The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

For occasional articles, snippets and announcements by the Resident Historians.These articles are presented in date order, but if you explore the back-catalogue, you may find much of interest. Historical information doesn't really go out of date! Any member of the F&DLHS may add an entry or make a comment to an existing entry once they have got their userID and password from the Webmaster.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

The New-fangled Chimney

I was being shown around a house around here recently which dated from the fifteenth century. The Chimney had been obviously inserted into what had once been an open hall, and such was the extreme conservatism of householders of the time that the Chimney was almost always inserted over the site of the old open-hearth. We fell to musing as to what life had been like in the house before the chimney had been put in, and my host said it was strange that chimneys were such a late invention, dating from the 'great rebuilding' of the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Oh no. Here, in Essex, we have splendid chimneys in both Castle Hedingham and Colchester castle. Both were built in the Eleventh century, and we know that smithies had them before that time. The Romans knew all about them, of course. Even small mediaeval houses had a 'smoke bay' or section of the timber-framed house lined with clay for the smoke to leave. However, the general opinion was that Chimnies were unhealthy. Leland, for example, saw the introduction of chimneys as a sign of the degeneracy of the younger generation, and William Harrison, in his 'A Description of England' in 1577 wrote...

Now have we manie chimnies, and yet our tenderlings complain of rheumes, catarhs and poses. Then had we none but reredosses, and our heads did never ake. For as the smoke in those daies was supposed to be a sufficient hardening for the timber of the house, so it was reputed to keepe the good man and his familie from the quacke or pose, wherewith as then verie few were oft acquainted... whereas in their young days there were not above two or three (chimneys), if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm (the religious houses and manor places of their lords always excepted, and peradventure some great personages), but each one made his fire against a reredos in the hall, where he dined and dressed his meat.....

Curiously, our modern insistance on central heating and complete insulation from the weather has also been blamed for the worrying increase in allergies and asthma. Herrison might even have been right about the smoke contributing to the preservation of timbers. It took some time too for people to work out how to preserve their food once chimneys had been installed. Previously, they could just hang them from the roof rafters in a dry, smokey, but not sooty spot over the open hearth. Now they were compelled to hang them inside the dark and cramped confines of the new-fangled chimney. There were technophobes even then.


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