It is difficult to know where to start, for Tilley is in the UK what Coleman is in the USA., a prolific manufacturer who has kept at the forefront of the lighting trade for very many years. There have been so many different products (hollow wire, lamps, lanterns, heaters, stoves, irons, and commercial lighting equipment) that it is difficult to categorise them. To my knowledge, there is no definitive published list of Tilley products, but there are many collectors in the UK all trying to find particular models and styles. Old catalogues sometimes turn up in antique bookshops, and buyers guides sometimes give clues as to what model was in production at a certain time. I am particularly grateful to Mick Emm up in Lockerbie, Scotland, for the source of much of my information. This page is really a small selection from his collection of leaflets, newspaper clipping, and advertisements. I am also grateful to Neil McRae in Flamstead, who produces a neat catalogue of Tilley products.
John Tilley invented a hydro-pneumatic blowpipe in 1813, and later the company W.H.Tilley was established in Stoke Newington, London by 1818, working with gas pressure lamps. By 1831, the base seems to have been Shoreditch. William Henry Tilley died in 1867, and by then the Tilley Bros part of the company was heavily involved in gas engineering and appliance design and manufacture. The company was to remain a family business until the late 1950s.
During WW1 Frederick Tilley started to use paraffin as a lamp fuel in pressurised containers. As soon as the war ended, work was started to set up a production plant at Hendon, just north of London, and the first commercial lamps were produced. The oldest advertisement I have seen for a Tilley product is dated September 4th 1920, but there are patents taken out by Frederick Tilley earlier than this date, including a patent for a single stem twin mantle table lamp. There is also a piped-gas mantle lamp, by F.C. Tilley and T.W. Brown shown in 1910 documents. The 1920 avert shows a table lamp which is already fairly well developed, with an internal cleaning needle. The claim for "no more trouble with choked jets and vaporisers" suggests that Tilley and others had earlier products which did not have prickers. The advert give the company name and address as The Tilley Lamp and Accessories Co, Brent Works, Hendon, NW4 The cost of the lamp was 4 bps (80/-)
Clearly this design suffers from the disadvantage that the adjusting valve is located at the hottest part of the lamp, and within 4 years, the lamp had been redesigned to place the valve underneath the burner where it would remain cool. To make things simple, the vaporiser (generator) became the support for the gallery and shade, and in order to give shadow free light, the mantle was made to completely encircled the vaporiser. The three-armed single mantle burner where the mantle wraps around the generator (still used today) was patented in 1922, and the 1924 advert for the TL10 (below) shows a lamp that was so successful that it remained fundamentally unchanged for 40 years. The cost had fallen substantially by 1924 to 3.25bps (65/-). Tilley were using only paraffin (kerosene) as a fuel, and because there were bad associations with the use of petrol, Tilley lamps were used in the UK much more than Coleman and other makes of petrol or spirit lamps from Europe.
By now Tilley were making the fore-runner of their enormously successful Stormlight lantern. In fact, Tilley lamps were to become so popular and widely used that the word Tilley came to be used in England to describe any make of pressure lamp, and the generic use of their name is proof of success.
By the middle 1920s, adverts were appearing for paraffin bowl fires and ornamental lamps like the Jacobean, a table lamp with a carved wooden column and an elaborate shade. The earliest advert I have for a portable donut style lamp is one from February 1929, although the type may have been in production earlier than this. The donut, or lifebuoy style lamps have their origins in the ceiling lamps from Tilley's hollow wire systems, and there is a clear resemblance between them. In 1929 the range included the Jacobean at 58/-, a bracket lamp at 50/-, the basic lantern at 39/6 and an indoor 300CP donut lamp for 69/6. At this time the cost of a Coleman table lamp was 45/6, their bracket lamp was 52/6, and their basic lantern cost 43/-.
By 1933, the Tilley catalogue contained over 15 domestic designs, plus variants on these designs. There were many other speciality designs, used for example, in railway stations, churches, engineering works, mines, and military applications.
In 1937, The Tilley Lamp Co, still based in Hendon, was advertising lamps from 100 to 20,000 Candle Power. This large single mantle lamp was known as the SL1 searchlight projector. It had a 13.5 inch silvered glass reflector which could be moved to focus the beam. A three mantle version was also produced. Tilley even made a large donut lamp for use on the jib of a crane. This was the OL53 with a 20 inch white enamelled reflector. It was suspended from a large spring to prevent vibration reaching the mantle. Most models continued in production through WW2, and in 1941 the TL10 cost under 2 bps (39/6). There are some strange lamps around which clearly are Tilley items, but for which no documentation has been found. The most interesting perhaps are the searchlight, nicknamed Big Bertha, owned by Stuart Barclay in Australia, and the counterbalance lamp of Roger Price in England..
Lamps were exported to Australia in the 1930s and 40s, mostly export models EX4 and EX100. For a short while after the war the licence was revoked, and production of Tilleys was continued, whether or not with their approval I don't know, in Sydney and Melbourne, with the lamps marketed under the Kayen name. By 1947 Tilley were again importing to Australia.
After the war, production continued in much the same way, except that as electricity became available in the UK in more and more towns and villages, there was less demand for indoor lamps and ornamental lamps. The 246 stormlight was well established by then, and soon became the most popular product in the range. At the same time there were several fatalities caused by carbon monoxide poisoning produced by paraffin heaters used in rooms with an inadequate supply of fresh air. Paraffin as a heat source suddenly became unpopular, and the paraffin heater market collapsed. Tilley concentrated on the X246, which survived, even though its principle of operation was the same as the heater.
There were many improvements to the 246 (some might argue otherwise, as cost cutting is evident in later variants), The threaded support legs disappeared in favour of a spotwelded construction, and the brass pump gave way to a lighter aluminium version. There were some changes in premises in the 1950s, then in 1960, the company planned a move from Hendon to Dunmurry in Ireland, where production still continues today. After the move to Ireland, date codes were stamped onto the underside of the fount, so it is possible to accurately date lanterns from then on. The code consists of 1 or 2 numbers representing month, and two numbers representing the year. Diversification has lead Tilley into a wider range of products running on LPG, but paraffin burning lamps and stoves are still made. Spares for older variants are now difficult to obtain, and hunting around in old well established ironmongers stores is the best bet, and also good fun.
The final point concerns the "finish" of Tilley founts. The most common is plain gold painted, but there are many other colours, including red, orange, buff yellow and plated. Early plated founts were probably chrome on brass, while later ones were speculum plated. There is some debate among collectors as to what this might be, but I think that Tilley may have used the term "speculum plating" in a generic sense, and the alloy may not accurately mirror the traditional speculum of the likes of Isaac Newton and John Mudge. In the 17th & 18th Centuries, roughly 2 parts copper to one part tin would be smelted, cooled, then refined through progressive re-melting and re-mixing. Some would add a little antimony and zinc, and arsenic to keep the polished face bright, but Mudge does not record using these additives, and they are by no means necessary. A good modern speculum would be around 126.4 parts copper to 58.9 parts tin, but we can draw a comparison with good food; the cook, the method and the ingredients combine to make a unique product, and exactly what extras went into Tilley's coating is not known. It has also been suggested that brass was added, but since the constituents of brass can vary, this suggestion does not mean very much.
Tilley around the world: Tilley's success was not confined to the UK, and over the many years their products have been exported and sold through agents in very many countries. A. W. Thacker in Clermont, Florida, USA, Burson A. Sink, Benton Harbor, Michigan, USA, W.Lee & Son of Chicaco (Leelight) and J. Parke-Mackenzie & Co in Canada are just four, although none are operational today.
In England, Tilley spares for modern products can be ordered direct from Tilley International PLC, 32 High Street, Frimley, Surrey, England. GU16 5JD telephone (0)1276-691996 FAX (0)1276-27282, or another source of spare parts for Tilley (and also Vapalux, Bialaddin, Optimus and Primus) is Base Camp, 54 High Street, Littlehampton, West Sussex BN17 5EA (telephone 01903 723853) See also the spares page
In Australia, contact
Eric the Lamp Man - 204 Whatley Crescent, Maylands (Perth) 6051 W.A. (08) 9272 4531 or
T.W. Sands & Co 449 Elizabeth St, Melbourne Vic 3000 (03) 9329 7804.
For the Tilley enthusiast, Jim Dick's book " A History of Tilley Lamps" is a real bonus. I can't say enough about this book, it is simply essential. Enquire at http://www.tilleylamp.co.uk for more details. Jim is an Australian collector with a vaste knowledge of Tilley, and his book gives information about almost all the lamps Tilley have made in the last 80 years.
To contact me please go to the mail page.