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Archaeology of domestic life in early 20th century Britain

The aim of this blog is to publish data on early 20th century buildings, whilst this is still accessible. Much material of interest to the historian is being destroyed through 'home improvements' and DIY, and objects are increasingly being divorced from their context through dispersal after the death of their owners. By creating an easily accessible contextual record of material culture, it is hoped that those interested in this period of history may have a resource through which the details of domestic life might be studied.

If you have any artefacts of interest, or make discoveries during the process of your own investigations that you would like to share, please contact me!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Lymehurst Lounge Fireplace

It’s been a while since I posted, due to other commitments. Investigations have begun again on the late 1920s - early 1930s house ‘Lymehurst’, this year focusing upon the two ground floor fireplaces. This post will update the findings so far in the ‘Lounge’.

Plan and section of Lounge

The ‘Lounge’ fireplace appears to retain the original wooden (light oak?) surround, and fender. Removal of the fender shows that the original ceramic hearth tiles remain in place, but are covered by a (1990s Italian?) marble hearthstone. On removing the late wallpaper from the Lounge walls in 2010, a dark brown paint was revealed, which appears to be the original paint, and (in the absence of evidence to suggest otherwise), was probably the first wall decoration / covering. 

Lounge fireplace: before (above) and after (below) removal of modern decoration

After removal of the surround, it can be seen by the distribution of the paint, and by the rough plaster beneath the wooden surround, that the latter is likely to have been installed during construction of the house. Removal makes it possible to see through a narrow gap the preservation of original ceramic tiles beneath (but at a few inches behind) the later marble face on the chimney-breast face (unfortunately this doesn't show up on photos). From the little that could be seen, the tiles are c.4" square and (typically for the period) light brown in colour, and probably match the mottled buff-coloured tiles that are visible beneath the modern marble hearthstone. 

Buff-coloured ceramic tiles beneath the modern marble hearthstone

To each side of the modern marble face are slab-like columns of dark grey concrete (which on first appearance might have been modern, i.e. later C20), above and resting upon which is a horizontal slate slab. However, the presence of what may be early concrete and gypsum plaster above this and the concrete plinths point towards an early date. (The box-like construction of the surround will have stood proud of the wall, leaving a gap of several inches between its front and the tiles that face the chimney-breast wall.) There are also surface marks that suggest that tiles previously faced the concrete.

Chimneybreast after removal of wooden fire suround

The paler cement noted above fills a gap between the slate and the wall, which is paler that the dark grey cement; above this, amongst dust and other debris, are a number of (late 20th – early 21st) hair-grips, and a ‘bobby pin’ that may date between the early 20th century and present day.

Hair grips and ‘bobby-pin’ fallen behind the fire surround: suggestions of a mirror above the fireplace

It seems likely that these objects have fallen between the narrow gap that separated the wall and wooden fire surround; it might further be surmised that their presence indicates the presence of a mirror above the fireplace, at one time, or at times, in the past, which was used by women when dressing their hair. A number of long tacks were also found – either associated with the fire surround, the remnants of early fittings such as the extant picture rail, or possibly relating to the tacking of objects to the wall or picture rail.

Burnt material beneath the fire surround, amongst which is a pen nib

Beneath the feet of the fire surround were burnt material, presumably swept from the hearth; in amongst this was a pen nib, of unknown date, possibly (but far from certainly) disposed of by throwing into the once 'open' solid fuel fire.

The later marble was removed to fully reveal the earlier tiles; the gap between the modern marble and the earlier tiles was, it seems, necessary for the gas fire to fit in the opening (as the gas fire is deeper). The condition of the chimney-breast tiles is not too bad (cracked in a few places, but not very noticeable; and cut above the opening). 

Original (or at least early) fireplace tiles.

However, the hearth tiles haven't fared so well. The marble hearth stone can away relatively easily; but it became immediately obvious that installation of the gas fire (perhaps in the early 90s) cut through the hearth to tap the gas supply from a pipe beneath. This pipe is likely to have led to a tap (an example can he seen here, near the bottom of the page) at the side of the fire (though the position of this seems to close to the fire for safety), and may have been used as a plug-in gas point. Such points served  'gas-pokers' - a flexible pipe that provided a gas jet with which solid fuel fires might be lit - common during the 20s & 30s (and not always safe!), or portable gas fires. 

Gas point, under lounge hearth

The opening for the fireplace was probably lined with a clay fire-back, although if so this has since been removed; the concrete at the bottom of the fire is likely to be a late 20th century insertion, to provide a level base for the gas fire that has just been removed.

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