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The 'copper': supplying hot water in Victorian and early 1900s houses



Original built-in 'copper' water heater in the outhouse at Jane Austen's house in Chawton

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) 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.
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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.

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About 'copper' water heaters

The container inside an old 'copper' water heater

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 old 'copper' water heater

Wooden lid for the water container of the copper.

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.

Ken Thawley

The lid of an intact copper being lifted to show the inside.

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.

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.

Paulene Allett

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 arrangement in the outhouse at Jane Austen's house in Chawton, whereby the old copper, an old fireplace and an old bread oven all use the same chimney.

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.

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.

Reconstructed copper water heater showing where the coal was fed in and where the ashes fell for removal.

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.

     

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer
webmaster

  

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is Pat Cryer.