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Keeping warm the Victorian way


Pair of Bellows 1825-1875, E. Perry & Co. LP4

Do you have a coal fire in your house?  Do you light it everyday? 

Until quite recently, coal fires were the only form of heating for most homes and would have been lit every day, often by one of the children before they went off to school or work.

Each morning the grates had to be cleaned out, and the fire ‘laid’, usually with pieces of rolled up newspaper which had small pieces of wood known as kindling laid on top with the coal going on top of that.  The wood had to be chopped small and the coal had to be fetched from the coal house outside.  The fire would be lit and then more small pieces of coal added until the fire was burning brightly, when larger pieces of coal could be added.

Sometimes the paper or wood was damp, or the wind blew down the chimney, and the fire would not burn properly. This was when the bellows came in useful.  Most Victorian homes kept a small ornamental but working pair of bellows on the hearth. The metal end would be placed at the bottom of the grate and the bellows opened and closed to create a current of air under the fire, which would help it to burn up more quickly.

Spill Jars

Pair of Spill Vases 1880-1890, decorated with Japanese Figures LP3

Even the kitchen had a fire, and more modern households had a range: a closed stove containing a fire on one side and ovens on the other.  The kitchen fire or range was the most important one because it was the only way to boil water for tea or to cook food.

Over the kitchen fireplace there would usually be a mantelpiece; a long shelf wide enough to hold a lamp and other useful things.  There was almost always a spill vase up there, which was quite important.   Matches were expensive, so small pieces of old newspaper would be tightly rolled up, kept in the spill jar and used for taking a light from the fire. 

The spill vases shown here would have been at home in a comfortable Victorian parlour.   They are japanned ware transfer printed with delicate Japanese-style designs, although they look as if they come from Asia they were actually made in England, quite probably in the Black Country.

The spills would be used to light the candles at night, to light fires in other rooms, for the men to light their pipes, even, once gas came in later, to light the gas stove or the gas lamps. 

I can remember as a child being given the task of tearing newspaper into neat squares and carefully rolling them tightly to make spills.  Quite often it was a job for wet Sunday afternoons.  Have you ever done this, or does anyone in your family remember doing this?  


Shirley Spaulding DeVoe, Papier Mâché of the Georgian & Victorian periods

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