The 'copper': supplying hot water in Victorian and early 1900s houses
Text and images are copyright. All rights reserved.
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) bath, for 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 their childhood.
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 I could photograph. (The National Trust properties with coppers did 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 class Victorian-style terraces where my mother lived, the copper was in the scullery.
Seeing an original copper enabled me to make much more sense of the descriptions and the museum exhibits.
How to empty a copper
Although most coppers had to be filled and emptied with a bucket, we were rather proud that ours had a tap for emptying.
About 'copper' water heaters
The copper lid as a toy
As a young boy, I used to enjoy wielding the lid of my grandmother's copper as a shield.
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.
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 oven.
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 cast iron linings of old coppers
As the sites of housing areas destroyed by WW2 bombing were cleared, many cast iron copper linings was revealed. Most were broken to some degree but those which remained intact reminded me of large upturned bowler hat crowns.