What are the, er, wall nipples in old British homes on TV?

We’ve seen them in All Creatures Great and Small and Foyle’s War, both set in the 30’s and 40’s (but in older buildings, obviously.) We also spotted them in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes. And I can’t find a picture.

It’s a thing on the wall, usually by a doorway inside a room although the Holmes example had it in a hallway outside the room. Every one we’ve seen has two of them, one over the other, except one in a hospital in Foyle’s War which had four in a square formation and looked “industrial”. They look a lot like those old fashioned round thermostats, especially in size. Usually a bronze color. We call them “wall boobs”.

Our best theory is that they’re leftover (or for Sherlock, current) gas lighting turner uppers. We don’t think they’re bells for servants or something, but we’re not ruling it out. I keep meaning to ask you guys, but we only think about it when we’re watching period British television shows and I never get around to it.

What are the wall boobs? Are they something in actual use during the 30’s and 40’s, or are they vestigial? If they’re for the gas, why didn’t they take them out when they took out the gas? Why do you need two of them, whatever they are?

Could they be electric light switches?

no picture - no can tell, by your discription

This could be anything… maybe a dimmer?

In the US, light switches then were little pushbuttons.

Yes, but in Britain they were often little brass domes with a small toggle at the centre of the dome.

I’ve seen these in pre-1900 US urban homes as well. IIRC, I was told they cover the holes where gaslamps were once fixed to the wall. I guess there are usually still pipes behind them, once used to conduct gas to the lamps.

Did they look like this? Then light switches (if not brass, they could beBakelite too)

Otherwise, a barometer/weather station?

in the USA

there were push button light switches where the were 2 vertically positioned buttons, ON/OFF, where the active button is depressed and the other out, sometimes the ON button has a white color, used a rectangular cover plate.

also were rotary light switches, the knob could be small 1/2" or less, multiple switches could be in a rectangular cover plate, singles could have a circular cover plate.

It does look rather like that, except that the examples we’ve seen are much more elaborate and ornamental (and brass or similar.) I didn’t know the Brits had different ye olde fashioned light switches! (Oddly, these are usually a bit above where a light switch would be in an American home.) This is what antique light switches in the US look like - not often found in the wild these days. In fact, I’ve really only seen them in very “period correct” restored homes.

This makes me think they are definitely not gaslight mounting hole covers and probably not electrical switches. One would not have multiple gaslamps mounted in such fashion, and it seems odd that every room would have two or four electrical light switches – most rooms I’ve seen have just one.

It’s impossible to find a picture without knowing what it is - I figured the best bet was to find a screenshot of All Creatures, because I know there’s one right by the door of the living room they’re always in, but none of the pictures I can find are at the right angle to show them.

Possible to be a thermostat?

Possible to read the OP? Or is it common to have two and four but never one thermostat, right on top of one another? Particularly when I said they’re the size and shape of thermostats, thus exhibiting familiarity with the item?

I think it’s highly unlikely that an English home in the 1930s and 1940s would have a thermostat: you’d just add fuel to your fire when you felt cold, and open the windows for a breeze when it got too hot.

The most likely possibilities are:
(1) The remains of a gas lighting system;
(2) An electric light switch.

Something to ring a bell to summon servants would be a third possibility, though James Herriot would not have had servants – if it was that, it would be a relic of the pre-World-War-1 era.

If they’re by the door then the likelihood is they’re light switches - and lo and behold here’s a screen grab from an episode of All Creatures I found on the interwebs:


Are those what you’re talking about? Well, they are definitely lightswitches, bakerlite ones in this case.



Given those are switches, why are there two? Is it actually one switch assembly, with one button being “on” and the other being “off?” Or is it the custom that there are (at least almost) always two separately switched lights in a room? Or something else?

Each switch would control one light (or more rarely one set of lights), so there are probably at least two lights in that room.

Yes, of course, bakelite :(.

There are two because there are two lights in the room. Nowadays you have multiple switches on the same switch enclosure, but back then you had a a separate switch for each light (or each set of lights on the same circuit, at least). So one switch might control the main ceiling pendant light and the other switch control wall lights, for example.


I haven’t seen one of those in years. The apartment I grew up in had switches like that.

I can’t open the picture - I get a Problem Loading Page.