They would see, [Sir john] said, only one gentleman there besides himself; a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay. He hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party, and could assure them it should never happen so again. He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements. – Sir John Middleton, Chapter 7, Sense and Sensibility
In his reference to moonlight, Sir John was speaking about the habit in the Regency Era of arranging evening visits and social events during the full moon. Although 400,000 times less bright than the noon sun, a full moon would still light the landscape enough for riding or walking. In war time, generals refrained from moving their troops under such a bright night sky, preferring the cloak of complete darkness under a lesser moon.
Of course no amount of planning could predict a cloudy sky. For such an event, the carriages were outfitted with carriage lamps. Before street lighting became prevalent, footmen (for the wealthy) or link-boys (for hire), carrying lit tapers or torches would run in front of the carriage or accompany a pedestrian to illuminate the road or sidewalk. (Georgian Index) According to Samuel Pepys, “links were torches of tow or pitch to light the way.” Toward mid-century, such torches would be discarded, and night travelers would be accompanied by an escort who would hold a lantern aloft on a pole.
In many old towns—London, Bath, York, Edinboro’, &c.,—“link-boy-slabs” and “extinguishers” may be seen in position, but I have searched in vain for such a relic in Nottingham. They must have been fairly plentiful at one time, for there are numerous references in the Borough Records to “link-boys” who carried torches, to light the way for the “chairmen who carried passengers in sedan-chairs —a mode of conveyance in vogue throughout the 18th century, and still lingering in use within the recollection of some of our older members. (According to Deering Hackney sedans were used for hire to carry persons who are taken sick from home, and ancient ladies to church and visiting, as also young ones in rainy weather.”) – Nottingham in the 18th Century
In the Sir Joshua Reynolds painting above of Cupid as a Link boy (1773, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo), one art historian conjectured that, due to his sad, vapid expression, the young model was an actual link boy.
I see Inigo Jones’s great arches
in my mind’s eye, his water-inky clouds,
the paraphernalia of a royal masque;
dung and detritus in the crazy streets,
the big coaches bellying in their skirts
pothole to pothole, and the men of fire,
the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.
-Geoffrey Hill, Treatise of Power
By 1750, oil lamps were prevalent in the streets of London and by 1807 gas lights were introduced in that crowded metropolis. Click here for my other post about lighting during the Regency Era, Lighting the Darkness.
Third image from the Georgian Index