‘He is like a Refiner’s fire and He shall Purify’
In spite of the title, taken from the words of Handel’s Messiah, this blog has nothing to with religion. To complete my three part blog about winter I need to start with a lesson in physical chemistry and a bit of history. I warned you that I may stray off subject a bit!
Fractional Distillation of Oil
You may know something of the production of petrol. [For US readers, gasoline or gas.] It starts with what comes out of the ground, in the Middle East or Texas or elsewhere – a thick, black, unpleasant smelling mixture called crude oil. [Petroleum]
It is refined and purified by fractional distillation. Hence the title! It is heated in the absence of air so it doesn’t burn, and separates into a number of substances. The only two we are interested in are the main component petrol [gasoline] and a similar, inflammable [flammable] liquid called paraffin [kerosene]. More of these later.
For those who wonder why crude oil is measured in barrels, the unit comes from early oil fields in Pennsylvania. Standardized in 1866 at 42 US gallons, (very close to 35 UK gallons) it was chosen to allow the British and Americans to use the same unit. To the British it was a tierce, a measure used for wine. Oil has not physically been shipped in barrels since the late Nineteenth Century but production is still quoted in barrels, more often millions of barrels.
Less familiar than oil, there is a similar process with coal. (Don’t worry. There won’t be a test later. I am just getting in some definitions to help you.) If you heat coal with air around, it burns, producing lots of smoke. If you heat it without air, it separates, just like the fractional distillation of oil, into lots of substances, solids, liquids and gasses. We are concerned with two products. Coke was the solid residue, a hard, porous, darker grey substance, not as black as coal but and much cleaner. The gas is called ‘coal gas’, sometimes ‘town gas’, although at the time we called it just ‘gas’. (Nothing to do with gasoline!)
Before I come back to heating in houses, we need a brief look at the history of coal production. The National Coal Board (NCB) was set up just after the Second World War to manage all the coalmines in England and Wales. There were over 950 of them! It was a major industry and there were areas of both England and Wales where almost everyone worked in the mines. British coal was produced in large quantities.
We have already seen the use of coal in coal fires. It was a major source of heat in houses. We produced coal in Britain for use in coal fires; but also for the production of coke and gas (as described above); and to produce electricity. We will come to gas and electric heating in a minute but the gas was really produced primarily for cooking. Virtually all cooking was done on a gas oven. (We didn’t call them ‘cookers’ or use posh words like ‘hob.’)
Shown here is a gasometer, a device for holding and storing gas. As more gas is produced, the inner cylinder can rise in the outer structure to hold larger a volume of gas.
Ok, we have enough background information, so let’s look again at home life in the fifties! In our house our only source of heat was the fire in the living room. This was true for probably 95% of winter days for us, but not completely accurate. There were other sources, only for very cold days and nights, for emergency use.
There were electric fires, small and portable. What you saw was one or two bars of metal, which were heated to red heat, not the pretty things we have now looking like coal fires. We did use these occasionally, never for more than an hour or two. They were considered expensive in their use of electricity. We used electricity almost entirely for lighting. Using a small electric fire for an hour was comparable to lighting by electricity for a week. (Electric ovens were only for the rich.)
Much the same was true of gas fires. They were small, fairly portable and relatively expensive. (You could have two or more gas supply pipes. You would move the fire, connect it and turn on the gas.) Some houses without coal fires used gas fires. Neither of these types of fire would have been acceptable now with our accent on ‘Health and Safety’ checks everywhere. Gas very easily forms an explosive mixture with air!
What we did have was a paraffin heater and this may be more difficult to explain. Paraffin [kerosene] was used originally for hand-held lamps, replacing whale oil. It is now very similar to the jet fuel that keeps our planes in the air. That makes its use in homes a significant fire hazard.
A paraffin heater was really a larger version, cylindrical and about a metre high. The paraffin had to be poured in by hand. The heater itself was not easily portable. It was quite large and had to be moved in a way that avoided paraffin spillage.
In the cold winters of the fifties, where our houses had limited heating, we relied on the other method of providing warmth. We wore warmer clothing and slept in warmer beds. So the critical times when we considered additional heating were when we wore little – dressing and undressing, and baths.
The coal fire spread a little heat downstairs so we spent as little time as possible upstairs out of bed. My only real memories of heat to supplement our coal fire were from very occasional use of a paraffin heater. It would either be for a few minutes while we changed into our warm pyjamas, or for slightly longer in the bathroom. Having a bath was not a daily occurrence.
As I said, electricity was relatively cheap for lighting but heating was seen more as a luxury. We had an immersion heater in the water system and we hat hot water for part of each day. We certainly could not have hot water all day. Of course demand was less as we were not tempted to bath more often than once a week.
I have to admit that in the mid-fifties we did move to a more affluent house with its own water heater – a closed fire in a room by the kitchen, burning coal or coke for the whole day. So we had two relatively warm rooms. But still most of the downstairs was unheated, and upstairs was cold. In our cold bedrooms we always slept with the top window open for fresh air. Those top windows were always open. This is a habit that has stayed with me, but in very cold days and nights it does get closed now.
What Happened Later
British coal mining declined gradually from the 1950s with the famous Miners’ Strike in 1984, but the decline continued after that. There are now just three deep pit mines in England, with a few opencast mines in England and Wales. Just as the production of coal has fallen so has its use in the production of electric power – but it is still a significant source.
In the 1960s, large reserves of Natural Gas in the North Sea led to the end of the use of town gas for heating and cooking. Every gas appliance in the country, including ovens and gas fires, was converted free by the government to allow the conversion. Natural Gas is now a major source of electric power.
Having considered winter, it may be time to say something about Christmas next …