Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Waiting for the coal man

Enoch Royle the coal man circa 1930
There is something very reassuring about hearing the fire and the kitchen range being racked out in the morning.

More so if you are seven and it is one of those cold early December mornings.

Usually in our house dad did this around six just after he had got up and just before he made his breakfast.

It was the announcement that a new day had started and in its way was far better than any alarm clock because it was part of the routine of the house.

It was also combined with that knowledge that it was still early and you could drift back to sleep all warm despite the ice that had formed in the night on the inside of the windows.

Now it is a memory which I suspect will not be shared by many who were born after the 1950s.

The gas fire, 1938
Cleaning out and setting a new fire and maintaining the range were tiring, dirty and time consuming chores added to which bringing up a bucket of coal from the cellar was heavy work and so many opted for gas and electric fires and later still central heating all of which offered easy instant heat at the touch of a button.

That said of course many mining communities continued to rely on the delivery of coal from the NCB and even now once you leave the city and drive into the country there is still that distinctive smell of coal being burned and that lazy pall of smoke lifting from chimney tops.

At which point I must declare that this is no rosy nostalgic reflection on past times, but more a comment on what has been lost in just a few decades.

Along with that fire has gone the coal man and that distinctive sound of the coal thundering down the coal hole into the cellar.

It started with a loud rumble and finished with that after noise as the coal slid and settled, followed by the all pervading smell of the stuff which worked its way up despite both cellar doors being firmly closed.

Well Hall Road, 2014
All of which was something my mother could do without.

She was the first to demand gas fires throughout the house in Peckham and again when we moved to Well Hall.

Not for her the romance of coal and steam.

She would often remark on the end of the steam locomotive as progress pointing out that while they might have thrilled school boys of all ages they played havoc with your clean washing.

And in turn many of us will remember buildings darkened by decades of grime and soot and coming home covered in the stuff after a day climbing trees in the local park.

But each generation has a habit of reinventing the past and so  for the thirty years we have returned to open fires.

True often they were just an addition to the central heating and might be regarded as cosmetic, but now that most of the children have grown up and moved out there is less need to keep the whole house heated, and so we have retreated to the one room in the evening with a blazing fire and just a hint of the central heating across the rest.

 Coalfires on a December evening
The days of teenagers spread out on the three levels of the house all doing something different and doing it away from us have gone.

For many this will still be the fallout from modern living but not here.

From the six o’clock news till the weather forecast four and half hours later we will pretty much be in the one room, stocking that fire, and mildly disputing whose turn it is to venture into the coolness of the  kitchen.

And today with the fire cleaned out and set I just await the arrival of the coal man who comes once a week with two bags of mixed smokeless fuel and bags of kindling.

So somethings have just about come full circle.

Pictures; Enoch Royle and his father on Albany Road, circa 1930s from the Lloyd Collection, advert for gas fires, 1938, from from Your City, Manchester Municipal Officers’ Guild, 1938, a December open fire fire, 2011, Well Hall Road, 2014, Chrisse Rose

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