Fireplaces, Stoves and Chimneys

Edmund Simons

Fireplaces and their chimneys may reveal a great deal about historic houses; they can show how buildings were used and how they have changed and developed over time. They can also be some of the most striking and architecturally important elements of a house, because new technologies and, more often, the dictates of changing tastes, were reflected in radical changes to fire surrounds. However, the stylistic development of fireplaces has been well described elsewhere. This article focuses on the development of fire provision in domestic houses and details how evidence of earlier examples may survive in the archaeological record.

Adapted fireplace at Grange Farm, Coven, South Staffs
At Grange Farm, Coven, South Staffs a typical large fireplace had been partially blocked and made smaller in the 19th century. Unusually, the frame of what is probably an earlier smoke bay has been used as a lintel for this first floor fireplace.
Small range and grate at Fala, Midlothian
A small range and grate at Fala, Midlothian. Fittings such as the small fireguard are often lost and few such ranges survive in such good condition.


The earliest hearths retained the fire in a shallow pit or circle of stones. Such structures have been excavated in sites dating from the Palaeolithic onwards and can be found in caves, open campsites and early buildings. Indeed, the earliest known house in Scotland, discovered by AOC Archaeology Group at Dunbar and dated to 8000 BC, had such a hearth at the centre of the circular Mesolithic dwelling. AOC has also recorded later Neolithic houses at Skara Brae in Orkney, where the fires were contained in small box-like structures constructed using flat stones. Beautiful iron firedogs dating from the Iron Age attest that even seemingly simple early hearths may have been more complex than is usually apparent.

Despite Roman innovations such as flue tiles and under-floor hypocaust heating, the open hearth remained the main form of heating for many centuries in both large and small buildings. The same plan was followed, whether in the humblest of dwellings or the king's hall, with a central fireplace in the hall or main living space, the smoke dissipating through thatch or louvres. For centuries, this traditional arrangement dictated the form of many buildings and dictated an open hall plan. In some parts of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the open hearth continued to be used well into the 19th century. The distinctive upright hearthstones of Welsh longhouses (against which the fire was built and which retained heat like an iron fireback) can still be found in many ruinous upland houses.

The development of chimneys has often been seen as a technological step forward, but chimneys survive in profusion from at least the 12th century onwards. Their use was, however, originally restricted to kitchens and to the private apartments of high status dwellings. Indeed, it is arguable that in many cases the retention of open fireplaces may have been more due to tradition or familiarity than any practical or economic need.

In an early building which may once have had an open hall, evidence of its original form is most likely to be found in its roof timbers. In a hall which is open from floor to rafters, these timbers would have been designed to be seen, and care will be evident in the shape of the timbers and the form of the structure. Smoke blackened timbers are often used as evidence of an open fire, but accidental fires and exposure to the elements may create the same effect on the timbers. Equally, there are many examples of great halls which are known to have had open fires but in which the timbers do not appear to be blackened. In one case recently surveyed, a remarkable early 16th century house at Dunsley Hall, Kinver, Staffordshire, it seems that plans were changed mid-construction, and floors, ceilings and chimneys were inserted into the still unfinished open hall. The chimneys were built with partially offset and curved stacks in order to fit with the newly-made roof structure.


The cost of a masonry chimney was considerable in the late middle ages and the early modern period, and other approaches were adopted to encourage smoke to vent. Many houses, both large and small, had either smoke bays or smoke hoods, which were frequently (and often hazardously) made of timber. These were designed to allow some draw, to dissipate the smoke faster than would an open fire. Often smoke bays are found to have a later chimney placed within them.

By the middle of the 16th century, masonry chimneys and fireplaces were replacing open fires in many parts of the country to allow the insertion of upper floors above the main living space. A great many former open halls had floors inserted, a change which led to a now familiar layout of rooms, with reception rooms on the ground floor and sleeping accommodation on the floors above. The wide-scale adoption of this basic pattern was the most significant development in this period.

By the 17th century, the chimney had become such an important feature that houses were frequently built around the chimney and the central stack often acted as the main supporting structure for one or more dwellings. These stone or brick stacks usually had a main fireplace (or back-to-back fireplaces) on the ground floor and ancillary fireplaces above. Often the largest fireplaces were the most simple, with a timber lintel fronting a large opening (the so called 'inglenook' beloved of estate agents). These large domestic fireplaces may have had ovens to the side, built-in seats or cupboards, and the remains of iron jacks, pot cranes or hooks can still sometimes be found. Such surviving fittings are important since they may be all that remains of the complex equipment needed to cook on an open fire.

In larger, early-modern houses, it is possible to find flues and fires associated with boilers, charcoal ranges and laundries, and it should not be presumed that all fireplaces were for heating rooms. When looking at fireplaces, it is important to remember that even until recent times, not all rooms were heated. In many medieval houses, heating was restricted to the main rooms, although chafing dishes (charcoal burners) and small braziers may have provided some heat elsewhere. Fuel could be expensive, so the use of fires was restricted even in the greatest houses.

Fireplace at Arnotts Department Store, Dundee
The fireplace in the Edwardian tea rooms at Arnotts Department Store, Dundee fits into an elaborate and ornate room scheme.


In larger houses and inns it is sometimes possible to find the remains of spit-jacks powered by hand or even by the heat of the fire. It must be remembered, however, that roasting was very much the exception rather than the norm and that this was a skilled, labour-intensive and expensive process.

Despite the colourful assurances of guidebooks, spits were never powered by small dogs. There is one humorous 18th century print showing a dog in a cage powering a spit, but it appears that the joke was lost on later antiquaries, who upon finding parts of roasting equipment, presumed them to be the remains of 'dog jacks'!

In 18th and 19th century buildings, there can be a profusion of fireplaces, flues, soot boxes and small grates. This lavish use of heating was partly due to the relative cheapness, efficiency and availability of coal. This, combined with developments in iron grates and flues (particularly the work of Count Rumford), did much to combat smoky fires while allowing heat to radiate into the room. During this period, a great many large earlier fireplaces were partially blocked and smaller, more efficient grates, inserted. This has happened in the author's own house; half of the chimney remained in use, the other half had a door knocked into the rear of the chimney, a barrel vault inserted above and the space converted into a (rather warm) pantry.

Small iron grates can often be found in locations such as greenhouses, sheds and stable tack rooms, yet still many working class bedrooms remained unheated during this period. At Hardwick Hall, AOC Archaeology Group recently found a typical small domestic grate within five feet of the estate blacksmith's forge. Assuming that extra heat was not required in a working forge, the grate must have served some other function, such as making tea. Iron stoves from the same period are frequently seen on old drawings and photographs but now rarely survive. As these often either had their own stovepipes or were vented into a shared chimney, the only remains may be tiled floor areas, blocked circular holes in roofs or blocked iron pipes on chimneybreasts.

Just as the small iron grates and improved flues of the 18th and 19th centuries revolutionised the heating of domestic spaces, the introduction of iron cooking ranges radically changed the way food was cooked. Ranges allowed a fire to be kept burning for long periods at maximum efficiency. They also gave the cook access to a warming plate, open fire, hot water and an oven, all in one location and with one heat source.

Due to rapid 20th century developments in gas and electric cooking equipment, few iron ranges now remain. The most likely location to find a well-preserved range is a disused cellar or basement, in what would once have been part of a kitchen. Even the humblest houses may have had small ranges and these occasionally survive. At a ruinous row of workers cottages in Henley (Oxfordshire), AOC Archaeology Group recently recorded several small ranges that had survived because they were hidden by ivy and rubble. At Logie Schoolhouse (Aberdeenshire), the tiny, two-room, mud-walled teacher's dwelling has two intact and fairly elaborate miniature ranges.

While it is essential to understand the architectural and stylistic origins of fireplaces and chimneys, detailed archaeological examination allows us to understand their often-complex stratigraphy. Archaeologists now frequently use 3D laser scanning equipment to record and help us interpret complex masonry such as chimneys. For the first time, this also allows us to examine and record areas that may be inaccessible or even unsafe. This new technology when combined with traditional archaeological techniques can reveal a great deal about the development and history of a house.



This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2007


EDMUND SIMONS MSt (Oxford), AIFA, IHBC is head of the Historic Buildings Recording unit at AOC Archaeology and is based in the West Midlands.



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