Coal fires in the mining villages of North West Durham
This feature length piece by local history writer Mike Bowden takes a look into the past and the importance of a coal fire.
The warm cosy glow of a coal fire, you can’t beat it can you? On a cold dark night, with the curtains closed and the fire blazing away, it’s a picture of peace and tranquillity. Even now people talk about how wonderful it must have been to have an open fire, a living flame. Many of us remember coal fires, and it’s nice to recall the golden memories, of sitting by a blazing fire, and toasting bread on the prongs of a homemade toasting fork. Of course the bread was nearly always homemade as well, baked on the range beside the grate. You can almost smell the coal and the yeast, as the fire warms your face along with the toast, bliss perfect bliss.
Now, back to reality, all of you who remember coal fires, also know that they didn’t turn on by themselves, did they? A lot of work was needed to maintain a coal fire, and it started with the main ingredient which was coal, black and very dirty. If you were a mining family, then you had a coal allowance which was delivered every six weeks to your door. One ton of the stuff was dropped outside the coalhouse, not in bags mind you, just loose, straight off the back of the coal wagon. The first job to be carried out was to get the coal inside the coalhouse, and to do this it had to be thrown through a two foot square hatch, using a long handled shovel .A ton of coal takes a long time to move using a shovel, it was back breaking work but it had to be done.
So that the coal didn’t fall out every time the coalhouse door was opened from the yard side, planks of wood were slotted into grooves, and could be removed as the coal level went down, as it was used. The next ingredient required was kindling, to allow the coal to reach a temperature where it would burn.
Mining families were lucky in this respect, as there were always plenty of old pit props around at the pit yard, broken and bent from the rock falls underground. Already as dry as sticks, they made excellent firewood .
We now move on to the job of chopping sticks. Once the pit prop had been sawn into roughly nine inch lengths, an ideal size to fit in the fire grate, it could then be chopped into sticks. This task required a certain amount of skill, and was usually carried out when you had reached your teenage years, and had been properly trained by your father. Sorry ladies, but in those days women weren’t allowed to do this job. A lot of accidents happened chopping sticks, if you missed, you could lose a finger or end up with a nasty gash in the leg, and who knows what damage could happen if the axe shot out your hand, when it was raised for the down stroke, that’s why it was always best to spit on your hands first. With practice, the short handled axe could turn a section of pit prop into sticks in a couple of minutes.
These jobs were carried out once every six weeks or so, the rest of the preparation work was carried out every day that the fire was lit, which included summer time, as heat was needed for washing, cooking and very importantly, the pitman’s daily bath. Before the fire could be laid, the remains of the last fire had to be removed. The ashes under the grate had to be cleared out and spread on the garden path, and then the clinkers in the fire itself were carefully removed, as they could be put back once the fire was lit. Clinkers were the left over bits of coal that had cooled down.
Once the grate was emptied and swept, screwed up sheets of newspaper were laid in the bottom Sticks were then laid criss cross fashion on top. Next was the coal, which was carefully spaced so that there was enough room for air to circulate, but close enough to allow the temperature to rise for the coal to burn. Everything had to be just right, or you would end up with blazing paper and sticks, then the whole lot would fizzle out. If the wind outside was strong, then the damper would be closed, this was a metal plate in the chimney that was pulled shut, using an iron rod with a hook on the end. When everything was ready and double checked, it was time to light the fire.
After striking the match, three points along the front of the grate were lit, and then the match thrown into the centre, before you ended up with singed fingers. Now came the crucial part, at the front of the grate was a slide that allowed you to adjust the air flow as the fire started to burn, if you got it right, then the fire would catch, and with practice you rarely got it wrong. So now the fire was starting to smoulder, the flames were setting the sticks alight. The colour was right, as the flames were a golden yellow and starting to curl around the coal, a hint of a reddish glow and at last the fire started burning merrily. The room would begin to smell of wood smoke and burning coal. Next it was time to open the damper using the iron rod, once opened, the fire should start to draw, if it didn’t then the bleazer, a square of steel with a handle on it, was placed in front of the fire so that the air was drawn from below the grate underneath. Once the fire had caught it would start burning away steadily, easy wasn’t it?
Almost every day the fire had to be lit, the first job almost every morning of the year, in the middle of winter as well, and that was without central heating. The coal fire was the heart of the home, without it there would be no heat, hot water or hot food, it’s not surprising that we get sentimental about it. Right, the fire was blazing away, the room would be warm in about an hours time, as long as the fire was kept going with fuel. But a word of caution, too much fuel and the chimney could catch fire very easily. It was a scary sight to see flames shooting out of the top of someone’s chimney, the fire engine racing up the street with it’s bell clanging, and what a mess afterwards, soot and water everywhere inside the house. On the hearth there was a galvanised bucket, full of coal to keep the fire topped up, but it had to be constantly filled, which was a real chore in the middle of winter, as you had to go outside to the coalhouse. The fire also needed regular attention , an occasional re-arranging of the coal with a poker was required to keep the air circulating.
The washing done, the tea made, that was the evening meal by the way, not a cuppa. Everyone had settled down for the night. Home made pies were sitting on the range alongside a cast iron pot filled with mushy peas, and the plates were warming up nicely. Suddenly, a gust of wind would cause a backdraught down the chimney. The room would fill with smoke, and coal smuts, little bits of soot and ash, whichfloated in the air, and settled on anything and anyone. The pies would be covered witha fine dusting of black soot, but that was easily brushed off. Sometimes there would be a loud crack, and a tiny piece of hot coal would fly out of the grate onto the clippie mat. It was always found easily enough, because a thin spiral of smoke would wind its way lazily into the air, as the mat threatened to catch fire.
The heat that a coal fire put out was different to central heating, you either warmed your front or your back, and you had to be pretty close to the fire to feel the benefit. It was direct heat, and once out of the immediate vicinity of the fire the temperature would drop rapidly, especially in cold weather. But all in all, it was a lot more interesting than pressing a switch or turning a knob. It was hard work, and personally I had forgotten how hard it was, but I think for anyone who has lived with a coal fire, there will always be special memories of being snuggled around the blazing fire, and then watching as the coals turn red, then golden, as they finally begin to die down for the night. A unique, and never to be forgotten, memory of our past.