Memories – the Coal Shed

Outside our front door, in Market Square Poplar in an inspired piece of 1950 architecture stood our coal shed.  The coal man would have to haul bags of coal (one bag at a time) up the stairs and into our shed.  We would then remove a bucketful and when winter seemed exceptionally cold light a fire in our front room.  We had a grate and black fireguard, for safety’s sake, and every Christmas at this time we would burn our Christmas tree after twelfth night.  The whole house then smelt of burning fir needles.

The door of the coal shed was painted a sickly shade of green. Funny how the London County Council seemed to specialise in choosing ugly paint colours for their houses.  Pretty colours cost the same.

To supplement the heat from the coal fire in the living room we bought a paraffin stove.  Paraffin was the cheapest form of heating.  We bought a metal gallon can, and every week or so took it to the hardware shop.  For two shillings we would have enough paraffin to keep the hall and stairs warm in the coldest winters, at least until it was time to go to bed.  Then the paraffin stove would be turned off.

After a while I was trusted to get the paraffin all alone. Clutching the two shillings in one hand and the empty gallon can in the other I would run to the hardware shop.  There I would watch the man measure the paraffin carefully, and put the top back on the can tightly.  At home Mummy would take out her metal funnel and make sure the stove was properly cold. If it was she filled it up, and lit it.

We were not allowed to run around the hall while the stove was “burning”. We were not allowed to move it.

Gradually as we prospered we could afford to replace the coal fires with electric bar heaters, and then we even got convection heaters for the bedroom. The coal shed was removed of every vestige of coal and used to store deck chairs and toys.  But right until in the time we left every winter hummed to the warmth of the paraffin heater that idled warmly in our hall, making our bodies comfortable.

“Boom boom boom boom, Esso Blue!”

As you went in the front door you smelt the faint odour of paraffin. If you looked at the dark metal stove (de luxe version-everything we bought was the de luxe version) you could see the light blue paraffin flame.

Every night the stove was turned off.  Carefully. It was dangerous to leave it on all night, as well as being very wasteful.

In the morning the stove was cold, and condensation filled the house. Some of the condensation was from the stove.  Other condensation from our breathing in the night.  The kitchen and bedroom windows were, except in the hottest weather, covered in the dew that we create when we sleep.  The windows were metal framed, and the thin pane of glass captured the moisture.  Some mornings we wiped the water off of the glass with a rag. It was unhealthy to leave it there, we were told.

We bought a three bar electric fire.  It was very wasteful of heat.  It replaced our coal fire.  It had rather a foolish artificial coal effect fire, created by a red bulb covered by a black plastic lump of plastic that was supposed to look like coal.   Above the red bulb, generally hidden by the plastic coal there was suspended a fan.  As the air was heated by the red bulb, the fan was supposed to rotate causing black and red shadows to appear.  This was supposed to give the impression of a coal fire flickering in the grate.

I thought this an amateurish arrangement. I always held such fires in contempt.  Many years later I saw a really expensive fire with bars and coal effect.  I did not realise how nice they could look. This one, in a lawyer’s office, was well made and nothing like ours. Yet I could not get out of my head that this type of fire was wrong, and for poor people, and not for the wealthy.

I tried to touch the fire When I was sent to turn it on I tried to see if I could touch a bar before it became red hot.  I was not stupid.  I knew that I could not touch it when it was red hot. I would burn my finger.

Little fingers, poking through the bars in the fire to touch the electric element.  Three times, four times I managed to touch it before it became red hot.  One day playing my game I felt a strong electric shock.  It hurt.  Do not tell Mummy. She would be cross and tell me off. Wait. the pain would go away.  It did.

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