Stoves and Chimneys
and their chimneys may reveal a great deal about historic houses;
they can show how buildings were used and how they have changed
and developed over time. They can also be some of the most striking
and architecturally important elements of a house, because new
technologies and, more often, the dictates of changing tastes,
were reflected in radical changes to fire surrounds. However,
the stylistic development of fireplaces has been well described
elsewhere. This article focuses on the development of fire provision
in domestic houses and details how evidence of earlier examples
may survive in the archaeological record.
|At Grange Farm, Coven, South Staffs a typical large fireplace
had been partially blocked and made smaller in the 19th century. Unusually, the frame of what is probably an earlier
smoke bay has been used as a lintel for this first floor fireplace.
small range and grate at Fala, Midlothian. Fittings such as
the small fireguard are often lost and few such ranges survive
in such good condition.
earliest hearths retained the fire in a shallow pit or circle
of stones. Such structures have been excavated in sites dating
from the Palaeolithic onwards and can be found in caves, open
campsites and early buildings. Indeed, the earliest known
house in Scotland, discovered by AOC Archaeology Group at Dunbar
and dated to 8000 BC, had such a hearth at the centre of the circular
Mesolithic dwelling. AOC has also recorded later Neolithic houses
at Skara Brae in Orkney, where the fires were contained in small
box-like structures constructed using flat stones. Beautiful iron
firedogs dating from the Iron Age
attest that even seemingly simple early hearths may have been
more complex than is usually apparent.
innovations such as flue tiles and under-floor hypocaust heating,
the open hearth remained the main form of heating for many centuries
in both large and small buildings. The same plan was followed,
whether in the humblest of dwellings or the king's hall, with
a central fireplace in the hall or main living space, the smoke
dissipating through thatch or louvres. For centuries, this traditional
arrangement dictated the form of many buildings and dictated an
open hall plan. In some parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland,
the open hearth continued to be used well into the 19th century.The distinctive
upright hearthstones of Welsh longhouses (against which the fire
was built and which retained heat like an iron fireback) can still
be found in many ruinous upland houses.
The development of chimneys
has often been seen as a technological step forward, but chimneys
survive in profusion from at least the 12th century onwards. Their
use was, however, originally restricted to kitchens and to the
private apartments of high status dwellings. Indeed, it is arguable
that in many cases the retention of open fireplaces may have been
more due to tradition or familiarity than any practical or economic
In an early building which may once have had an open hall,
evidence of its original form is most likely to be found in its
roof timbers. In a hall which is open from floor to rafters, these
timbers would have been designed to be seen, and care will be
evident in the shape of the timbers and the form of the structure. Smoke blackened
timbers are often used as evidence of an open fire, but accidental
fires and exposure to the elements may create the same effect
on the timbers. Equally, there are many examples of great halls
which are known to have had open fires but in which the timbers
do not appear to be blackened. In one case recently surveyed,
a remarkable early 16th century house at Dunsley Hall, Kinver,
Staffordshire, it seems that plans were changed mid-construction,
and floors, ceilings and chimneys were inserted into the still
unfinished open hall. The chimneys were built with partially offset
and curved stacks in order to fit with the newly-made roof structure.
BAYS AND EARLY CHIMNEYS
cost of a masonry chimney was considerable in the late middle
ages and the early modern period, and other approaches were adopted
to encourage smoke to vent. Many houses, both large and small,
had either smoke bays or smoke hoods, which were frequently (and
often hazardously) made of timber. These were designed to allow
some draw, to dissipate the smoke faster than would an open fire.
Often smoke bays are found to have a later chimney placed within
By the middle of the 16th century, masonry chimneys and
fireplaces were replacing open fires in many parts of the country
to allow the insertion of upper floors above the main living space. A great
many former open halls had floors inserted, a change which led
to a now familiar layout of rooms, with reception rooms on the
ground floor and sleeping accommodation on the floors above. The wide-scale
adoption of this basic pattern was the most significant development
in this period.
By the 17th century, the chimney had become such
an important feature that houses were frequently built around
the chimney and the central stack often acted as the main supporting
structure for one or more dwellings. These stone or brick stacks
usually had a main fireplace (or back-to-back fireplaces) on the
ground floor and ancillary fireplaces above. Often the largest
fireplaces were the most simple, with a timber lintel fronting
a large opening (the so called 'inglenook' beloved of estate agents).
These large domestic fireplaces may have had ovens to the side,
built-in seats or cupboards, and the remains of iron jacks, pot
cranes or hooks can still sometimes be found. Such surviving fittings are
important since they may be all that remains of the complex equipment
needed to cook on an open fire.
In larger, early-modern houses,
it is possible to find flues and fires associated with boilers,
charcoal ranges and laundries, and it should not be presumed that
all fireplaces were for heating rooms. When looking
at fireplaces, it is important to remember that even until recent
times, not all rooms were heated. In many medieval houses, heating
was restricted to the main rooms, although chafing dishes (charcoal
burners) and small braziers may have provided some heat elsewhere.
Fuel could be expensive, so the use of fires was restricted even
in the greatest houses.
|The fireplace in the Edwardian tea rooms at Arnotts Department Store, Dundee fits into an elaborate and ornate room scheme.
larger houses and inns it is sometimes possible to find the remains
of spit-jacks powered by hand or even by the heat of the fire.
It must be remembered, however, that roasting was very much the
exception rather than the norm and that this was a skilled, labour-intensive and expensive process.
Despite the colourful assurances
of guidebooks, spits were never powered by small dogs. There is
one humorous 18th century print showing a dog in a cage powering
a spit, but it appears that the joke was lost on later antiquaries,
who upon finding parts of roasting equipment, presumed them to
be the remains of 'dog jacks'!
In 18th and 19th century buildings,
there can be a profusion of fireplaces, flues, soot boxes and
small grates. This lavish
use of heating was partly due to the relative cheapness, efficiency
and availability of coal. This, combined with developments in
iron grates and flues (particularly the work of Count Rumford),
did much to combat smoky fires while allowing heat to radiate
into the room. During this period, a great many large earlier
fireplaces were partially blocked and smaller, more efficient grates,
inserted. This has happened in the author's own house; half of
the chimney remained in use, the other half had a door knocked
into the rear of the chimney, a barrel vault inserted above and
the space converted into a (rather warm) pantry.
Small iron grates
can often be found in locations such as greenhouses, sheds and
stable tack rooms, yet still many working class bedrooms remained unheated
during this period. At Hardwick Hall, AOC Archaeology Group recently
found a typical small domestic grate within five feet of the estate
blacksmith's forge. Assuming that extra heat was not required
in a working forge, the grate must have served some other function, such as making tea. Iron stoves from the same period are
frequently seen on old drawings and photographs but now rarely
survive. As these often either had their own stovepipes or were
vented into a shared chimney, the only remains may be tiled floor
areas, blocked circular holes in roofs or blocked iron pipes on
Just as the
small iron grates and improved flues of the 18th and 19th centuries
revolutionised the heating of domestic spaces, the introduction
of iron cooking ranges radically changed the way food was cooked.
Ranges allowed a fire to be kept burning for long periods at maximum
efficiency. They also gave the cook access to a warming plate,
open fire, hot water and an oven, all in one location and with
one heat source.
Due to rapid 20th century developments in gas
and electric cooking equipment, few iron ranges now remain. The
most likely location to find a well-preserved range is a disused
cellar or basement, in what would once have been part of a kitchen.
Even the humblest houses may have had small ranges and these occasionally
survive. At a ruinous row of workers cottages in Henley (Oxfordshire),
AOC Archaeology Group recently recorded several small ranges that
had survived because they were hidden by ivy and rubble. At Logie
Schoolhouse (Aberdeenshire), the tiny, two-room, mud-walled teacher's
dwelling has two intact and fairly elaborate miniature ranges.
While it is
essential to understand the architectural and stylistic origins
of fireplaces and chimneys, detailed archaeological examination
allows us to understand their often-complex stratigraphy. Archaeologists
now frequently use 3D laser scanning equipment to record and help
us interpret complex masonry such as chimneys. For the first time,
this also allows us to examine and record areas that may be inaccessible
or even unsafe. This new technology when combined with traditional
archaeological techniques can reveal a great deal about the development
and history of a house.
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2007
MSt (Oxford), AIFA, IHBC is head of the Historic Buildings
Recording unit at AOC Archaeology and is based in the West
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