Thursday, 7 January 2010

Inheritance :: the fireplace

Inheritance :: possession by transmission from past generations
Chambers Concise Dictionary

The house we live in was built sometime in the late 1880s - so it is now over a hundred and twenty years old. Over those many decades so much has changed in this part of London - and in the house itself.  But there are a few little bits and pieces we live with every day that are still original.  The doors downstairs, most of the floorboards, the ceiling roses, and the fireplaces.

The front foom fireplace is still used by us, in the same way and for the same purpose as it was by the first owners when Queen Victoria was on the throne. The chimney sweep tells me that we have the original flue, grate, chimney stack, ironwork and tiles - everything about it today is just as it was in 1880.

The fireplace is really very small - about 30cm across and 25cm deep - and designed to burn coal, not logs.  For such a tiny fireplace it gives out an immense amount of heat.  Coal burns very slowly and intensely, glowing with heat rather than giving off flames; and the fireplace is made with cast iron which radiates heat extremely well back into the room.  So we don't just get the heat from the hot coals, but also the heat from the cast iron.

Back in 1880 the owners of the house would have had their coal delivered by a horse and cart.  What is now our under-the-stairs cupboard and home to all our camping equipment, would have been a coal cellar back then.  A cole hole in the path leading up to the front door would have been opened, and the coal poured down straight into the cellar.  Nowadays we have to burn smokeless fuel which we buy in bags from the local coal merchant. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, mainly as a result of the Great Smog a couple of years earlier, and as a result we are not allowed to burn wood or coal in London. The smokeless fuel that we used is derived from coke, and burns in exactly the same way as coal but without the smoke.

I start the fire with a pile of kindling over a firelighter.  G's grandmother taught him how to light a fire and then he taught me when we moved into this house.  She did not use firelighters though.  When she was in service she twisted old newspaper into tight knots and used that to start the fire; piling the coal carefully on top once the flames were going.  Then once the first coals are glowing you can give the whole fire a big poke with the poker and shovel more coal on top.

An open fire needs to have its chimney swept every year, to keep it clean and free from bird and coal debris.  The chimney sweep of the twenty first century still wears black clothes and still uses the big old round brushes you know from the Mary Poppins film.

But now he very carefully lays out thick (black) dustsheets and hoovers up all the soot from the chimney with a bright yellow hoover.  I'm always amazed and impressed how he comes and goes within half an hour, but leaves no mess behind at all.

I love our fire. Mainly because it just works so well, and for something so functional it is also beautiful to look at.  I like to imagine the very first owners of this house being whisked forward in time a hundred and twenty years to meet us and look round the house as it is today.  They would be astonished at the computers, the electric lights, the inside toilet, the washing machine, the plastic toys, the iPods and G's wetsuit.  And I think they might also be surprised that amongst all this modernity we still use and love their old open coal fireplace.


  1. I love our fire too. It's burning away right now, but we use logs rather than coal as we live out in the sticks where they don't care about smoke! I use twists of newspaper rather than firelighters too - and right now we're burning bits of the paper sacks the logs come in from a local farm. Fab.

  2. oh how lovely warm and cosy, we have a pretend gas fire that I find totally and utterly impossible to light, and warm as radiators are they just don't have the visionary appeal...........

  3. Beautiful!! When we were kids my father had a house with an old fireplace just like that. I'd forgotten it until today; thank you so much for the memories! (And for explaining the cast iron, which I hadn't realized was more than just pretty and Victorian ;-).

  4. what a lovely post - i can just conjure up your fireplace and the coziness of it all. thank you for sharing this story!

  5. G's Grandmother (my mother in law) taught me this way of lighting fires - it's total magic

  6. it is a beautiful fireplace-I thought that when i have seen photos of it previously. We have a couple of original fireplaces in the bedrooms (our houses are a similar age) but none's on the 'to do' list.x

  7. I have the fireplace but not the fire. I was going to buy one last autumn but then my boiler broke down so my fire fund went on that! Maybe next year...
    Yours looks so cosy on a chilly winters night.

  8. We had a very similar one in our old house - even the same painted marbelling. Bliss aren't they?

    Our newer house has a bigger fireplace, but gives off no heat at all - it goes straight up the chimney. Decorative, but useless.

  9. Such a lovely traditional task of chimney sweep - especially on the original fireplace!
    On the subject of families who lived in our homes before us and slept in our bedrooms, have you read Julie Myerson's book Our House ( and all the people who lived in it). It is a lovely read based on the real characters who she discovered through cenus lists who lived in her home. It is worth adding to your winter reading pile!
    Jill (in Cambridge)

  10. I loved our open fire in our old house; we don't have one now, and it's just not as cosy to curl up in front of somehow.

    I liked running into the garden to take a picture of the sweep's brush poking out of the chimney.

  11. Listen, I tried to read your post, but there's a huge banner in front of my screen and I can't take it off! I already closed the window and opened it again and it won't work, so I hope you can fix it to can see the whole post.


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