening and that they were burning all night on Saturdays and Sundays and over the Christmas period.

From 1900, the increasing availability and popularity of electricity enabled a far more extensive public use but the Christmas lights we know today were not introduced until the years following the Second World War of 1939-45 when efforts were being made throughout the country to revive its drab appearance brought on by enforced rationing and austerity.

Probably the most famous are the Regent Street illuminations in London which began in 1954, prompted by complaints about how dull the capital looked at Christmas, and soon they became a major tourist attraction, renowned worldwide and bringing in huge numbers of visitors each year. Oxford Street followed suit in 1959 and today the displays are so bright that they can be seen from outer space. Towns and villages throughout the country soon latched on to the idea and within a few years the street lights became part of the Christmas season for many communities.

The first Christmas illuminations were switched on in Bourne as a trial in 1967 with a ceremony outside the Town Hall and they remained on between dusk and midnight each evening until New Year’s Day. Although only the Market Place (now the town centre) and part of North Street were lit up with little more than a few strings of fairy lights, the experiment by Bourne Urban District Council and the Chamber of Trade proved to be so successful that it was repeated the following December when the council chairman, Councillor Ted Kelby, told the assembled crowd: “It is gratifying to see so many people here for the second year of this venture. It is also pleasing to know that towns from all over Lincolnshire have asked for particulars of our arrangements. This lighting system has started something Bourne can be proud of. In five years, we hope to have lights all along the shopping centre.”

The extent and quality of the illuminations increased over the years but the old system was soon in need of replacement and by this time, Bourne Town Council was responsible. By 1998, there had been some criticism of the quality of the illuminations and so new ones were purchased with the task of erecting them each year being carried out by volunteers from the Bourne Lions organisation, a system that worked well but there were concerns over health and safety and the authority therefore decided that professional help was needed.

In June 2001, the town council solved the problem by spending £40,000 on new Christmas lights, although the money was borrowed from South Kesteven District Council over a five-year period at an agreed interest rate of 5.5%. Councillor John Kirkman, chairman of the town council’s finance and general purposes committee, explained: “This is something which hasn’t been done before.” But the decision meant that the council now had its own Christmas lights that have been erected and dismantled each year by a commercial company.

The new lights were launched on Saturday 1st December 2001 amid general approval although there were some complaints that the bulbs were all the same colour, namely natural, with a distinct absence of reds, yellows, blues and greens, and one housewife suggested that it was like switching on the kitchen lights, “all brightness of no colour and therefore lacking in warmth.”

Nevertheless, the consensus was that the ultimate effect was a great improvement on the previous year although further enhancements have been made since and Bourne‘s Christmas lights now compare favourably with any market town of the same size in the country.

The switching on has become a tradition, usually by the mayor on a Saturday evening from the front steps of the Town Hall which is also lit up for the occasion. North Street is closed to traffic and youngsters throng the steps to get a closer look as Father Christmas arrives before handing out presents from his grotto.

The ceremony is also held to coincide with a festive street market and craft stalls, a children’s funfair, carols from local schoolchildren and the Salvation Army brass band, to mark the start of the Christmas season and this appears to have set the formula for future years while the street lights remain until well into the New Year.