When England Moved From Wood to Coal–Alan Jones Returns With The Tale

Alan Jones can charm us all again:

When the author was young, over half a century ago, Britain was still chiefly fired by coal. Petrol [gasoline] for cars of course and fuel oil was beginning to become popular for central heating, closed stoves for coal or coke were used, but most houses still burnt coal on open fires, supplemented in very cold weather, which there often was, by gas [coal/town] or electric fires or with portable paraffin [kerosene] stoves.

Burning English bituminous coal produces a lot of smoke carried away by a chimney usually topped by a chimney pot: these came in all shapes and sizes from short to tall, thin to stout, severely plain to amazingly ornate, simple to elaborately cowled: and even H designs or rotating cowls which swung in the wind. This produced a fascinating chimneyscape which intrigued a small boy.

Whatever, they all belched black smoke in the winter creating a sulphurous atmosphere in the streets. That was yesteryear. Today the UK burns natural gas so towns and cities are no longer begrimed with soot and the air is clean: and with far more cheap heat, available houses are much warmer and drier too. Overall a great step forward, yet almost forgotten nowadays: so few modern houses are built with chimneys anymore. In some ways a pity, for the English chimney has a tale to tell.

Adobe brick is probably as old as civilisation itself but burnt brick, effectually a hard weatherproof vitrified block, is more recent, perhaps invented about 3500 years ago. Certainly the ancient Romans produced it in large quantities and used it in England but with their withdrawal and the fall of the Western arm of the Empire the art seems to have been lost and did not reappear until about the 14th century and quickly became popular, so that by the 16th century it had become the building material of choice from humble abodes to great houses.

And these great houses had elaborate chimneys, a superb example is Hampton Court: a splendid picture of a few of them here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Billbeee-hc.JPG

Antiquarians and later historians regarded these grandiose chimneys as status symbols. It seems you were a social nobody if you did not have a chimney. The then idea was that English did not make much use of chimneys except in very grand stone buildings before this because being a backward lot they didn‘t learn how until the late 15th century.

It is true that a thousand years ago the English generally lived in hovels, a timber framed single storey, one-roomed building often using crucks with wattle and daub walls weatherproofed with lime/whitewash and heavily thatched with the overhanging eaves close to the ground and a central hearth with a hole in the thatch above to let the smoke out. A grander version, the McMansion of its day, was the hall house which was longer and had two rooms abutting the central hearth with a grille below the eaves to let the smoke escape and keep the rain out.

It had long been known that from about 1400 the English had begun converting their hovels into two storey buildings by adding a new timber frame slightly overhanging the lower one all round, a method called jetting. But in the 1950’s it was pointed out they also seem to have added a central chimney too. There are tens of thousands of these jettied buildings around the country still lived in today.

On closer examination this, dubbed the Great Rebuilding, showed that these chimneys were not new. Far from it, the English had been using central chimneys in their hovels from about 1300 onwards. How to tell? because when the upper storey was added the builder simply extended the original chimney upwards often using different materials.

A fine photo of a three storey jettied building here.

Note the upper brick chimney stacks and pots.

England is blessed with good written records going back a thousand years and amongst other things they report, indirectly, fuel consumption. Thus the  manorial courts, which adjudicated common lands, began to note shortages of firewood as early as the 1450’s. The market courts likewise. And the coal trade, which the City of London taxed on discharge at Seacoal Lane by the river Fleet, grew rapidly: by 1700 England, even before the Industrial Revolution, was mining over 80% of world production.

Which is surprising. The Black Death of the middle of the 14th century carried off somewhere between a third to a half the English population, which did not fully recover for about four hundred years. So why did a much diminished populace need so much more fuel? First as wood and later coal?

Perhaps they needed more heat. A hearth for cooking burns little fuel but space heating needs much more and thus a chimney to carry off the smoke. And the chimney stack gets hot so an upper storey can be warmed by the flue without using any more fuel. Very economical.

English chimneys demonstrate this. Early ones for wood had a large flat hearth with ingles on either side in which meat could be hung to smoke: but coal burns much hotter and faster so a raised firebasket made of wrought iron was needed and the inglenooks became places to warm oneself. With the advent of cheap cast iron in the 1750’s English chimney design evolved rapidly with the partially enclosed grate, the chimney throat and to extend the flue upwards to increase draught, the chimney pot.

So now the tale is told and not just by the written records but in the very chimneys and buildings which stand to this day. Of how when the world turned colder the English adapted first by building chimneys and then when firewood became scarce to plentiful cheap coal. The first country ever to do so. And strangely it was the UK fifty years ago which again changed its prime fuel from coal to natural gas: about which I wrote here.


© ajgjones 2012 whose moral right is asserted.


One response to “When England Moved From Wood to Coal–Alan Jones Returns With The Tale

  1. Last time I was in Beijing (1995) the height of the chimneys were a little to short to disperse the smoke- It’s a different world there today. Most of the modest single story homes and craft industrial facilities are gone. I wonder if the former rules (building codes) limiting the ability heat ones living space are still in place. I wish I had natural gas available as a heating source. My next investment will be going back in time as far a heating sources go- wood for a wood stove. The original stove was removed sometime before 1980 (not quite a 100 years with wood being used as the primary fuel for heating at our residence). With the state of the economy these days and a reliable source of wood- that some folks are liberating occasionally- it seems like the best option for our place. My wife has been against this option as she doesn’t care for the messiness of heating with wood, but with cap and trade coming on line shortly the alternatives (electricity or propane) are looking less attractive.

    Thanks for the history lesson.

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