It’s getting really quite chilly now, so when we come in out of the cold, we turn the fire on… When I was a child, which I guess is longer ago than I realise, there was no such thing as turning on a fire – you made a fire. It wasn’t an instant thing to do so the fire was generally made in the morning if we were going to be home all day and it was especially cold, or in the afternoon if we were busy in the morning and kept warm because of that, or when we all came home from school or work in the evening.
We lived in a two bedroom flat; we had a coal fire in the sitting room, a paraffin heater in the T-shaped corridor which led down to my sister and my bedroom one way, and two my parents bedroom the other way. Did we have heaters in the bedroom? I don’t remember so, we just took hot rubber water bottles to bed. There was no heating in the bathroom, but of course there was the gas cooker in the kitchen. I guess we were sometimes cold, but we just put extra clothes on.
The coal for the fire was delivered by the coal-man, and i think he had a lorry; the milkman had a horse and milk float, but I think the coal came on a flatbed lorry. The coal-man always had a leather garment, like a back to front apron over his shoulder, because he would heave the sacks off the lorry, sling them on his shoulder and carry them round to the coal bunker at the back of the house. It was a double bunker, one for each flat; Aunty Gladys who lived upstairs and owned the property always had coke – I don’t know why. Was it more efficient and therefore more expensive? I have no idea.
We had a tiled fireplace, a beigey-browny-pinky-orangey colour. On the side were the fire irons, poker, tongs and a long handled shovel rather like a child’s seaside spade. We also had a brass coal scuttle. To make the fire the ashes from the previous day which were still in the grate had to be poked so all the dust fell through and any burnable bits of cinder kept. The ashes were then shovelled out and everything brushed and swept into a pan.
In our house we just used scrumpled up newspaper, but I know my uncle used to make spills by twisting it up, and other people had different methods, but we just used old newspaper pages screwed into a loose ball. Firewood was arranged in a lattice on top and then the paper was set alight. Once the wood had caught, then little bits of coal could be put on, gradually feeding the flames until there was an an actual fire. If it was a little slow and not drawing properly a page of newspaper was held across the fireplace to create a draft and get it all going. If you weren’t careful sometimes the sheet would catch fire which was quite exciting and you had to do it again.
Once it was lit the fire guard was put across – not just to keep us children safe, but to protect the hearth rug from sparks spitting out. The fire needed to be fed at regular intervals, but we kept it quite low to be economical during the day, it was only in the evening when we were sitting around, us children reading, playing board games maybe, parents doing the same, with the radio on pretty much all the time, that the fire was built up to throw out more heat. As the evening drew to a close, the fire was allowed to settle down. I guess because it was so small it didn’t often last through to the morning, but if it did and it was going to going during the day, it saved all the procedure of making.
It needed more planning, more cleaning, but it really was nicer than “turning on” the fire!
My featured image is of a bonfire… now making a bonfire, that’s a whole different thing!