Looking up is usually the best way to spot unusual things in London but looking down also has its moments. (I am reminded of the friend of mine in London whose day’s work used to be going out to look for dropped cash – he lived quite well off it. Six billion pennies have disappeared from circulation – many of them lying in gutters.) Coalhole covers are easy to pass by but they are one of the most common pieces of decorative street furniture still surviving from Victorian times, with most dating to the mid-1700 to mid-1800s.
I can just still remember living in a house where the coalhole was still in use (not in London) but, for those who don’t know, a coalhole was where coal was poured down into a cellar. Coal was used to heat every house in London before the introduction of the Clean Air Acts – and central heating. That’s one of the reasons Victorian households had so many maids: cleaning coal dust was a full time job.
The covers are the only such ‘manhole’ cover that can’t fall inside the hole they cover. They sit in an iron rim and are locked from inside with a chain attached to an eye underneath. They are quite small so that burglars can’t use them – although there are stories of small children being sent down them to unlock doors from the inside.
Almost all are circular and the moulded patterns are raised to stop pedestrians slipping on them in the rain or icy weather. The way in which the iron designs has worn down in a century or so shows the amount of foot traffic that has gone over them. In days gone by, falling down an open coalhole must have been a real danger, especially in the thick smogs that the coal itself did so much to create. (Speaking of smog, note that the coalhole shown top right bears the name ‘A Smellie’.)
Each foundry has its own unique designs, a trademark if you like, and sometimes also the name of the firm. Keep an eye out and you will start to recognise familiar ones: ‘Hayward’s Patent Self-Locking’ is a common one that seems to have stood up to wear very well.
Hayward’s – as the covers say – was based in Borough but they moved to several larger premises as business grew. The designs were cast by pouring molten iron into a sand mould made by stamping with a wooden or metal master. However, Hayward’s (actually two bothers from a family that had been making glass since 1783) really made their fortune by inventing a way of allowing light into gloomy cellars. The pavement lights that you see many scooters parked on around the West End were a very profitable development for the company – combining the family glass and iron working skills – and you will see the Hayward name on them, too.
The ‘holy grail’ of coalhole spotting is one bearing the traditional sign of an ironworker: a dog with its head in a pot. It was a Hayward Brothers trademark and you can read a bit more about that here: