Coal Fires: a Personal Reminiscence

Let me start by saying that I regard myself as fortunate to live in a house that has central heating. However, this can be problematic when the occupants have ideal ambient temperatures that are discrepant. I live in a household thermostat war zone. I hope to deal with this in a series of subsequent blogs but, for now, I have decided to talk about my experience of coal fires when I was growing up as a boy in the 1940s-1950s. I suppose that this blog might be construed as a prequel, of sorts.

Back then I lived in an extended family household with three generations, in a semi-detached house. The primary sitting rooms (a small one upstairs, a larger one on the downstairs floor) were heated by coal fires. Bedrooms and other supplementary rooms were heated by one-bar or two-bar electric fires. In the drafty hallway there was an old-fashioned Paraffin heater which had its own special smell, not entirely unpleasant as I recall.

My sketch of the family home

If we needed heat in the kitchen, my mother would light the gas oven and wedge open the door. As a young boy, I was allowed to get washed and dressed in the kitchen during the icy months of winter. For hot water, we had to boil a kettle on the stove and mix in a bit of cold from the tap. All a bit basic. My bedroom was on the ground floor and I had to use the outdoor toilet. This was a tad breezy in the winter. There was no electricity out there and my mother left a candle in an enamel holder on the floor, together with a box of Swan Vesta matches, for trips after dark. I digress, let me get back to the main topic.

Coal Fires
On a winter’s evening there was nothing quite like a coal fire. I was thoroughly happy watching the flames leap and dance, while the smoke curled, wiggled, and wafted up the chimney. Although the coals started off jet black, as they burned they gave out the most wonderful palette of red and orange. Their flames added hints of blue, yellow and white. The ash provided a range of greys spanning from charcoal black to titanium white.

Perhaps it is worth saying that we had no television; my mother rented a radio from a company called Radio Rentals. On winter’s nights our coal fire provided us with a visual point of focus. We watched the coal fire as closely as youngsters nowadays watch the screens of their tablets, laptops, or smartphones. Occasionally, the radio might be switched on, although my mother, my great aunt and grandmother preferred to sit and read their library books. Often the sound of silence was only disturbed by the quiet ticking of the clock and the pops, snaps and crackles emanating from the fireplace.

The fire place in our sitting room (a sketch I made some time ago)

Before I go on, perhaps I should explain my duck-like signature at the bottom right of my sketch. I have a very common English name (John Smith). I also have a middle name (Lewis). The signature spells out Smith J L. The S starts at the top of the duck’s head, provides the curve of the neck and the outline of the body back to the tail. The ‘mith’ part of ‘S-mith’ represents the ducks back, maybe with some wind-ruffled feathers. The ‘J’ forms the basis of the duck’s head with the L providing its bill. 2011 dates the sketch.

During the winter, the coal fire was a source of endless impromptu games for us, based upon what we saw in the fire grate. “I can see a fish!” I might say. “That’s not a fish, it’s an elephant,” my brother might respond. There was no limit to the number of items that might be discerned in and amongst the coals of the fire: sometimes faces, sometimes objects. These shapes would occasionally trigger outlandish imaginative fantasies. Indeed, they might form the start of a story that we could make up and, as the evening drew on, the plot might be tweaked in response to yet new shapes as they emerged from the coals while they burned. For example, a reconfiguration of shapes might often occur whenever the fire was given a stir with the poker. In passing I should add that that the first time I was asked to give the fire a ‘poke‘ was tantamount to a rite of passage for me!

Decades later when I studied for my B.A. in Psychology I made a connection between the Rorsach Ink Blot test and these fireside pastimes. This psychological test was originally developed by Hermann Rorschach as a tool to be used in psychiatric diagnosis. The patient is invited to look at a series of inkblots, and to provide an interpretation of each blot. The rationale behind this is that any stories or descriptions produced by the patients had to come from within their own minds, as it were, since an ink blot is nothing but an ink blot, objectively speaking. In this way, it was hoped that glimpses might be gained of difficulties residing in the ‘unknowable’ unconscious mind of the individual. I make no comment on the veracity of all this; suffice it to say that it had some popularity in the early part of the 20th century amongst some clinicians and academics of a psychoanalytic persuasion, I believe.

Back home, we all had fire-related jobs and chores to do. My father had died when I was a baby so he does not feature in this account. My mother acted as the matriarch of the family. She used to clear out the ash from the burnt down fire of the previous evening, cleaning up the mess in the fireplace with brush and dustpan, keeping any coals not fully burned through for use in the next fire. She would then lay the fresh fire for the new day, before leaving for work.

As I grew up, I began to take on some of these duties. When needed I was sent round to the hardware store at the end of the street to buy some kindling wood to replenish our supply [these stores existed within a short walk or bicycle ride from most houses in any given town]. Later I learned how to use the previous day’s newspaper by rolling it up and twisting it around to help with the kindling. I was shown how to lay the new coals atop the kindling.

Of course, you needed to have a plentiful supply of coal, and most old-fashioned houses had either a coal cellar or a coal shed specifically for its storage. Coal was bought from the coal merchant (there were no supermarkets, of course). My family typically bought 20 cwt sacks at a time. That is twenty sacks weighing ‘one hundred weight’ of coal. To unpack the ‘cwt’ abbreviation, the ‘c’ is Latin for 100 and ‘wt’ stands for weight. I am tempted to explore British weights and measures a tad further, but I will restrain myself from getting too bogged down at this juncture. Briefly, then:
1 cwt = 8 stone (where 1 stone = 14 pounds) – thus 1 cwt = 112 pounds (8 x 14 = 112)

My great aunt had the job of standing with a piece of paper and counting the sacks in (I think she used the system of ‘five-bar gates’). My grandma had a small sweet and tobacco shop at the time and I think they saw this activity from the perspective of routine stock-taking.

Five bar gate

By way of explanation, when counting, a horizontal line is drawn for each of the 4 four items as they are counted, with a diagonal line drawn to represent the 5th item. The 5 lines thus represent graphically a 5 bar gate. I think nowadays 6 bar gates are more common (having five horizontal pieces of wood with one diagonal across them for the 6th). Be that as it may, let me return to my account.

Once I had grown a bit and started at primary school, I was deemed strong enough to be sent down to the coal hole (in the basement) to fill the scuttle and bring it up to stand by the fire. I seem to remember our coal scuttle had a rather nice shape and was made of brass. Of course, in the 1940s there was no discussion of the possibility that coal fires might be contributing to global warming and climate change, at least, not in my house. I shall not be dealing with that issue in the presently evolving series of blogs.

Well, I have not said all that I want to say on the topic of coal fires, but I fear I must bring this blog to an end else you will get a dose of information overload and I would not wish that upon you. I shall continue with this introduction into the delights of coal fires in my next blog. At present I am merely inching closer to my planned analysis of Household Thermostat Wars in the context of controlling the central heating boiler.
Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

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