TT: From the Coal Face

JANE: Well, Alan, it’s New Year’s Eve.  Christmas is now over, so I can now safely ask you about something you mentioned last time.  Coal…  I thought about asking last week, but I didn’t want to give Santa any ideas about what to put in my stocking.

Jet Mountain Lion, Coal Wolf

Jet Mountain Lion, Coal Wolf

ALAN: But how will you go first footing tonight if Santa doesn’t bring you any coal?

JANE: Oh, boy…  You’re going to need to remind me what “first footing” is.  Over here, coal is what bad little boys and girls get in their stockings…  No one wants to invite that!

ALAN: First footing is the tradition of being the first visitor to the house in the New Year. The visitors often bring a lump of coal with them. We discussed the tradition way back in 2011.

JANE: 2011, huh?  I guess I have a good excuse for not remembering the details!  Thanks!

When you mentioned your grandmother’s “huge and ancient fireplace,” I envisioned one that burned wood.  But then you went on and said: “the fire would be carefully lit and fed regularly with the best of all possible coal.”

That really seemed exotic and old-fashioned to me.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a coal fire.  I have some questions for you.

ALAN: I find that astonishing. When I was a boy, everybody had coal fires in their houses.

JANE: Well, I am somewhat younger than you.  However, Jim is a bit older than I am, so I asked him if he remembered coal fires.  He said that when he was a boy, his grandparents had a coal-fired furnace, but all he remembered about that was how it was apparently finicky.

Jim’s own home, which was somewhat more modern, didn’t use coal.  The house I remembered best used oil for heat, though I seem to recall my dad talking about the oil furnace being a relatively new element in the house, so the house was probably originally heated by coal, but that would have been before my time.

ALAN: I suspect I might have been part of the very last coal generation. Certainly by the time I left home, coal fires had largely disappeared.

JANE:  Well, I’m hoping you can clarify a point that puzzled me.

You talked about a “hot water cylinder.”  I’m assuming that’s what we here call a “hot water heater.”  If it depended on the coal fire being lit, what did your grandparents do for hot water in the warmer months?  Did they need to have a fire burning even in summer?

ALAN: The “hot water cylinder” is the tank full of hot water that feeds the taps (you’d say faucets). The pipes that feed water into the cylinder pass behind the fireplace and transfer the heat from the fire. The whole system is known as a “wetback,” though I gather that word has a slightly different meaning where you come from…

JANE: Yes, that it does…

ALAN: And to answer your original question, yes – if you wanted hot water all year round, you needed a fire all year round. However, my father bit the bullet and  bought an electrical immersion heater when I was about eight years old, so we could do without fires in summer, if we had to.

JANE: That sounds like an excellent investment on your father’s part.  I hope your grandparents made a similar choice!

ALAN: No – they were far too set in their ways for that.

When you depend so much on coal, you need to make sure that you never run out of it. Every house had coal delivered to it every few weeks. Naturally, the coal had to be stored somewhere dry – wet coal doesn’t burn very well. Posh people had a coal cellar with a convenient chute down which the coalman could empty the contents of his sacks. We didn’t have a cellar, so our coal was stored in a shed. After WWII, a lot of air raid shelters had a second life as a convenient place to store coal.

Robin moved from Australia to England in the 1980s. Coal fires were long gone by then, but the house she lived in had a shed which still had some lumps of coal in it. She’d never seen coal before and she found it quite fascinating. That winter, when it snowed, she took the lumps of coal out and put them in the snow because she thought the contrast between the black coal and the white snow was really pretty. I think that’s a lovely story…

JANE: Indeed it is!  It’s fascinating that to this day snowmen are usually depicted with black eyes.  Originally, these were lumps of coal.  I wonder what people use today?

ALAN: That’s an interesting question. I wonder if we have any snowmen among our readers who could enlighten us?

In Yorkshire, the place where the coal was stored was known as the coal hole (or, more accurately, the coal ‘ole). There was a song we sang as children:

We’re reet down in’t coal ‘ole
Where t’muck slarts on’t winders.
We’ve used all our coal up
And we’re reet down t’ cinders.
When t’ bum bailiff calls
He won’t know where to find us
‘Cos we’re reet down in’t coal ‘ole
Where t’muck slarts on’t winders

Do you need a translation?

JANE:  Actually, I don’t.   The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett educated me quite nicely in Yorkshire dialect.

ALAN: Perhaps one or two of our readers aren’t Secret Garden fans. So, just in case:

We are right down in the coal hole
Where the dirt covers the windows.
We’ve used all our coal up
And we’re right down to cinders. (ie: We’ve only got cinders left)
When the rent man calls
He won’t know where to find us
Because we’re right down in the coal hole
Where the dirt covers the windows.

JANE: Lovely!  I wonder if the hearth Martha is always tending in The Secret Garden burned coal or wood.  I’ll need to go check.

Your song got me thinking about “clinkers.”  These days, I’m betting many people don’t even know what those are or why something that doesn’t work out is a “clinker”?  Do you know what a clinker is?

ALAN: Yes – it’s the stony residue left behind after burning coal in a furnace. I got very confused when I first heard of “clinker built boats.” For a long time I was absolutely convinced that boat builders collected clinker from fires and furnaces and then welded it together into boats. I remember being quite disappointed when I finally found out what the phrase really meant…

JANE:  I was similarly puzzled, though I didn’t get so creative in figuring out how clinkers could be used.  This reminds me…

Some years back, when Jim was digging a historic archeological site, some younger members of the crew came across some clinkers.  They didn’t have any idea what they were.  Happily, they brought them to Jim (since he’s the go-to guy for rocks) and he did know what they were.

ALAN: And, to clarify what you said earlier, I presume, that because clinkers can’t burn any more, anything that doesn’t work anymore can legitimately be described as a clinker?

JANE: That used to be fairly common slang here in America.  However, I think it’s fallen out of use along with home burning of coal.

That reminds me of an interesting story about coal and fiction…  However, it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m going to go make some preparations for seeing in the New Year.  I hope that you and Robin (who are probably already into the New Year, as people read this) have/had a lovely one and I look forward to talking more in 2016!


10 Responses to “TT: From the Coal Face”

  1. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    Like most Americans of my generation, I know what clinkers are mostly because of the movie “A Christmas Story”:

    On the other hand, I’d never heard of “clinker” as something that doesn’t work any more. (Is it related to “clunker”?

    As a former grad student in English, I do like your discussions about odd English-language terms that pop up here and there.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I’m not sure about any relationship to “clunker.” i always thought “clunker” was related to automobiles, from the noises they make (clunks) when falling apart.

      I saw a lovely three volume slang dictionary in a catalog recently, and seriously considered getting it. The subject is fascinating.

  2. Peter Says:

    Coal is actually still in use in parts of eastern Europe, or at least it was a few years ago when I lived in Poland. Not – just – in big industrial generator stations like the ones we have in China, but in some older (mostly pre-War, usually pre-First) homes.

    I remember one winter when a co-worker came and stayed with us for a few days – we’d had a particularly bad winter storm, and the coal delivery truck wasn’t able to make it to her neighbourhood, leaving her entirely without heat, so she took refuge on the couch in our (water radiator-heated) living room until she could get the fire going again.

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I grew up in a Virginia house that originally had a coal furnace. One of my jobs was to feed it.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      I, too, although I was far too young to be feeding the furnace when it was replaced. In any case, it was the super’s job, since this was an apartment building. Ironically [or not, maybe] the super in those days was also a city fireman. I do remember the coal truck pulling up. It had a conveyor belt on it, so nobody had to haul sacks around.

      I believe, but would have to check, that by the time coal was widely available for domestic heating in North America, most people who could afford it were using stoves – or at least Franklin Stoves – or furnaces. Burning it in a fireplace was probably quite uncommon. If you were stuck with a fireplace, you were likely also still burning wood. [In fact, a lot of people outside urban areas are _still_ burning wood, at least if they’re young enough to haul it into the house. You can buy some pretty fancy wood-burning furnaces these days.]

  4. Chad Merkley Says:

    I require a melody for that song, Alan :).

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    WOLF AND DOLPHIN, WOLF AND OWL, WOLF AND DRAGON WOLF AND LION, WOLF AND TIGER, WOLF AND UNICORN. These are the fictional pairs I your book fan Jasmine Olson can imagine after studying spirit animal researches and watching some fantasy videos, plus reading the quotes of fictional characters. If you read spirit animals and totem animals sites which mainly do with personality, these are the couples that I can visualize being in a reflective and peaceful attitude while doing teamwork whether scary or easy, COURAGEOUS MATES WHO ARE SURE LOYAL. AND WISE. Just to give some new fantasy ideas dear Jane.

    I your book fan Jasmine Olson am imaginative about fantasy characters who I find fun, and I think visually about real life stuff.


    I’m in UT. and have 3 disabilities but Jane LINDSKOLD it would sure be fun if I was ever able to let you and the people who’ve done your book cover pictures see my unique wolf art. Most outdoor people I’d be a bit afraid to show my wolf art to, but an enjoyable author like you Jane it would feel pretty interesting to do.
    (wishes and entertainment moments for both of us)



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