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Heating the house with
coal fires in the 1940s and 50s

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coal fire in a 1940s and 1950s style of grate

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.

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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.

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Starting the fire

Coal scuttle for storing coal beside a fireplace, commonly used with a coal fire.

Coal scuttle for storing coal beside a fireplace. One of many designs. Photographed in Milton Keynes Museum.

Spills for fire lighting

Spills for fire lighting at a distance, made of rolled newspaper.

Coal skuttle with two handles, for throwing coal onto a fire using both hands.

Coal scuttle for throwing the coal onto the fire by grasping the scuttle'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 commonplace. 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 or a rolled newspaper spill.

Filling the coal scuttle

When time came to get a scuttle of coal from the outside coal bunker there was always an argument as to who should go. The unfortunate person who was eventually chosen knew full well that they would find that their spot around the fire would be taken by someone else in a large family when they returned.

David Perfect

Firelighter blocks

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.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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.

Using a newspaper to draw up a draught to make a fire burn more fiercely - common before central heating

Woman holding a newspaper over the fire of a kitchen range to draw up the draught and make the fire flair up, Screen shot from an old film,

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 rawl plugs 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.

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

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Page contributed by Richard Cole

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