BLOG: Our changing heating systems: getting to the hearth of the matter
The way we heat our homes needs to change fast. In this short article, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University explain current attempts to capture a history of home heating as […]
Published: 19 Apr, 2023

The way we heat our homes needs to change fast. In this short article, researchers at Sheffield Hallam University explain current attempts to capture a history of home heating as the curtain begins to fall on the era of fossil-fuelled systems. The researchers are exploring how the way we heat our homes has shaped our lives in diverse and far-reaching ways and why we have such a fond affection for the fireside.

As March draws to a close, so does the end of one of the most challenging heating seasons many will have faced in their lifetimes as we remain in the grip of an unprecedented energy and cost of living crisis. Amidst the relief of reaching the end of the winter, a landmark event looms that signals the end of an era for home heating in England. On 1 May 2023, the sale of traditional house coal (bituminous coal) will be banned in England. This is just one of many ways that the way we heat our homes is changing to lower carbon emissions and improve air quality. Most households have not used coal to heat their homes for decades, but we still find a fond affection for the coal fire amongst many that we speak to.

Our homes have always been designed around the fire. Indeed, the word hearth is derived from the Latin for focus. Until well into the 20th century the fire was the focus of the home and daily lives as our only source of warmth, heat for cooking, light and smoke for preserving food and fumigating insects.  When homes consisted of one room or ‘hall’, the fire was placed in the very centre, with smoke escaping through open roofs. Later, fires were built into walls, and chimneys carried away the smoke, making multi-storey homes possible.

The methods used to heat homes varied significantly between countries and regions of those countries depending on the fuel they could access, the climate and the technologies around them. By the 1500s, most of our neighbours in Northern Europe had left us behind, having adopted stoves (closed units for burning fuel). But in Britain, we clung tight to open fires fuelled by wood or peat, depending on what was available. Dung was also used as a last resort. As coal was extracted on a larger scale from the 18th Century and became easier to move around and cheaper to buy, so it became our primary fuel. Compared to wood and peat, coal burnt efficiently and produced more heat per tonne than wood. The extraction of coal came to dominate the economies and societies of coalfield regions from this point until the end of the 20th Century and continues to be a defining feature of the culture of those regions today, despite the demise of the coal mining industry in Britain. In such areas, there was little reason to hold back on coal consumption while the industry thrived- the more burned, the better.

Yet, even with the benefit of coal, homes in Britain have always been cold. Until the introduction of gas central heating from the 1960s onwards, there was no expectation that every room would be heated, in fact most were not. Homes were draughty. In part, this was deliberate to help draw the fires, but with glazing expensive and highly taxed until the mid-19th Century, ventilation often went far beyond what was necessary to feed the fires. Cold homes were the norm and were expected. But, in the opposite of what we see today, the homes of poorer households may have been warmer than those of their wealthier counterparts due to smaller and fewer rooms and small windows.

We now know much more about the health risks of cold homes and how they cost tens of thousands of lives each winter in the UK. These links have only recently been widely recognised, and in the past, the hazards of the cold home would have formed just one of a wide range of threats to health and life encountered daily. What has been recognised for some time is the emotional connection to the fireside and its critical importance to feelings of wellbeing and happiness in the home. Many commentators have noted the particular strength of this connection in Britain and fireplaces have continued to be built into homes as ornamental features even where they’re no longer relied upon to heat the home. It seems that our lives have revolved around the hearth for so long that perhaps it has become part not just of our architectural tradition but of our pathology?

Our early findings from oral history interviews across the Rotherham area, suggest that although this emotional connection to the fireside undoubtedly still exists, our detailed exploration of how different approaches to home heating play out in daily life, reveal heavy costs (not just monetary) associated with open fires. These costs are not limited to the greenhouse gas emissions or poor indoor air quality caused by burning solid fuels in the home, but we also hear how the intense daily labour of keeping fires burning to maintain a warm home and to heat water and food, placed a devastatingly heavy burden on women. Several of our participants have told us they feel guilty looking back on the burden placed on their mothers. In this context, those who remember the era before gas central heating became widespread in Britain, feel huge gratitude for this innovation, with one recent interviewee describing central heating as “like going to heaven.” However, in coalfield areas, these feelings of gratitude are tinged with regret for a lost industry and way of life.

Over time, women’s responsibility for the home fires eased as electricity and gas connections rolled out in most settlements and affordable labour saving devices such as washing machines, gas fires and cookers became commonplace in the home. With around 95% of households in the UK connected to the gas network at its peak, heating faded into the background: invisible and taken for granted. Suddenly it is back in our consciousness. High costs caused by volatile fossil fuel markets relayed to us in real time via smart meters and a deepening climate crisis mean that change needs to come fast. The surge in solid fuel stove installations, mostly amongst middle class households, betrays a desire to bring heating back into our direct control and to rekindle the lost magic of the fireside.

Air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are Britain’s favoured approach for decarbonising home heating. When installed correctly, ASHPs are highly efficient, generating more heat per unit of energy than any other available heat source. Installing them in well-insulated homes (of which we have few in the UK) will significantly slash the emissions associated with home heating. But culturally they may prove hard to swallow, not least because they do not offer the fast surge of heat provided by gas central heating and are a far cry from the comforting glow of the hearth.

The Justheat project and how to contribute

Justheat is funded by the Collaboration for Humanities and Social Science in Europe (CHANSE). It brings together an international interdisciplinary team of social scientists, artists, historians and architects all interested in how changes to home heating impact our daily lives and how this plays out across time and place. Through our research, we aim to promote an inclusive and humane approach to the transition to low carbon heat sources.

As we stand on the cusp of great change, we want to capture your memories of heating past and present.

Do you have any photographs that illustrate your own personal stories and experiences of home heating in your lifetime? If so, we would love to add them to the archive, which will be made publicly available as part of the JUSTHEAT collections. Keep an eye out as the old family albums get dusted off, or indeed, feel free to snap away and share new memories of ‘keeping warm at home’ with us.

To contribute, please email your images to justheatproject@shu.ac.uk and complete this form to give permissions of use: https://forms.office.com/e/p8Hse9DkfW

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