Coal Fired

Recent shenanigins with our heating system have brought to mind the ‘three day week’ of the 1970s in the UK and their scheduled power cuts. Our family home was Edwardian and still had fireplaces to almost every room, which we utilised to the full – downstairs at least. Emptying the ashes and cleaning out the grate every day were a chore though, so coal fires returned to being a seasonal treat once things returned to normal.

Thinking back, my mum used to have to deal with coal fires and much more during my early years.

I recall being brought downstairs wrapped in a warm dressing gown when very small. In the back room, a coal fire would be blazing, and I was sat on the table next to a bowl of water, to be washed before a quick transfer from dressing gown and pyjamas to clothes for the day – vest, liberty bodice, jumper, thick skirt, socks and warm slippers.

Once a week, the tin bath was brought in from the shed to bath us kids in front of the fire. Hot water was drawn from the massive floor-standing boiler that squatted in the fireplace of the kitchen/scullery. The butler sink in the kitchen also boasted an Ascot water heater. By the fifties, many of the three-bedroom Victorian terraced houses in our East London road had installed a bathroom carved out of the enormous front master bedroom, but our upstairs front room was let to a mature lady, know to us as Aunt Lil, and the carved-out space was her kitchen. Hence the morning bowl-wash.

There were fireplaces in the bedrooms as well, but I don’t recall fires being lit in those. Aunt Lil had a electric fires in her rooms, but upstairs we just froze. It was warm enough in bed and once out of it we didn’t hang about. . . except on Christmas morning when we wore our dressing gowns in bed to open presents stuffed into the pillowcases that had been left at the end of our shared bed, while our parents watched, shivering in their dressing gowns, and my mother tried to keep track of which distant relative had sent which parcels.

Downstairs, through winter the fires were always burning by the time us kids were up and after we went to bed. We must have got through a lot of coal. This was delivered by horse and cart, always by the same soot-covered driver, known to us as Uncle Tom. (All adult neighbours and friends of the family were ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’ back then.) The coal sacks were emptied down a manhole-guarded coal-hole beside the front doorstep, into the cellar. Us children weren’t often allowed down the wooden steps to the cellar, but I recall the coal pile in the corner under the coal-hole left plenty of space to store tools and equipment.

We moved out to the suburbs the week after my tenth birthday. In my twenties, when house-hunting, I assumed that the vast spaces I recalled from my first home were coloured by my size at the time. Having viewed some new-builds, we returned to visit the relations who had rented our old home since we moved out, and it really was as big as my memories had painted it. I coveted all that high-ceilinged space.

Hence the Edwardian house we did eventually buy in our suburb, despite the amount of renovation it required (which is why nobody else had bought it).

Since then I have downsized twice to properties more economical to heat. My present husband likes the temperature higher than I do, especially since his coronary bypass. Even so, following my fifties and sixties, when I thought I would never feel cold again, I’m finding lately that I, too feel chilled at temperatures the thermostat tells me are not cold.

My husband shudders at my sandalled feet and tells me to put some socks on. He’s right, of course.

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How do you like your warmth delivered?

(Or is cooling a greater concern where you are?)

23 thoughts on “Coal Fired

  1. Wow! A real treat to walk back in the past and share with us. I never went through all that, too young and take air conditioning, water heaters for granted. Your generation has had it tough! I can imagine my generation not taking a shower without a heater..gee and our temps are 33C to 34C daily.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, but there is something cosy and homelike about a roaring fireplace. Sadly it’s looking as though fuel for such fires is likely to be eventually banned for environmental reasons. In the UK, at any rate.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember the comfort when we had a ‘cosy stove’ installed, which meant the fire in the living room stayed in overnight. I also remember the ice on the inside of the bedroom windows!
    No washing machine, mum had a boiler and a mangle. Washing really did take all day.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I remember collecting orange boxes from the market and chopping them up into kindling for my parents, taking dad’s wheelbarrow to the nearby common, collecting fallen branches and sawing them into logs with a hand saw. The difficulties in lighting fires with kindling, paraffin heaters on the landing and in the kitchen. When there was power cuts mum in the fifties and sixties, mum would cook for neighbours on the fire together with the spare burners on our gas cooker. And patterns in the ice on the inside of bedroom windows, as well as the huge puddles on the window sills when it melted.

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  4. Sounds very similar to my early years. And the picture looks like my grandparents house. They were still living there into my twenties so like you, I realised the rooms and house were just as spacious as my childhood memories. And for the first two years of my married life, rented the ground floor flat of the same style house three doors away. It still had the outside toilet and no bathroom.

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    1. When we moved into that Edwardian house where we brought up our kids it felt like home!
      We were luck , not only that the place was in such a state that nobody wanted to buy it, but that the sellers were moving to America so were desperate to sell. As it was, they had gone before we’d completed and could move in. It was a great place to bring up four kids, even though we were on a busy road (porch door, front door AND baby gate in the hall.)

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      1. That photo is actually of my Gran’s house as it looks today(ish). It’s the house we I lived in until a week after my tenth birthday. We never had all those window boxes though – just veggies in the garden and a swing. No railings either; we all had privet hedges as far as I remember.

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  5. A wonderful trip down memory lane. Mum used to put layers of newspaper between the blankets to keep us warm. The weekly bath in front of the fire and moving your legs well out of the way when the bath water was topped up with a kettle full of boiling water as it had cooled by the time the last child was in it. We would also spend evenings rolling and folding newspapers ready for fire lighting for the next day or two. Holding a sheet of newspaper across the fire so it would ‘draw’ and it would often catch fire and be hurriedly dropped into the fireplace or float up the chimney. During the 3 day week if you knew the power was going off you would cook early then place your saucepan or stew pot into a big box filled with straw or shredded newspaper and cover it well to keep it cooking or just to keep it warm till we were ready to eat . Life was always interesting in those days and neighbours not only knew each other but helped one another too.

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    1. Our annual holiday was in a tent, so we were OK for cooking equipment and gaz lights in a power cut, but I’d forgotten about the newspaper Nan used to hold against the fireopening to ‘draw’ the fire. It worked too, and if she wasn’t careful, the vacuum created would draw the newspaper in. The chimney had to be swept regularly to avoid setting light to it on those odd occasions when a lighted newspaper went up it.

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  6. This so reminds me of the family farm where I was born. We didn’t have running water so we had to carry buckets of it into the scullery, from the huge pump in the side garden, bath time was in a tin bath in front of a huge fire that rarely ever went out and yes, I well remember copies of the News of the World being used to ‘draw’ the fire as and when we did have to start a new one. The loo was outdoors and due to there not being running water, a lorry would come along and empty it [stomach churning at the thought of it]. Gas lamps was our lighting and I remember ‘Jack Frost’ making beautiful patterns in the ice on the inside of the windows in the bedrooms. Monday was always wash day so the boiler would be filled with white cotton sheets, I would help Mum fold them to put through the mangle and then I’d sometimes get to turn the handle, hard work at times, lots of smaller garments would be put in soak and then hand-washed. My Nan used to make butter, bread, sausages and ‘hang’ a variety of birds and animals in the pantry. I have many wonderful memories of the huge family farmhouse and running in the fields, jumping dykes and climbing trees, I loved the outdoors and still do x

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    1. We did have an inside loo downstairs, but only just. It opened onto the hall by the back door, and was located between the scullery and hall (blocking scullery access to the garden). I suspect it might not have been a feature of the house originally.

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  7. So many memories. I barely remember the bath by the fire, but I did have to have one. so did my dad when he came home from work as a miner – mum wouldn’t let him use the bath until he was clean enough as there were no pithead paths at the colliery then. (That changed in the 60s, I think, when all collieries had to have them.). But the lovely patterns Jack Frost made, sleeping with coats and hats on, dad making up the fire before he went to work, and banking it down with the day’s ashes so that, when riddled through, there would still be enough of a glow to set the next fire going in the morning of the next day. Now I tell my kids to turn down their heating and save money (especially now!) and to put more clothes on. My legs and feet always feel cold, though, so I’m sitting here with my warm boots on and a blanket over my knees… Having said that, our household is all-electric – the first time we’ve gone that way – and we have lower bills than we had with our gas/electric mix. We use a modern system of storage radiators and water heating and our bills have fallen – for the time being. Living in a bungalow we have the towel radiator on in the bathroom all the time, and the hall and lounge radiators on thermostats, and we leave the three bedroom doors open, putting the electric blanket on when it is really cold half an hour before we go to bed. I think that people of our generation were lucky to live through what now would be regarded as hardship and inconvenience; it was good preparation for what is coming down the line.

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  8. My daughter used to come downstairs and complain how cold it was until I pointed out she was wearing a t-shirt… In December!
    It’s the feet that have to be kept warm. If your feet are frozen nothing else gets warm.

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  9. Mum and Dad rented the top floor of a Victorian terrace and had only the ‘geyser’ over the bath and the Ascot over the sink. The dreadful old lady who rented the ground floor was allowed to come up once a week to use our bath. Mum had all three of us there and was very relieved to move to buy a much smaller new house in the suburbs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, they were lovely old houses, but not always (or often) appropriately converted for the number of new tenants they later accommodated after the original residents moved out of town.

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