Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ancient Lights

I'd first noticed this curious sign on the side of a pub in Wimbledon but on a recent walk around the Covent Garden area - and with a bit of poking about in some of the side alleys - I found another example. They obviously serve some legal point and the fact that the signage is so bold certainly makes them stick out, so it was on to Google for a bit of research...

The origins for these signs can be found in English Common Law and the legal right to access light. Of course Wikipedia seems to have the most 'illuminating' (boom, boom!) definition on the web which tells you all you ever needed or wanted to know, but that's not much fun for me just to point you there so I'm going to summarise it anyway...  
On the side of The Rose & Crown, Wimbledon
There doesn't seem to have been any specific right for a building to access light before about 1832 and presumably as glass windows were a thing for the wealthy and often subject to tax, it wouldn't have been much of an issue before then anyway. On the contrary, in fact, bricking-in windows seems to have been the norm rather than fighting for natural light. It was The Prescription Act (1832) which introduced Ancient Lights and basically said that if someone had been enjoying light through a window for a minimum of 20 years then they could effectively block any attempt to build in front of it if the new building diminished the amount of light they received and caused them a nuisance.

One interesting section of the Act said that the owner could enlarge the window, but the enlarged section itself would also have to remain unblocked for 20 years before it attained the same Ancient Light rights. In the meantime the neighbours could erect a screen to block off light to the enlarged section but not the existing Ancient Lights portion in order to prevent granting of the new rights!
Alley in the vicinity of Leicester Square

Needless to say defining exactly how much light can be obscured before your Ancient Light has been shaded to the point of being a nuisance seems to be a point of much debate and discussion!

The American Legal System took a more pragmatic approach, which might explain the proliferation of towering skyscrapers on Manhattan

The doctrine of ancient lights has not been adopted in the United States since it would greatly hinder commercial and residential growth and the expansion of towns and cities. - West's Encyclopedia of American Law


Wellwynder said...

There's a nice one in Newman Passage, off Newman Street, near Oxford Street.

See this link:


Carl said...

Thanks for that. There is another one on a house on Bath Road, Chiswick, just west of the junction with the Goldhawk Road. The house also has a Blue Plaque as Lucian Pisarro once lived there. You can't miss the house, it is the oldest one there, 18th Century I think.

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Hi Yelfy,
There used to be such an "Ancien Lights" sign on a house next to where I live but it disappeared about a year ago. Shame.
Since reading your post about Burton, whenever I pass in front of one of their stores I always look for the commemorative stone and the name on it. I was in Guildford yesterday and although the building is no longer occupied by Burton, the stone is still there, telling the passing public that particular branch was opened by Barbara Jessie Burton. It is on the High Street, on the right as you go up from the Wey navigation. The name and logo of the company is on the facade, just under the pediment. Unfortunately the new shop front on the ground floor spoils the building (as it is often the case).
I shall be looking forward to your next post!

Conrad H. Roth said...

There is also one in the interior of the Royal Society of the Arts--part of the old building, around which they have added an extension, leaving the sign partially visible on the stairwell.

Yelfy said...

I wonder if the placing of an Ancient Lights sign had any legal basis or whether it was originally hung up as an informal warning to see-off developers before they got too carried away? Others might have seen this and began copying it because it seemed a good idea and everyone else was doing it. But if it wasn't a legal requirement, just a convention, I wonder if some of those signs might have been put up anyway, Ancient Lights being acknowledged or not (like dog-free homes having a 'Beware of the Dog' sign to deter burglers). This law article quote seems to suggest that the sign isn't a legal requirement nad that the rights exist anyway "rights to light (termed “ancient
lights”) will exist in respect of windows which have
continually enjoyed light for a period of 20 years
without interruption. Although this situation
will not exist universally, many buildings erected
more than 20 years ago can be expected to have
such a right, providing there has been little
neighbouring development during the past
20 years." So it makes it all the more strange that the RSA should retain theirs even when they have waived that right by building their extention! I'm slightly pleased that they did though...

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Anonymous said...

EC1 London - I saw just such a sign for the very first time this week (even took a photo ) when looking out of the meeting room window on the 3rd floor of 6/7 Hatton Gardens when at the offices of the PR agency First Light PR London EC1N 8AD who also have a skyline view of the De Beers building. One lives and learns thank you for this blog - A1 London Lady

Anonymous said...

Love the pictures!

The purpose of the signs (beyond being interesting) is that to claim the right to light as an easement, which is a special and powerful legal right over land, one has to enjoy the right being claimed for 20 years continuously (as you mentioned). Also as you mentioned, a neighbour can, in general, build a temporary screen to block the light. This is where the signs come in. If the neighbour reduces your light sufficiently, this interrupts the 20 year period and prevents the acquisition of an easement. This makes it pretty easy, in theory, the prevent someone gaining this special claim of a right to light.

Planning controls prevent this happening to some extent. But, to further overcome this disadvantage, by law one could register a "light obstruction notice" that prevents anyone building such a screen to prevent you gaining the easement. To register such a notice, though, one has to first satisfy the Lands Tribunal that they have let all interested parties know that they're claiming the right. One way to do this might be a sign under the window affected! So that may be one purpose.

Once the easement is acquired, the right to light generally stays with the land. The purpose of the signs thereafter would, I guess, be to warn any potential developers that they risk being sued if they impinge on the land's right to light.

As these signs are quite old, I'm guessing they now serve as a fun traditional indicator/informal protector of what is a right that is otherwise protected by other legal mechanisms anyway.

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