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Country House Amenities; Part III, Heating.

William Kent design for a fireplace and overmantle, published by John Vardy in 1735.

… to remove the fireplace from the English home would be to remove the soul from the body.’ (Hermann Muthesius, The English House. Part III. 1904-05 )

Often when I visit country houses, it’s the fireplaces which hold little interest to me. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s the emptiness of the black dusty mouth-like thing that should be giving warmth. It is apparently an instinctive characteristic of humans to need a focal point in a central living space. This is an obvious statement when we consider that a fire also provides heat and light, but in modern life this focal point has shifted to entertainment centres and huge televisions. So much so, that many builders will throw up houses without any semblence of a fireplace; where do we sit to converse and keep cosy? Of course, there is more to heating a home these days than a burning fire, we have central heating systems which can be fixed into corners and walls, under floors, and under cupboards. We have the freedom to move about our homes without passing into cold hallways. The concept of setting timers to ignite boilers would be intriguing to many of our elderly relatives, nevermind ancestors of long ago!

In the country house, these developments have not gone unnoticed. As residences it is necessary to keep warm; this is beneficial to the humans inside as much as it is to the fabric of the building. As places of historic value and as tourist attractions, the country house has to be warm a great deal of the time. Lighting a fire has the added attraction of nostalgia for visitors, and in winter offers a depth of living history to the static exhibits. In most country houses the developments in heating exist all over the building. Some will be very obvious, others not so much and might be well hidden underneath panelling and eras of later alterations or simply not accessible to someone coming in through the ‘front’ door.

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Heating materials. Coal and charcoal, peat, wood. All are early fuels, and where one was used, it was probably supplemented with another. Surface coal deposits were used by the Romans to help with their hypocausts, but wood was the most common fuel to the point where laws had to be passed prohibiting the felling of trees to make charcoal. Coal in the Middle Ages was viewed as crude because it was used by blacksmiths, but with shortages in wood, coal became the choice of many in towns and cities. Prejudice over the use of coal was also bourne out of its heavy smoke and strong smell neither of which were favourable to the expensive country house interior. Clever devices within the hearth as well as in the flue reduced some of the smoke but cleaner methods of heating were not available in Britain until the 18th century.

Location of heating. From generous to stylish – the fireplace.

          In the Medieval predecessors to the country house – the castles and manor houses – a fire would have been placed at the upper end of the communal area but the fireplace as we know it was established once a hood or alcove became part of the architectural design. In early country houses, especially those of the 16th and 17th centuries, these large fireplaces held a dual purpose for those who had profited from good relations with the king and had gained landed wealth which once belonged to the Church or ‘wrong-doers’. Grand rooms like great halls and chambers were now fantastically embellished with family mottos and coats of arms; devices that aimed to promote the supposed ancient heritage of those who now owned the property. What better interior place to position these things other than the fireplace and overmantle? Afterall, this is the focal point of the room.

The Holbein Hall 16th century fireplace at Reigate Priory, Surrey (previously at Nonsuch Palace and later Bletchingley Place) Copyright Ian Capper

German tiled stove from 1577: decorative and efficient. (V&A Collection)

Christina Hardyment notes of this period,

Open fires remained far more popular in Britain than they were on the continent. At a time when the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the Russians and the Germans were constructing tiled room -stoves [see left] … the Elizabethans were building chimney pieces like elaborate altarscreens around huge open hearths.                 (Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements, 1992, p. 156)

          The example above from Reigate Priory in Surrey is relevant to this development simply because it reflects the status of the ornamental fireplaces in large establishments. The massive carved oak surround was originally commissioned by Henry VIII for Nonsuch Palace, and is believed to be to the design of Hans Holbein. It was later installed at Bletchingley Place by Henry VIII perhaps as part of a ‘gift’ for his divorced wife Anne of Cleves. As Bletchingley fell into decline in the 17th century, the surround was removed to its present position at Reigate Priory in about 1655. The Reigate Priory estate was (as the name suggests) once monastic lands, but with the Dissolution of the Monasteries the land was granted to Lord William Howard – uncle of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s unfortunate 5th wife. It is the Howard coat of arms which can be seen on the stone section of the surround. The wealth and status these magnificent pieces conveyed was important to their longevity. They would go out of fashion in the late 17th century, but their dark splendour proved inviting for the romantic sensibilities of the early 19th century. If you see something on this scale be sure to check its provenance!

          The evolution in architectural styles of fireplaces from the earliest country houses onwards changed significantly, eventually becoming an important fashionable feature in any living space. Yet, such style evolution would require discussion in an altogether separate post. The size of hearth and overmantle generally grew more compact as spaces became recognised as more private interiors. In the older houses this evolution in style might be evident under layers of more modern decoration. Clearly, the fireplace remained a key element in design. The sought after architects of the time like Inigo Jones, Daniel Garrett, William Kent (see first image above) and Robert Adam in the 18th century, or Augustus Pugin and Sir Charles Barry in the 19th century, all incorporated elegant versions for their commissions. However, there came (somewhat overdue in Britain) to be more sophisticated methods of heating the country house than the open-hearth from the 18th century onwards, and architects were more than happy to accommodate designs for these amenities and their structural requirements.

Classical style stove designed by James Wyatt, c.1790 at the aptly name Castle Coole, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (Photo by Ian West, University of Leicester)

The stove and cast iron elegance.

The open-hearth is messy, and needs daily attention (prepatellar bursitis is an inflammation of the kneecap brought on by kneeling for prolonged periods, it’s more common name is Housemaid’s Knee). The cold, hard floor of the hearth was one of the more uninviting areas demanding a thorough clean. A free-standing method of heating in the country house became popular in the early 18th century, and was much cleaner. This was the hall stove, and was designed to provide a certain degree of warmth to communal areas, and although they were regarded as less cheerful than the fireplace, the stove could be equally stylish.

There are several types of stove to be found in the country house; the anthracite stove, the paraffin stove, and  the coal stove are the main types. Early models would certainly be free-standing with a section for the coal, a grille or grate and pan. There are some fantastic examples in most country houses (see image above left), but may not initially be very obvious to the eye. Decorative art museums

A cast iron stove, probably to the designs by Robert Adam. Supplied to Compton Place, Sussex for Lord George Cavendish, c.1780. (V&A Collection)

will no doubt have some too, like this one from the V&A in London (right). The British take on the stove was nothing compared to what the northern Europeans had been installing in their houses, as size alone simply dwarfs the Wyatt and Adam models (see especially the Gallery at Kuskovo ,Moscow and Tullgarn Palace, Stockholm). Interestingly, cast iron provided a great tool for decorative pieces and many stove makers were based in Scotland where iron industries already existed, and yet the tiled stove afforded better luxury and more surface area for aesthetic display. This was probably symptomatic of British taste from the 18th century which though flamboyant by modern standards was restrained compared to Europe at the time. As developments in heating and comfort continued, Britain would always be slow to catch on.

The introduction of centralised heating systems to the country house was really only the next step from the static stove which pushed heat through floors and wall voids. Some houses made use of their gas supply for fires or had free-standing gas heaters, but these were generally reserved for the service and staff apartments. The Roman hypocaust is a very obvious predecessor to central heating, but technological advances, materials and industrialisation offered something more powerful. Initially, central heating was installed in larger houses in order to warm the air and cure damp in open spaces like the hall stove had done. The radiator as we know it came later in the 19th century, as earlier systems would have included a central heating apparatus which pushed heat through pipes laid in existing gaps and underneath fixed items of furniture like bookcases, or through elaborate floor grates in usually drafty areas like doorways and staircases.

‘Classical’ style radiator in stairwell at Coughton Court, Warwickshire. Possibly made by Vincent Skinner in Bristol (mid 19th century)

A heating system like this had been in use in hothouses, but there was some debate about whether steam heating was as reliable as hot-water heating for interior warmth. By the end of the 19th century, most country houses had some sort of central heating system which incorporated stylistic models used in previous centuries. Newly built houses had central heating put in as a matter of course throughout. Cragside, Northumberland is the most obvious example again, and there are some brilliant images here of how massive the system of pipes are underneath the house. A much older house like that of Coughton Court, Warwickshire (which will have seen every form of heating in its 600 years history) sought sleek ways of placing hot pipes within its walls and interior spaces (see left).

Many houses will still use their 19th-century heating systems, and find them just as efficient as purely modern ones. Of course, there will have been up-to-date repairs and modern fittings added, but the clanking sound of an elderly boiler reminds us that there is a mechanical presence keeping us warm and providing hot water. Once the province of the gardener, these boilers now need certified/registered plumbers and engineers to check and repair them. And this is only right, these boilers are monstrous things and require a lot of room. Even the old coal fuelled things have been connected to the electrical supply whilst their redundant units sit staring stoically at those passing through.

As for the fireplace, and its supposed primeval role in the hearts and minds of the English, it does seem to be making a comeback. More so in the smaller domestic property and countless property programmes will have their presenters ripping out plywood boards or ill-fitting bricks in old fireplaces to see what lies behind it all. In the country house, the fireplace still takes pride of place whether it is ornate or otherwise. Often it is an essential part of a restoration project that sees hearths, surrounds and mantles returned to their original setting, whilst Victorian radiators are left needing a new coat of paint.

References;

Elizabeth Burton, The Georgians at Home, 1714-1830 (1967).

Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House, (1978).

Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements, (1992).

Judith and Martin Miller, Period Details: The Definitive Source Book for House Renovation. (1997).

Temple Newsam Country House Studies, (text by Anthony Wells-Cole and Christopher Gilbert) The Fashionable Fireplace 1660-1840. (1985).

John Vince, The Country House: How it Worked (1991).

Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (1980)

Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House 1660-1880 (2000)

Links;

Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester http://tiny.cc/0vrbhw

Commercial site with general history on fireplaces and heating the home http://www.fireplace.co.uk/text/texthistory.htm#intro

The European stove, its advantages and disadvantages http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2008/12/tile-stoves.html

Extremely useful website dedicated to engineering heritage at CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers) http://www.hevac-heritage.org/homepage.htm

Castle Coole, Enniskillen, Ireland http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castlecoole/

Coughton Court http://www.coughtoncourt.co.uk/

Coping with the Cold at Colonial Williamsburg http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter09/cold.cfm

Ode to Abraham Buzaglo and his stove (with good references) http://stovehistory.blogspot.com/2010/12/early-stove-poem.html

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Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Servants, The running of the country house

Life in a German Country House

Excerpts taken from The Leisure Hour: a Family Journal for Instruction and Recreation. (April, 1866). Unknown author.

An 1896 cover for the journal The Leisure Hour

       The journal contained many different items, from biographies to reference information and short stories. Copies were illustrated with scenes from the stories, and many of the editions were headed with a quote by William Cowper; ‘Behold in these what leisure hours demand, – Amusement and true knowledge hand in hand’, which gives an impression as to the aim of the publication. Each edition was originally priced at one penny and published weekly. (See Rooke Books)

       However, I found this piece on Ebay for a couple of pounds! It appears to have been neatly unbound from its original volume at some point and sold on as a separate essay. I haven’t reproduced it here in its entirety as the story is over 6,000 words! So far, it has been impossible to track which house is being discussed – which is disappointing, but the article is fascinating for many other reasons. The language is very conventional for the mid-nineteenth century, and the (female) writer clearly had set ideals concerning daily routines, dress codes and even room settings. (Note the complaints she makes about a type of bedding we now take for granted.) In many instances these are very apparent and she seems rather haughty, or at best slightly naive. Perhaps the best thing about this article is a reader’s comment at the end which questions the original writer’s authority and knowledge on the subject. Clearly, someone wasn’t impressed by the simmering haughtiness and constant cultural comparisons which favoured the English above all else!

There is a short glossary of terms at the end.

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Life in a German Country House.

       Our acquaintance with the Von Fersens commenced in a singular way. The Countess broke her arm crossing the Brunig Pass in Switzerland, and was brought to Lungern while we were there. We were able to show them some attention, and were a good deal in their company; in fact, I struck up quite a warm friendship with the twin daughters – very pleasant girls. Some six months after we returned to England a very pressing invitation came for us to pay a visit to the Von Fersens at their home at Havelburg.

 

       As we drew up, there was a hospitable rush of the whole family outside to receive their guests. Helena and Bertha overwhelmed me with embraces and tears. The Countess, who spoke little English, exclaimed, ‘Very much welcome, my dear mess,’ as she kissed me on both cheeks. ‘Welkommen, ein schones Welkommen,’ said the Count, who knew no English, giving me what he called a right English handshake. My brother Fred was most cordially received, and a tall, long-backed son, Count Albert, duly presented.

 

       Helena led me up the carpetless stairs, with their massive oak balustrades – stairs so smooth and shining that, running down in a hurry, I more than once narrowly missed a tumble. Going down a broad passage, we entered a pretty room, with two windows overlooking the lake. There was no toilette-table, but a tall, narrow mirror stood between the widows, secured by an ingenious contrivance of ropes. This, being rather rickety, often frightened me as I brushed my hair before it, for I was afraid of the heavy thing tumbling down on me. There was a small piece of carpet – quite a luxury – under a round table in front of the sofa. The small bed was without hangings or drapery. The sofa could, if necessary, be turned into a couch. The washing-stand shut up and formed a table during the day. An antique chest of drawers and a few chairs completed the furniture. I leaned out of the window to enjoy the prospect. How pleasant these foreign windows are in summer: it is so charming to have the whole aperture for light and air, and to lean out without risk of knocking one’s head. In winter give me our close-fitting sashes.

 

       There was a tap at the door, and Paulina, the young Countess’s maid, entered with a friendly ‘Guten Tag, gnadige Fraulein.’ I soon found out that the servants expected to be greeted with a few civil words on first seeing them in the morning, etc., as much as their masters did. Servants here are by no means the silent automatons we are accustomed to; and, as they talk without forwardness, and give themselves no airs, the greater freedom of intercourse with their employers seems, after all, more natural than our cold English fashion.

 

       A little before two we assembled in the large drawing-room. Even at this early hour the sisters were in low barege dresses, with a white muslin jacket. The Count offered his arm and we marched into the ‘saal’. The soup came first, which the hostess helped as in England. Everything else was handed round the table being covered with plate and flowers, silver vases at the corners filled with lilac and golden-rain (laburnums), and an epergne with preserved fruit in the centre. Three courses of made dishes followed the soup, very nice, but incomprehensible – most likely veal. Two plates were given us to-day for the apricots, here considered the proper accompaniment for roast pork. When we mentioned apple-sauce as the fashion at home, all the family exclaimed at the strange mixture.

 

       I thought then and afterwards that dinner lasted a very long time. The interval between each course was immense; but did not find it at all tedious. The young ladies spoke capital English – so idiomatic; Bertha enchanted Fred by coming out with a little mild slang, yet neither had been in England, but as is customary in North Germany, they had had an English governess for several years.

 

       About half an hour after dinner, old Tegel, the footman, brought round some delicious coffee; and then we all rose and dispersed in different directions. The gentlemen took Fred to look at the farm buildings behind the Schloss. These German land-owners are generally farmers; i.e., they have their land in their own hands, and manage it by means of inspectors (bailiffs). Our system of letting several hundreds of acres to one tenant seems quite the exception. For some miles round, nearly all the land belonged to the Count, and more than a thousand persons lived on his property in two villages. Havel had four hundred inhabitants, and Rosen, three miles off, was larger. Some idea may thus be formed of the number of labourers employed, and of the very large sum disbursed weekly in wages. A German nobleman, therefore, while at his landhaus, leads an extremely active and busy life.

 

       The garden at Havelburg was a very disappointing place. Count Fersen was considered the wealthiest man in the province, and there was much taste in the laying out of the grounds; but Fred and I were scandalised at the want of order and neatness. In spite of the efforts of several women-gardeners, who were perpetually sweeping and raking, the lawn looked like a young hayfield, while the soi-disant gravel paths were ankle-deep in dust.

 

       Reader, you may be well acquainted with Rhineland, you may even have done the grand round of German capitals, and still you may know nothing of a genuine German bed. The number of travellers visiting the country have effected a revolution in the chief hotels, and there we find sheets, blankets, and counterpanes much the same as in England or France. The architecture of my bed was on this wise: a spring mattress at the bottom, then a feather bed covered with a sheet, an enormous pillow for the head as big as four of ours rolled into one, and a smaller one for the feet, elevating them in an uncomfortable manner. There was only one lower sheet, and neither blankets nor counterpane. The superstructure was a large feather bed in a case, the duplicate of the one below. The night was oppressively hot, and I trembled at the idea of passing it beneath that mass of feathers. The next morning Fred enquired how I managed, and gave me the benefit of his experience. After a desperate idea of using the towels as sheets, which from their size and dampness he found impracticable, he said he ended by taking the feather bed out of its white covering, and so slept in the great case. Even in winter, when the warmth is grateful, these beds are uncomfortable, as they are apt to roll off, and it is impossible to tuck one’s self up.

 

       After Sunday dinner the Count asked us to drive to a neighbouring Schloss, which we declined; and then Count Albert made a vain attempt to induce Fred to join in a dance the servants had got up in the lower hall! Of course our scruples were considered unreasonable. In the cool of the evening Helena and I strolled down to the lake, and there she begged me to tell her what the day at home was like. I tried to picture to her the serenity and peace of an English country Sabbath, the rest from toil for man and beast, the quiet, happy family gathering, the freedom from worldly cares, and the holy preparation for the perpetual Sabbath-keeping that remains for the people of God. I suppose in many families there may be better usages, but I record what I saw of ‘Life in a German Country House’.

 

A reader’s comment.

I have been rather amused lately by an article in ‘The Leisure Hour’ for April, entitled ‘Life in a German Country House’. Though evidently a recollection of ‘auld lang syne,’ the little picture is painted in lively colours, and cannot fail, I am sure to give pleasure even to those who cannot have the same interest which I have in hearing German life described by and English pen.

But while it is only justice to say that this little narrative is amusingly written, it is nevertheless far from giving satisfaction to a German reader; and I cannot refrain from making a few remarks, and protesting, in the name of my countrywomen, against conclusions that might be drawn in too strict accordance with the sample of German country life given here. Besides, it would only have been fair to state how many years ago, and in what part of Northern Germany, the lady may have gathered her experience of German life.

I am quite ready to believe that, many years ago, in some remote part of back Pomerania or Eastern Prussia, things may have been as described in that article, from the absence of the egg-cups and toilet-table up to the dusty garden walks and weedy flower-beds. But I can only say that my experience, which is not based on one case only, is of a very different nature. It is quite true that we Germans do not, happily for us, attach so much importance to all the luxuries of life as is the case in England; but I must say that, though sometimes more than fifteen miles distant from a railway-station, and in houses where there was no pretence to luxury, I never yet found a bedroom so bare as the one described; and that wherever I went I have always been lucky enough to be provided with a well-furnished washing-stand, which was not meant to be anything else during the day.

The narrator must have gone with wonderful notions on her German visit. She seems to have expected a sort of back-woods life! She dwells with considerable length on the good-natured hospitality she everywhere meets. She praises it just as one would praise it in a savage, and is not only astonished to find a certain degree of intellectual culture in German women, but actually quite wonders not to find that they may be only good for knitting stockings and spinning flax.

 

Glossary of terms

Barege dress: Mainly a gauze dress

Landhaus: Country house, administrative base for estate management

Saal: Dining room

Schloss: Manor house, castle, mansion or stately home.

Soi-disant: Probably meant here as ‘so-called’ or ‘supposedly/allegedly’.

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