Heating the house with coal fires in the 1940s and 50s
A real coal
fire burning in a grate. As ashes were considered unsightly, it was fashionable
to have a removable stove enamelled, vented panel to hide them.
Open fires looked lovely, with multicoloured flames dancing above the coal,
and glowing caves between the pieces of coal, but they were draughty, dirty, messy, inefficient,
and a lot of work. In the 1940s when I was a child, they were effectively the
only form of heating in main living areas.
Clearing up the fire from the night before
The fire had to be remade each morning which was the coldest time of the
day. The first task was to remove the old ash from beneath the fire grate (a
cast iron grid or basket which held the coal). The grate was raised up to allow
air in and to let the ashes fall into a pan, and this pan had to be taken out
and emptied into the dustbin, a process which created clouds of dust. Although
most of the ashes did collect in the pan, the space below still needed to be
swept out, which made more dust.
Starting the fire
Coal scuttle for storing coal beside a fireplace. One of many
designs. Photographed in Milton Keynes Museum.
Coal skuttle for throwing the coal onto the fire by grasping the
skuttle's handles using both hands. Photographed in Tilford Museum
of Rural Life.
Laying a new fire was a skill which most people in the 1940s knew and understood
because it was so common-place. You had to start with a few sheets of crumpled
newspaper which would burn easily. Next came something like dry twigs or thin
shavings of wood, known as 'kindling', stacked loosely up round the paper so
that enough air would be drawn though it by the heat of the flame. Wood shavings
or dry twigs were often just bi-products of gardening or carpentry, and sticks
of firewood could be bought quite cheaply at the local ironmongers. After the
kindling came the coal.
The paper was lit in several places with a match or a lighted wax taper.
The better off families started their fires
with something called 'firelighters' which were small cubes which stayed
alight for some time. My mother, though, regarded them as extravagant, and
certainly she managed to get her fires going without them.
Sometimes the fire needed help to start. This could be because the wind down
the chimney was in the wrong direction, or there was not enough or too much
of it, or there was not enough kindling, or the coal was damp, or it was a poor
batch of coal, or for any one of a thousand and one other reasons. My father
used to put an asbestos sheet with a handle on it across the front of the fireplace,
to increase the draught through the grate, which helped the fire to 'draw'.
This was very effective, and quite exciting. You could hear the fire roaring
away behind the asbestos sheet, although, surprisingly, when the sheet was taken
away, the fire seemed quite tame.
On one occasion the asbestos sheet had been left outside, and had got wet.
So when it was placed in front of the fire, and the fire got going well, the
sheet got hot, the moisture in it vaporised, and the whole sheet exploded, sending
pieces of asbestos across the room. (In those days, asbestos was not considered
dangerous: indeed, my father made his own rawlplugs by mixing asbestos wool
with plaster powder.)
Sometimes, instead of the asbestos sheet, my father used a newspaper held
carefully across the fireplace, but this was a bit risky, because as the draught
increased the newspaper could be sucked in and up the chimney.