Life B.C. (Before Central Heating)

At the risk of forever alienating my few followers by overdoing the nostalgia, I have to confess that being without central heating has led to a certain amount of rambling  and reminiscencing about the “good old days”. That was when it was said of the English that we had open fires and rheumatism.

In our house, we had a coal-burning fireplace in the living room with a back boiler behind it. Whenever we needed hot water for a bath, we made a roaring fire to heat the water, even in summer. That was posh compared to the central heating sales manager who came yesterday to give us an estimate for our new boiler, and was looking back to his childhood, sharing the water in a tin bath in front of the fire with three brothers. And that was in the sixties! For us, the installation of an immersion heater in the mid-fifties was a major step forward.

In addition to the coal fire in the living room, we had a gas fire in the front room and there were small fireplaces in the two double bedrooms, where a coal fire was lit if one of us was ill in bed in winter. In the bathroom we had a cylindrical paraffin-burning stove, surely a fire hazard that would never be tolerated nowadays. You had to be extremely careful manoeuvring around it, especially getting in and out of the bath, as it could be very painful against a bare bum!  It was replaced by a wall-hung infrared electric heater installed around the same time as the immersion heater, a much safer and more convenient option.

The kitchen was hot whenever my mother was cooking or washing using the gas-fired tub, but with single glazing everywhere and gaps under doors, there was an icy blast from the front door down the hallway which met in the kitchen with its counterpart coming in under the back door, located directly opposite. When it became really cold outside in the 1940’s and 50’s, a thick woollen curtain was hung behind the front door and another one over the living room door, which did reduce some of the draughts.

Those were the mornings when we awoke to beautiful ferny patterns on the windowpanes, attributed to Jack Frost, a pleasure mostly denied to us nowadays. There was also a steady stream of condensation running down the windowpanes during the day when the rooms were heated.

Coal fires were wonderful for making toast on the end of a toasting fork, when the flames had died down and there was a rich red glow. The toast and pikelets (crumpets) tasted better, too. You could sit and dream, seeing all kinds of pictures in the fire, and it gave off a cosy glow when there was a power cut and the lights went out. They weren’t so romantic in the early morning when you had to clear out the cold ashes and carry in a fresh load of coal from the coalhouse outside, a dirty, messy job at any time but worse when temperatures fell below freezing.

Central heating came as a great boon: no longer did we have to dash from an overheated room into a freezing cold passage, the British equivalent of sauna and ice-tub, but could enjoy a steady temperature throughout the house. We will be very grateful when the new boiler has been installed, and we are back in the 21st century!

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3 thoughts on “Life B.C. (Before Central Heating)

  1. As a child, I don’t remember being aware that Granny’s house was ever cold, although as a teenager (and still B.C.!) I suppose wanting to be in an upstairs room listening to music was a bit chilly… it was always assumed that everyone was together in the warm living room, no doubt. Thinking about it, I do remember pyjamas/nighties being warmed up before going up to bed, so it must have been cooler! An ignorant teenager, I didn’t see what was so special about central heating being installed – I’m sure I took it very much for granted in Switzerland and the cold Friday nights at the chalet with fondue/raclette were part of being in the mountains LOL
    No wonder it’s always too warm for jumpers in our Swiss homes!

  2. Children accept what they are used to as being the norm, I think – it was cold but we did wear a lot more clothes when I was little: a woollen vest, liberty bodice, full-length winceyette underskirt and warm knickers with legs, a blouse or jumper with a cardigan, a woollen skirt, and though we didn’t have tights, we wore long stockings or knee-length woollen socks. There was always a bit of bare thigh, now I think of it!

  3. Pingback: Jack Frost Was Here | catterel

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