Mrs Turner who lived opposite us in Wolseley Street, and gave piano lessons, used to have the most spectacular chimney fires.
The belching black and grey smoke with orange and yellow sparks shooting up into the sky always put me in mind of the volcano shaped firework called Mount Vesuvius, which produced exactly the same effect, only Mrs Turner’s infernos were a hundred times more spectacular.
When the first cry of ‘Chimney afire’ rang out, groups of children would suddenly appear from the surrounding streets and hang around to see what was going to happen. There was always the chance a chimney stack would collapse due to the high temperatures generated, wooden joists near the fireplace might begin to smoulder, or the glowing lumps of soot which tumbled down into the room might set the place alight.
Time after time we waited with baited breath because any of those options meant calling the fire brigade, but luckily for Mrs Turner, although not for us, it never came to that.
Catching the chimney was easy enough to do even when you were just trying to light the fire. Often the wood was damp, or there wasn’t enough paper, so in order to get it going a fireguard was put in front of the fire and a piece of newspaper was spread over the fire guard with a space at the bottom to suck air in. It was very effective and would create an immediate roar of flames, but if you got distracted and forgot to take the newspaper away at precisely the right moment, the paper often burst into flames and had to be stamped out quickly. And leaving the flames shooting up the chimney just those few moments too long if it was full of soot at the end of winter, or you’d skipped its yearly clean, meant up she’d go.
Dad never bothered with newspaper. He had to leave for work really early and every morning before he left, lit the fire so that the house was warm when we got up. With a five mile bike ride in front of him, to save time he used an old bit of hardboard instead, but had to be really careful how long he left it there, because the roar of flames was muffled by the wood. Mum would have killed him if he’d caught the chimney; apart from having visions of us all being burnt in our beds, it made an awful mess.
Everyone knew what to do if it did go. First of all the fire in the grate had to be doused with a bucket of water. Then it needed a bucket of water balanced in the grate to catch lumps of burning soot. Finally whatever came to hand that was big enough such as a sheet or a large overcoat, had to be drenched in water and stuffed up the flu. In the meantime the house was full of acrid smoke, a thick layer of soot had coated everything, and streams of sooty, ashy water had pooled around the fireplace. It sound drastic, but tackling it yourself was important. Calling in the fire brigade was the last thing anyone wanted because they went on the roof and simply pumped water down the chimney. That could really wreck a house. And they charged for the privilege.
Our row of houses built in the 1880’s had a tiny front room, a middle room we called the kitchen which had a small range, and there was a brick floored scullery at the back. The scullery housed a cold tap, a shallow stone sink, a black, iron Victorian gas stove, and had a brick built boiler for doing the weekly wash in the corner. It wasn’t a place to linger.
There was a tiny iron Victorian fireplace in the front room, and the bedrooms had the same. Although they had been used in Victorian times dad was nervous about their small hearths. He said they were too near the wooden joists and dangerous, so we never used them.
The range was a source of irritation to most housewives because it was such a mucky thing to clean, but it was the heart of the house and gave endless hours of pleasure either through the bread we toasted against and bars and lathered with butter, or its small oven which produced the tastiest roast meat ever. It disposed of every scrap of paper and cardboard in the house and kept the whole house warm in winter. Despite all that, mum was glad to see it go and saved up for a new one. She got Mr Denton who was a builder from down the road to fit a modern tiled grate. Made of dingy, light brown tiles, it released her from having to give the range a good going over every week with black lead – but it wasn’t half as comforting.
The boiler in the scullery had its own little fireplace with a chimney which never wanted to draw no matter how windy, and on wash days mum spent hours on her knees on the cold brick floor trying to get it to light, so that was another thing that went as soon as dad, who was an electrician, had wired the house up for electricity and treated her to an electric boiler.
The coal man from Field Road was always cheerful which helped a little when he had to deliver our order, because with no side or back entrance he had to tramp through our tiny house with sacks of coal on his back. Ducking through the door no matter how careful, he would leave a trail of coal dust as he went. His coal was always dry which was good because it meant you weren’t paying extra for water, but when he bent over and let the coal tumble over his shoulder into the coal hole which led off from the scullery, the dust went everywhere.
It was a good job we only had lino which didn’t take two minutes to clean, but to save the coal dust spreading in the house dad built a coal bunker out the back, and we used the coal hole for storing odds and ends and hanging a chicken up to mature in the days leading to Christmas.
During the summer another of our pleasures was watching out for the Chimney Sweep’s brush to shoot up from the top of the chimney. It always raised a cheer, because although he could feel through the bendy bamboo handle when he hit fresh air, he liked to hear we’d seen it. It meant he’d done his job properly.
I’ll never forget looking up at the stars, the smell of soot and the vague haze that cloaked our street on nippy autumn evenings. They signalled the onset of winter and that meant Bonfire night and Christmas were on the horizon.
It was such an exciting time of year we never gave a thought to the problems the smoke could cause. Wrapped up warm we would play outside in the gas lit street revelling in the muffled silence of a thick pea souper, until dad or mum, worrying about what it might be doing to our chests, called us in for an early night.
Bronchitis or not, winter has never been the same since they brought in the Clean Air Act.