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Cupid as a Link Boy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1771.
Georgian link extinguisher on a house in Bath, UK
Link boy extinguishing his torch in a link extinguisher at a doorway in Grosvenor Square, London

A link-boy (or link boy or linkboy) was a boy who carried a flaming torch to light the way for pedestrians at night. Linkboys were common in London in the days before the introduction of gas lighting in the early to mid 19th century. The linkboy's fee was commonly one farthing, and the torch was often made from burning pitch and tow.

Link-boys and their torches also accompanied litter vehicles, known as sedan chairs, that were operated by chairmen.[1] Where possible, the link boys escorted the fares to the chairmen, the passengers then being delivered to the door of their lodgings.[1]

Several houses in Bath, UK, and many in London still have the link extinguishers on the exteriors, shaped like outsized candle snuffers (see image, right).

The term derives from "link", a term for the cotton tow that formed the wick of the torch. Links are mentioned in William Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1, as Falstaff teases Bardolph about the shining redness of his face:

"Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern." (Act III, scene 3)

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Cupid as a Link Boy, now held by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. In that painting, little Cupid as a London linkboy wears demonic bat wings and an immense phallic torch to "remind those in the know of the proclivities of a certain patron."[2] Another appears in the first plate of William Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty, putting out the eyes of a bird using a hot needle heated in the flame of his torch. Hogarth depicts a linkboy again, in plate four, Night, of his Four Times of the Day, this time huddled beneath a bench blowing on his torch.

In the mid-eighteenth century Laurence Casey, who was known as Little Cazey, became the personal linkboy of the famous courtesan Betty Careless, and gained something of reputation as a troublemaker. He features in Louis Peter Boitard's 1739 picture The Covent Garden Morning Frolick, leading the sedan chair containing Betty and being ridden by Captain "Mad Jack" Montague (seafaring brother of the Earl of Sandwich). Henry Fielding considered Montague, his companion Captain Laroun, and Casey "the three most troublesome and difficult to manage of all my Bow Street visitors". Casey was eventually transported to America in 1750.[3]

In thieves' cant, a linkboy was known as a "Glym Jack" ("glym" meant "light") or a "moon-curser" (as their services would not be required on a moonlit night). Employing a linkboy could be dangerous, as some would lead their clients to dark alleyways, where they could be beset by footpads.[4]

Linkboys make brief appearances in the novels of William Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and are mentioned by Samuel Pepys[5] in his diary. An anonymous illustrated serial novel, The Link Boy of Old London, was published in the penny dreadful Boys Standard from 4 November 1882.

The expression "cannot hold a candle to" (meaning "inferior to") may derive from a comparison to an inadequate linkboy.[6][7] During the Renaissance, a person walking home after dark typically would have hired a linkboy to light the way with a candle or torch – then considered a low-status position.[8] If you could not hold a candle to somebody, that means you were not even good enough to be their linkboy.[8]


  1. ^ a b Bath Chronicle (2 December 2002) Sedan Chairs Ride Again. Page 21.
  2. ^ Hughes, Robert. (31 March 1986) Time "Mixing grandeur and tattiness - At the Royal Academy, a retrospective of Sir Joshua Reynolds." Art section, page 78.
  3. ^ Burford, E.J. (1986). Wits, Wenchers and Wantons - London's Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Hale. pp. 57, 70. ISBN 0-7090-2629-3.
  4. ^ '1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine Grose, et al. originally published in 1811. Hosted on Project Gutenberg.
  5. ^ The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys's diary entry of 10 September 1661 mentions Pepys's use of a linkboy to light his way home along the streets of London.
  6. ^ Glossary of Colloquialisms. Belinsky, Natalya. Part of the Fluent English Educational Project. Hosted on
  7. ^ Upendran, S. (21 August 2001) The Hindu Know your English. (answering "What is the meaning and origin of the expression "Can't hold a candle to someone"? (T.D.V. Raman, Chennai)")
  8. ^ a b Roeper, Richard. (13 January 1987) South Florida Sun-Sentinel "20/20 Answers." Features livestyle section, page 1E (from the Chicago Sun-Times)

External links

1893 text

Links were torches of tow or pitch to light the way. D.W.

This text comes from a footnote on a diary entry in the 1893 edition edited by Henry B. Wheatley.

9 Annotations

First Reading

Alan Bedford  •  Link

And the link boy was the person who, for a fee, would carry the torch.

Paul Timbrell  •  Link

The use of the link in unlit streets was to continue for another two hundred years. Some houses had, on the railings outside, an inverted metal cone in which the link-boy could douse his torch - I believe examples still exist.
Dickens in 'A Christmas Carol' writes
"Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way."

Cumgranissalis  •  Link

Glyn has a pix of where one douses a link. Extinguiser for lamp boy…
Poor boys with a bit of luck, got a farthing for their troubles. Since Sam has a few pence in his pocket now and having his own carrier, it is no longer mentioned.

in Aqua Scripto  •  Link

once more Samuell gets into the OED
[LINK n.3]
A boy employed to carry a link to light passengers along the streets.
1660 PEPYS Diary 4 Feb., Thence to Sir Harry Wright's, and after that with a link-boy home
Why the word link ?, normally it means to join in someway, either by hooke or by common cause.
from OED , I read it may have the connection to lampe black.
"A pigment consisting of almost pure carbon in a state of fine division; made by collecting the soot produced by burning oil or (now usually) gas. Also attrib., as in lamp-black-ink; lamp-black furnace, an apparatus for making lamp-black. "
1598 R. HAYDOCKE tr. Lomazzo III. iv. 99 The shels of almondes burnt, ball blacke, Lampe-blacke. 1612 PEACHAM Gent. Exerc. I. 76 The making of ordinary lamp blacke.
Take a torch or linke,
and hold it vnder the bottome of a latten basen, and as it groweth to be furd and blacke within, strike it with a feather into some shell or other, and grind it with gumme water.

Also 6-7 linck(e, lynck(e, linke, lynk(e. [Of obscure origin.
The conjecture that it is a corruption of lint- in lintstock, LINSTOCK (from LUNT) has little plausibility. Perhaps the likeliest hypothesis is that the word is identical with prec.; the material for torches may have been made in long strings, and divided into ‘links’ or segments. A not impossible source would be the monastic Latin linchinus (one instance in Du Cange, others in Diefenbach), an altered form (by a process common in med.L.) of lichinus, glossed ‘weke’ (wick) and ‘meche’ (match) in the 15th c. (see Wr.-Wülck.), a. Gr. light, lamp.]
1. A torch made of tow and pitch (? sometimes of wax or tallow), formerly much in use for lighting people along the streets.
1608 MIDDLETON Fam. Love III. iii, Give me my book, Club, put out thy link, and come behind us.
1609 HOLLAND Amm. Marcell. XVIII. vi. 114 To set upon an horse backe a burning lampe,..that the Persians weening it to be a tallow linke giving light before the captaine softly marching, might take their course that way especially.
1596 SHAKES. Tam. Shr. IV. i. 137 There was no Linke to Colour Peters hat.
[c1600 ? GREENE Mihil Mumchance D2, This Cosenage is vsed like wise in selling olde Hats found vpon dunghils, in steede of new, blackt ouer with the smoake of an olde Linke.]
1712 tr. Pomet's Hist. Drugs I. VIII. §56. 212/1 They melt black Pitch, and afterwards dip a Wick of Flax, Hemp, or the like, in it, which we sell by the Name of Links [F. Bougie noire], and is us'd sometimes to black Shoes withal.

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Moon-Curser, a Link Boy
---An Universal Etymological Dictionary. N. Bailey, 1759.

Bill  •  Link

I Appeal to the plainest Understanding, whether he that follows a Linkboy does not Travel with as much Grandeur and Magnificence, as Moses and the Children of Israel...
---Bibliotheca biblica. S. Parker, 1722.

Bill  •  Link

And this, was in truth the case with Shakespeare. They say, too, that in the beginning he was a first-rate link-boy; and the tradition is affecting, though we fear it is not quite certain; but if a man had served as a link-boy, depend on it he would have a notion of what it was to have something going on. If a boy had been used to show the way through Fleet Street by night, and with a flaring torch, he would know what it was to live in the world. Anyhow you feel about Shakespeare that he could have been a link-boy.
The Prospective Review, volume 9, 1853

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

When you took a carriage home at night, the way was lit by a linkboy. And in the poverty caused by the fire and the plague and the second Anglo-Dutch War, there were linkmen as well as linkboys:

"... it was pretty how the coachman by mistake drives us into the ruines from London-wall into Coleman Street, and would persuade me that I lived there. And the truth is, I did think that he and the linkman had contrived some roguery; but it proved only a mistake of the coachman; ..."…

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

A contemporary view life in London is given by Cosmo, the future Grand Duke of Turin, who visited in the Spring of 1660. It is noted on page 402:

“At night, the streets are lighted till a certain hour in the morning, by large lanterns, disposed in various forms, and fixed with great regularity against the doors of houses; and whenever you wish for them, you may find boys at every step who run before you with lighted torches.”


Later there is a note in the Diary that Pepys' maid had let their lantern go out, and he was upset, so their house on Seething Lane was one of those assigned to light the street. Sorry, I don't remember when this happens.


His highness, Cosmo, must be considered only as a traveler. Under his direction, the narrator of the records was Count Lorenzo Magalotti, afterwards Secretary to the Academy del Cimento, and one of the most learned and eminent characters of the court of Ferdinand II.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.




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