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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.