History Of Fireplace Stoves

The origin of the modern heating stove is intertwined with the history of domestic heating and cooking. From the Iron Age onwards humans, sought to cook food and heat their homes with a fire source contained within their dwelling. For ten thousand years or more the designs slowly matured to the point in the 18th century where it became obvious that the differing requirements for cooking and heating would result in the creation of appliances designed specifically with each function in mind.

A number of factors had led to this desire for ‘stand alone’ heating devices. The middle class were becoming more affluent and demanded houses that separated kitchen, sitting room and dining room. Their upwardly mobile aspirations found cooking and eating in one room unacceptable. These same ‘consumers’ also began demanding heat sources, which did not waste 80 – 90% of fuel up the chimney – they did not have the limitless budgets of the landowners. Finally, the Industrial Revolution had generated a material ideal for the construction of heating stoves – cast iron. First perfected by Abraham Darby at Coalbrookdale in the early 1700s, cast iron was the Georgian’s great construction material with all its attributes of easy manufacture, easy moulding and good thermal qualities.

In the 17th century, country gentlemen had begun to experiment with stove like designs. In fact Prince Rupert, notably the nephew of Charles I, was probably responsible for the first convector fire. However, it took another 100 years or so before we saw the work of the two real pioneers of today’s stove designs – American patriot, Benjamin Franklin and British aristocrat turned ‘Yankee rebel’ – Count Rumford. Franklin, whose scientific experiments included the dangerous habit of flying kites in thunderstorms, realised that a fuel burning unchecked in a grate imparted little heat to the room. His design employed a convection chamber, much like today’s convector fires, to ring more efficiency out of the fire. Air for this chamber was often taken from the basement adding a degree of fresh air to the room. Rumford’s contribution was less to stoves than to fires in general. He first suggested the chimney throat to control and increase flue pull. He also used a variable metal damper in the flue throat to add further control and stop down draughts when the flue was not operating.

Whilst James Bodley patented the first stove design in 1802, his design was more of a cooking stove. In fact, during much of the nineteenth century, the love showed by the British for open fires limited the demand for stoves in the UK while their demand blossomed throughout colder Continental Europe and the USA. Many also saw stoves as responsible for the serious air pollution that London suffered for 150 years from the early 1800s onwards. The early stove designs did not burn their coal with any real efficiency. They produced foul smelling and irritating fumes, which caused, it was said, ‘stove malaria’ and ‘iron cough’. Edinburgh’s nickname of ‘Auld Reekie’ dates from this era and refers to the foul smell of smoke from its myriads of open and closed coal fires.

Stoves were altogether more popular in the colder climes of Continental Europe and the newly freed American states. Scotland, with its harsh winters and readily available supplies of coal and iron proved an ideal spot for stove manufacture. The first third of the 19th century saw a number of innovators introduce stoves to the market. In 1830 Charles Portway designed and hand built his first Tortoise stove in Halstead, Essex. Charles ran an ironmongery store and when neighbouring shops saw how effective his stove was, they all wanted one. Mr Portway started a small foundry, which, by the start of the twentieth century, had produced over 100,000 stoves. Meanwhile in Norway Adelsten Onsum founded the forerunner to today’s Jtul Company, Kverner Brug, in 1853. Onsum, an entrepreneur in true Victorian style started a number of industrial companies but it was not until after he had lost control of Kverner Brug in Norway’s financial crisis of the 1880s that the name Jtul was adopted. As today the stoves were made in the newly popular cast iron and offered the previously shivering inhabitants of Norway, the chance to keep warm during the long winters at a reasonably acceptable cost. American designs tended to be less ornate and many believe that the ‘West was won’ on the back of the pot-bellied stove which heated the saloon bar and cowboy ranch alike. Many were portable and were moved west as new frontiers were opened up or from battle to battle as the Civil War took over the majority of the US land mass.

In the Black Country The Cannon Hollowware Company, later to become Cannon Industries, produced a number of stoves heated by the now-popular towns gas. The most popular was probably the Grosvenor introduced in 1895, the Grosvenor was all the rage partly because, as the advertising blurb of the day informed potential purchasers, it “comes complete with internal chambers for utilising waste heat after it (leaves) the fire”. This popular stove sold extensively in urban areas, came in two sizes and may be viewed as the forerunner of Cannon’s one hundred year involvement in gas fire production.

As the twentieth century dawned stoves were not a popular means of heating the nations living rooms. The ‘working class’ could not afford the coal to heat themselves properly, let alone ‘expensive’ stoves to improve the way the fuel burnt. The middle class within cities used gas fires while country dwellers did not like the aesthetics of these heavily decorated appliances that looked out of place in their demure houses. Among the landed gentry and new enriched, stoves were popular but not as a heating source for public rooms. Large kitchens, servant’s halls or nurseries might boast a stove but the rooms seen by visitors would include an open fire which was fed and cleaned by servants who represented 10% of the UK population in pre World War I Britain.

Throughout the first sixty years of the twentieth century stoves sold primarily to the commercial sector – to the growing numbers of offices, shops, railway waiting rooms and public buildings – together with a buoyant export trade to the Empire. Smith & Wellstood’s 1912 catalogue boasted over 200 designs (cooking ‘Kitcheners’ as well as heating stoves) with names like the Indess, The Moariess and the Sultana. Prices ranged from around 10s (50p!) and demand kept Smith & Wellstood in business right through to the 1980s. Possibly the Company’s greatest claim to fame was their cooking stoves. Captain Scott famously took some on his ill-fated trip to reach the South Pole. One was found by an American expedition in 1953. They cleaned out the ash relit it and found that it worked perfectly.

One opening for stoves came with the discovery of large deposits of anthracite in South Wales and Scotland. Immediately after World War I mine owners approached Smith & Wellstood to make a stove, which could burn anthracite. The aftermath of the war, with over one million men dead, meant that better-off households had difficulty in finding servants, and anthracite with its all-night burning and clean products of combustion required far less work than traditional designs. Smith & Wellstood produced a whole range of designs like the Jeunesse, Artesse and Francesse, which were the forerunners of modern solid fuel room heaters. In recognition the mine owners called their fuel ‘Stovesse’ – the suffix…esse being the origin of Ouzledale foundry’s well-known brand name.

Clean air legislation in 1955/56 followed the month-long smoke-induced smogs of the early 50s and curtailed any market that had existed for the solid fuel stove. For fifteen years or so there was little UK market until the quadrupling of oil prices following the Six-day Arab Israeli War of 1973. Owners of large houses had installed oil boilers during the 1960s and now could not afford to heat their properties. Primarily country dwellers, they desperately looked around for another source of heating and realised that many of them had supplies of wood available on their land. Stoves became popular and have remained so to the present day.