The home in 50 objects #15: cast-iron coal fireplace (1700-1750)

Every October, a great British groan resounds across the land. “The nights are drawing in,” goes the endlessly repeated euphemism for the onset of winter — until that chilly morning when we can hold out no longer and the central heating is switched on, creaking into action for another year. 

Until the mid-20th century, heating our homes was a far more onerous affair. Coal fires were messy and high-maintenance. First, the ash had to be removed and emptied into a dustbin, dispersing billows of black dust along the way.

Lighting the fire involved a fussy preamble of artfully crumpled newspaper and kindling, before the unwieldy scuttle was hoisted up to pour the coal into the grate. The scuttle had to be refilled from a coal bunker outside, so your place by the fire would likely be gone when you returned.

Then, having produced your roaring blaze, most of the heat would simply disappear up the flue. So households often had multiple fireplaces, with wealthier families employing servants to maintain and operate them. Even the tiny terrace I live in has five (no servants, sadly).

It was a palaver, but Britons were stubbornly fond of the coal fire. Art historian Lynda Nead has written of coal’s wartime “rhetoric”: an emblem of hearth, family and nation, promoted through popular culture and the coal industry.

In a 1943 survey, 73 per cent of people said they preferred coal over oil or gas, identifying “coal feelings” such as “cheerful” and “comforting”. In a 1945 column about the future of heating in the Evening Standard, George Orwell asserted, “only a coal fire will do”.

But by the time of London’s Great Smog in 1952, the noxious effects of burning coal were all too evident. In 1956 the Clean Air Act ushered in new forms of energy. Central heating arrived in the 1970s, and soon the hearth itself would give way to the television set. 

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Of all fossil fuels, coal — mostly used today to produce electricity — remains the most dangerous, emitting mercury, arsenic, sulphur and nitrogen oxides. But while the UK was once the world’s largest consumer of coal, it is now, happily, almost coal-power free. 

What remains are the countless Georgian and Victorian fireplaces — elegant trophies of gentrification, a reminder of coal’s place in the fibre of British society, and requiring no more in the way of upkeep than some
minor dusting.

museumofthehome.org.uk

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