Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Of Hearth and Home

Penshurst Place with Central Hearth

I have been thinking about which features of domestic buildings, certainly in England, have had the most impact, not simply on architecture but also on changing society and people’s lives. There are a few candidates; glass in windows, brick replacing timber-framing and cavity-wall insulation to name but three. But I think the prize has to go to the humble fireplace and chimney stack.

I have just completed the history of a timber-framed house in the Weald of Kent. Its origins date back to the late 14th century. It isn’t the oldest building I’ve researched, but very nearly! Despite 700 years of change and alteration, the early days of the building can be most clearly seen in its roof and specifically the blackened king post (now no longer in a supporting role). Despite the house’s three floors and collection of several small rooms within its walls today, this building was once one open hall.

Before fireplaces were introduced into domestic buildings, all living, eating and sleeping took place in the one space. Every person and domestic animal of the household lived around the central hearth. Maybe a mezzanine-type platform, known as a Solar, would have existed at one end of the room on which the master and mistress of the house slept, but everything else was communal on the ground floor and the space open to the roof. This explains the blackening of the 14th century timbers in the Wealden house. The smoke from the fire eventually escaped in various ways, through a hole in the roof or through the joints of unplastered tiles, under the eaves or through an open door or window.

An Early Hooded Fireplace
To find the origin of present day fireplaces we have to go back to Norman times, the 11th and 12th centuries. Their castles and other official strongholds tended to be of two or more storeys so having a fire in the central position was not practical. As a result they would put the fire in a shallow recess under an arch in the side wall of the chamber. The back of the recess sloped upwards and finished with a hole for the smoke to escape through the outside wall. Often there wasn’t a recess for the fire itself but a hood was constructed over the hearth. 

Returning to the 14th century Wealden house; despite the presence of a large and imposing stone fireplace on the ground floor and a substantial brick construction on the first floor dating to the 16th century, the stack and hearth are relative newcomers in the story of this house. In the 16th century this was a yeoman’s house, a farmer’s house. So not a place for nobility, but not for peasants either. It was the quintessential rural middle-class home. 

16th Century 1st Floor Brick Wealden Fireplace 
The chimney was built on what was the eastern exterior wall and of all the changes in the long life of this house, the introduction of a stack and fireplace can be considered the most important. With the introduction of fireplaces at the side of the building, floors and ceilings could be inserted and designated rooms created. With fireplaces in general, significantly it introduced the concept of “Privacy” in normal domestic life. No other architectural development has had such a profound influence on our domestic structures and on how we conduct our lives. 

I find this pleasingly ironic as today in the early 21st century we seem to be on a wave of knocking down and knocking through - creating more communal living space.