Historical Background of Fireplaces

FFireplace DesignsFireplaces developed over time simply because they worked and not because of scientific proof.  It is only in recent centuries that we started to look into creating an energy efficient system that could heat, remove smoke and stop the weather entering our homes.

First Records of Fireplaces
There are no records of fireplace design before the Romans. 

The first Roman houses in northern Europe had a fire in the middle of the main room.  But by the end of the 3rd century the Romans had perfected a central heating system (the hypocaust).  They installed a fireplace below the main house whose flue passed through a series of channels underneath the floor before being diverted up chimneys in the walls.  One fire could heat the entire house by carrying heat through these channels.

This system is similar to the modern day masonry heater and shares the same virtues of clean burning, convenience, and thermal efficiency.  Looking at what remains of Roman buildings in Britain suggest that they also used open fireplaces against walls though little is known of their design or their function.

Unfortunately once the Romans withdrew from northern Europe their heating technology was lost to us.  Within two to three generations the hypocaust had been replaced with bonfires.  We know Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of wood, were single story with round walls built on the bare earth with central fires with a smoke hole in the roof above the fire to allow the smoke to escape. 

An iron age round house can be experienced at Hadleigh Country Park - see their website for visiting times: .  The smell of smoke hits you before you entire the house, and the heat from the fire is amazing, they also like to get the kids involved if you are looking for a day out for the family.

It was not until the 11th and 12th centuries that Britain returned to fireplaces in walls, when the Norman conquerors decided to move from wooden built homes to stone built castles as their main defence and residence.

The Development of the Modern Fireplace
The development of the fireplace and chimney between the 11th and 15th centuries was focused on stopping the weather from entering the house through the fireplace.  Chimneys in this period tended to be wide with a canopy and vents in the roof where the smoke could escape.

A further change to the construction of fireplaces was brought about by a change in the law.  A note was found in the 14th century London ordinance that decrees chimneys should be constructed of non-flammable materials such as stone or tile and no longer be constructed of wood.

By the 16th century it was realised that raising the chimney above the roof helped cut down downdrafts created by the interaction of wind with the roof, which are the chimneys we still see today. 

Up until the end of the 16th century wood was the principal fuel used for heating in the British Isles.  As it became scarce towards the beginning of the 17th century we moved towards using coal.  Using coal meant fireplaces could be smaller, but they now had to be equipped with the tools necessary for coal handling. 

After the fire of London in 1666 a vast rebuild was carried out using stone.  Many more rooms were provided with fireplaces which lead to the wide spread pollution suffered by Victorian Britain.

The mid 16th to early 17th century saw elaborate mantelpieces and chimney breast appearing, which was more of a fashion statement than for practicalities of having a functioning fire to heat a home.

When America started to suffer from wood shortages in the 17th and 18th centuries they started to look into creating an efficient fireplace.  The two Americans who have been credited with the development of the modern fireplace are Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford (aka Benjamin Thomas).  Franklin was credited with the development of dampers - metal plates that can be moved to adjust the size of the fire throat and limit the amount of hot air going up the chimney.  Rumford developed the design of the fireplace we are used to seeing today, by trial and error.  He even came to England at the end of the 18th century to help upgrade the fireplaces of the rich and famous.

Rumford introduced the narrow throats which effectively isolate fireplaces from chimney downdrafts, and firebacks specifically designed to be heated by the flames to radiate the heat into the room.  There was some later development to the firebacks by other people, where the fireback was angled slightly instead of being horizontal, but Rumford mainly stuck with his original design.

In the 1930s techniques to studying fluid flow dynamics became possible, enabling us to examine the behaviour of fireplaces in greater detail.  This research refined Rumford's ideas and corrected some errors he made but did not materially change his principles.

Just as we were able to make fireplaces perform better, central heating became available.  Although installation costs where high, central heating was more convenient and effective than open fires.  When the clean air act was passed in 1956 the majority of modern homes were built without fireplaces and had central heating.  Older homes started to have their fireplaces boarded up in favour of central heating.  The majority of these covered up fireplaces have since been found by unsuspecting renovators.  In the beginning original fireplaces were removed and destroyed, and with anything old and scarce original fireplaces have become much sought after.

With the change over to central heating, came a change in our expectations of how warm our homes came become in the winter months.  This expectation means it is no longer practical to heat our homes in Britain throughout winter with an open fire.  However, this has not stopped fires making a come back as we now enjoy them as decorative items in our homes.

If you choose to complement your home with an open fireplace, gas fire or stove, remember they do need regular sweeping by a professional chimney sweep.

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy our article about The History of Chimney Sweeping.

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