Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[2] Coal Fires


[2] Fire, Smoke, Coal and Gulls

I have decided not to attempt any logical order for these blogs, resisting the temptation to be logical or sensible. Inspired by the current cold weather, after a great deal of consideration, I have decided to consider how we coped with winter. I have thrown away, for the time being, my carefully crafted overview intended as a general introduction. But before I continue, readers born in the last forty years will need two quick reminders.

Health and Safety; Conservation and Recycling

Just ignore these topics. Assume that we never thought of the possibility of accidents, and we cared not for future generations. Both are, of course over-simplifications. But we certainly did get up every morning without writing a risk management plan to cover all possibilities. And we assumed that life would go on as it was or just getting easier and better.

You will find us burning coal without thought of accidental fire, or the hazards of smoke or coal dust, and without a care about depleted carbon resources or atmospheric carbon dioxide. Young children ventured on to the streets alone, without worries of traffic or crime. You will spot other examples in this and subsequent blogs.

Measurements and Money

We have a few references to old units with us still and you may still understand feet and yards, perhaps even inches. We buy petrol for our cars in litres but still stick to miles per gallon! We use metric units more and more and are familiar with decimal currency.

Back in the fifties, even a child of six or seven coped with all the non-metric units. We knew that there were sixteen ounces in a pound, fourteen pounds in a stone and eight stones in a hundredweight. So a hundredweight was 112 pounds (about fifty kg. Well done if you worked that out. No prizes for those old enough to remember.)

We also knew that there were four farthings to a penny, twelve pence to a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound. So we knew that £9:19s 11¾d was a thinly disguised £10. Without computers or even calculators, shopkeepers did all their sums by mental arithmetic.


I will leave for now the subject of coal mining in Britain and take up the story with how coal was delivered to our homes. Be ready to spot health and safety issues and non-metric units.

Some of my readers may not even know what coal was like. It was not the clean carefully packed product now sold in bags at petrol service stations. It was a dirty and dusty product sold loose from coal merchants. It burned to produce a thick, dark smoke, which could spread everywhere and contributed to frequent widespread smog. It was extracted from hundreds of mines in England and Wales and it was the main fuel for heating houses and producing electricity.

For the final stage of delivery to houses, it came in hundredweight bags brought to us in open topped lorries. We all had a coal bunker in the back garden large enough to hold a ton or two of coal. (That’s a ton, twenty hundredweights, not a tonne but quite close.) The men who delivered it carried these bags one at a time on their backs and emptied them into the bunker. Coal was an amorphous substance coming in pieces of varying sizes with fine powdery coal dust at the bottom of each bag. Some of this dust would fall. Wind and air currents which inevitably spread it around the house and garden.

Coal Fires

I remember at about nine or ten, at school, being given the exercise of writing down familiar routine actions, to teach us how to think clearly about things that were so automatic that we did them almost without thinking. One example was tying shoelaces. We did that every day but you had to actually do it to recall it in words.

Another example was laying and lighting a fire. My point is that we knew how to do it because we actually did it. The fire went out overnight and needed a new start every day. We had a coal fire in the main living room that was almost our only source of heat. With six children in the family, we all helped with some domestic tasks and this was one. It was easy enough or a small child. I can’t say when I first did it but it was a familiar task at age eight.

The worst bit was clearing out the dusty ashes and taking them outside to the dustbin. Precursors to the variously coloured wheelie bins of today, dustbins at first were aptly named because they were filled with dust and ashes from coal fires. Most of the time we didn’t need them for anything else. Food waste was composted and just about everything else was burnt. Every week the dustbin was filled with the ashes of burnt coal fires.

Yesterday’s newspapers were an essential part of the process of laying the fire. Scrunched up in small balls, the pages made the first layer. Next was wood in suitable small pieces, arranged in a criss-cross pattern. We got our wood from the basket-like wooden boxes in which vegetables were sold. Finally came the coal, all carefully laid to leave the paper accessible below. If it was done properly, it just needed one match on the paper to get things going. The paper and wood did not last long. Soon we had a nice roaring coal fire that would last all day – topped up with continued coal brought in from the bunker outside.

In the early 1950s, a single coal fire, relit every day, warmed the only heated room of the house. So we lived in the living room. In winter, we spent as little time as possible in the cold rooms upstairs.

Smoke and Dust

As I said earlier, the smoke and dust from coal fires spread everywhere in the house, in almost every house. Apart from the health aspects of inhaling the dust and chemicals (which was significant to those who worked in coalmines), the widespread smoke from chimneys was one of the causes of frequent polluted fogs called smog. Coal was also used widely in industry, especially the production of electricity.

Smogs lasted all day, sometimes for several days, where visibility was measured in feet. You could feel the dust in the air. If the fog thickened in winter days we still had to walk home on our own. School would close half an hour early so that we would find our way back home easily before dark.


I have used Wikipedia to find the date, 1956, of the first Clean Air Act in the UK, passed in response to London’s Great Smog of 1952. It was sponsored by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in England and the Department of Health for Scotland.

The Act introduced a number of measures to reduce air pollution, especially by introducing ‘smoke control areas’ in some towns and cities in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. It was the beginning of a process which gradually extended controls over the type of fuel burned to the whole country, reducing the amount of smoke pollution and sulphur dioxide. This Act was one of the first significant Acts in the development of a legal framework to protect the environment.

Across the country homes moved to burning a substance called ‘coke’, nothing to do with either cocaine or fizzy drinks! Coke was produced by heating coal to extract the gas that powered out gas ovens (of which, perhaps, more in another blog). Coke was more expensive than coal but it was cleaner and produced much less smoke. Later still other ‘smokeless’ versions of coal were produced. We changed from coal merchants and coal bunkers to bags of just a few pounds of coal cleanly and neatly packaged for easy use and available from petrol service stations.

Over the years open fires disappeared almost everywhere. Those that are left mostly burn logs instead of coal. Chimneys are becoming a sign of the past.



There was another unanticipated effect from the Clean Air Act and subsequent changes. We stopped burning rubbish and moved to landfill. Vast open areas of landfill rubbish including food waste attracted scavengers, including gulls.

In the fifties gulls were called seagulls and you found them by the coast. They were sea birds. In periods of actual or expected bad weather, they congregated on open fields inland. Now they are to be found everywhere inland. In towns and cities, flat-topped office buildings provide them with a habitat for breeding.


For the main two species at least, Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, there are now more birds inland in the UK than at our coasts and on surrounding waters! They have adapted their behaviour.


Well I didn’t get time to say much about winter. Maybe next time …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

8 thoughts on “[2] Coal Fires

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