The old copper water heater in the outhouse at Jane
Austen's house in Chawton.
Although a kettle
on a fire or a kitchen range could supply relatively small amounts of hot
water, the 'copper' water heater / boiler was the only means of obtaining hot water in significant
amounts - for Monday washday, for the (occasional)
cleaning the house and for washing up dishes.
The 'copper' features strongly in my mother's recollections
of life in her childhood in the early 1900s. So I wanted to know what it
was, what it looked like and how it worked. Descriptions were not hard to
obtain as numerous living individuals, unlike me, remembered coppers from
According to my mother's recollections:
The copper was like a deep cauldron with a lid, built
into the corner of the room with a space underneath for the fire.
The search for information
My problem with finding out more about coppers was just because they were built-in
- and bulky. So although every Victorian
and Edwardian house was built with one and although numerous such houses are still
giving good service today, their coppers have understandably been demolished
to make room for more modern appliances. Some 'cauldron' parts and lids have
survived in museums and the occasional museum even has a reconstruction
which is, of course, not fully built-in.
It took a long search to find an original built-in copper somewhere where
photograph. (National Trust properties do not allow photographs.) Success was in an outhouse at Jane Austen's house in Chawton.
In the better off houses, coppers were in outhouses, although in the working
Victorian-style terraces where my mother lived, the copper was in the
Seeing an original copper enabled
me to make much more sense of the descriptions and the museum exhibits.
About 'copper' water heaters
The container for the water from a dismantled copper
in Milestones Museum in Basingstoke. It is unusual in that it really is made
of copper rather than cast-iron. The photo also shows wooden tongs for lifting clothes in and
out of the water.
Wooden lid for the water container of the copper.
As a young boy, I used to enjoy wielding the lid of my
grandmother's copper as a shield.
The lid of an original copper lifted to show the cast iron inside.
In some wealthy houses, the container for the water to be heated really was made of copper but
this was exceptional. The container was generally of cast-iron, and its size depended
on the size of the household which it served. Generally speaking it was like
a very large deep bucket without a handle.
Although most coppers had to be filled and emptied with a bucket, we were rather
proud that ours had a tap for emptying.
This container for the water was built-in and could not be removed. So
water had to be added and removed with a bucket or ladle which must have been very heavy
work. The coppers on the working class Huxley Estate took about six regular
bucketfuls to fill.
The water was heated by a coal fire which was lit through an opening in
the brickwork and there was another opening below to provide a flow of air
and to collect the fallen
ashes. The flue or chimney was normally behind the
wall against which the copper was built, and it led into a chimney serving an adjacent fire of some sort. On the working class Huxley Estate, the
adjacent fire was the kitchen range; at Jane Austen's house it was a
fireplace and a bread
There was a wooden lid which kept the inside of the copper clean and also kept in the steam
and heat when the copper was in use.
The arrangement in the outhouse at Jane Austen's
house in Chawton, whereby the copper, a fireplace and a bread oven all use
the same chimney.
This reconstruction of a copper at Blaise Castle House
Museum in Bristol shows another arrangement whereby the coals were fed in and
the ashes removed. Being a reconstruction, the copper is not plumbed
into a chimney, and could never actually work.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is ©