Adventures Through Time

Learn all about The Black Country and its amazing history with this series!

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Keeping Us Warm

Find out how the people of The Black Country used to keep warm in this episode...

We take central heating for granted these days but in the past it would have been a bit more difficult to keep warm. 

In this episode we take a closer look at how people heated their homes – and in the Black Country the story starts with coal.

Coal – the heart of the Black Country

The name “The Black Country” dates from the 1840s, and is believed to come from the soot that the heavy industries covered the area in, although the 30-foot-thick coal seam close to the surface is another possible origin.  It was said “the whole country is blackened with smoke by day, and glowing with fires by night.”

Much of the region lies upon an exposed coalfield forming the southern part of the South Staffordshire Coalfield. There are, in fact several coal seams, some of which were given names by the miners. The top, thin coal seam is known as Broach Coal. Beneath this lies successively the Thick Coal, Heathen Coal, Stinking Coal, Bottom Coal and Singing Coal seams.

Middle Ages Mining

You might find it hard to imagine but people have mined the coal since the Middle Ages – way before the technology existed to dig deep shafts into the earth.  It’s because the coal is in parts close to the surface people living and farming the land wouldn’t have had to dig very deep to find coal to burn in their homes, so for many centuries scavenged coal would have been burned in grates and hearths in small cottages and simple dwellings.

Victorian Back to Backs

In the story the children visit one of the “Back to Back” houses do you know how they got their names?

“Back to backs” are built – like the name suggests, back to back under one roof so that neither has a back door or back windows.

They were built in large numbers through the nineteenth century in the industrial areas of the Midlands and the North. It was a means of providing cheap, high density housing for the working classes.  You can explore the old man’s house at the Museum – it was part of a block rescued from Brook Street in Woodsetton by the Museum in c. 1990, it was believed to be the last example of this house type surviving in the Black Country.

By Victorian times it was more likely that people would buy their coal, as industry created more jobs away from the farms, (quite possibly at the mines) and they wouldn’t have time to scavenge their own.

In the Victorian Back to Back houses you’d find a range.  These coal burners would heat the home, cook the food, warm the water for the tin bath, and the family would gather around to stay warm.  For many in small houses at this time the only heating upstairs would be a warming pan of coal although some houses may have had a small grate in the bedroom.

20thCentury – things begin to heat up!

By the 1920s and 1930s richer families in newer houses might have boilers would heat water for the kitchen and bathroom, but central heating like we have today would not have been commonplace until as late as the 1970s.

It was around the 1930s that electricity began to be supplied to some houses – and as well as lighting things up, it would mean electric heaters could be used.

Richer families might have houses large enough for a separate parlour – or sitting room away from the range, which might have a fireplace like the ones in the builders merchants.  The designs from this time are called Art Deco.  But the vast majority of heating would be from solid fuel – and in the Black Country that meant coal.

So what’s Art Deco?

Art Deco, sometimes referred to as Deco, is a style of visual arts, architecture and design that first appeared in France just before World War I.  Art Deco influenced the design of buildings, furniture, jewellery, fashion, cars, movie theatres, trains, ocean liners, and everyday objects such as radios and vacuum cleaners.  It took its name, short for Arts Décoratifs, and It combined modern styles with fine craftsmanship and rich materials. During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and technological progress.

From its outset, Art Deco was influenced by the bold geometric the bright colours, styles imported from China and Japan, India, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art. It featured rare and expensive materials, such as ebony and ivory, and exquisite craftsmanship. The Chrysler Building and other skyscrapers of New York City built during the 1920s and 1930s are monuments of the Art Deco style.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Art Deco became more subdued. New materials arrived, including chrome plating, stainless steel, and plastic.

Humprey’s Builders Merchants

In our story the children take a look inside the builders merchant – Humprey’s.

This builders’ merchants can be traced back to 1921, when brothers Joseph and William first traded at no 12 Birmingham Street, Oldbury. By the early 1930s the business had grown to include no. 14 and eventually, by the late 1940s, the brothers were operating out of no. 16 as well.

The shop looks as it might have done in the late 1930s, when it was supplying a range of fireplaces, grates, W.C.s, sinks, paints, varnishes and wallpapers.  Inside, visitors can find a showroom which gives a snapshot of typical thirties style.

Activity: Design your own Art Deco Patterns

Why don’t you have a go and designing some Art Deco Patterns.  You can find many examples of the style online

MOBILE: History for Kids

Discover what life for children was like throughout the ages

Adventures Through Time is made with support from The Black Country Living Museum

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Adventures Through Time

Learn all about The Black Country and its amazing history with this series!

More From Adventures Through Time