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A guest post by LH Member Hannah Renier who reviews The Domestic Revolution by Ruth Goodman.

domesticrevolutioncoverThis excellent book emerges from decades of learning-by-doing, added to a practical imagination and research foraged from obscure sources. Goodman writes:

I have probably cooked more meals over a wood fire than I have over gas or electric cookers. I have certainly cleaned more houses heated by open wood fires than those with central heating, and long ago adapted my laundry regime to something inspired by earlier methods.

Not obviously a Londoner, then, since it’s hard to imagine building a wood fire in your studio flat or bashing wet bedsheets with stones on the Thames foreshore. Of course mediaeval Londoners did that sort of thing all the time, but by around 1600–

Alone among population concentrations outside of Asia, this city of just over 200,000 people had chosen to be fired by coal, becoming the first in the Western world to make the big switch.

Where London led, everyone followed. Not that London trades – brewing, lime-burning etc. – hadn’t always used some coal, but a dramatic growth in imports from Newcastle started in the late 1500s and it was driven by domestic demand. Until then, almost everyone who had ever used coal found it slow to burn and filthy to use.

To find out why – apart from the soaring cost of wood – coal suddenly became popular you’ll have to read the book. The point being made is that this domestic revolution preceded, and drove, the Industrial Revolution. And that this change was inspired by London women: housewives, servants, or mistresses of the household.

Only someone like Goodman, who has spent years working in historic houses and villages with wood and peat for fuel as well as coal and charcoal, could have written this book, for she can describe in detail the practical advantages and disadvantages. Coal is hotter (and the Little Ice Age had begun) but vastly dirtier. Wood-fuelled houses were cleaned quickly with brushes, a little wood ash and sand and vinegar when necessary, and on washing day, cold water and lye (a solution of wood ash and cold water). A good soaking and a single rinse cleaned the dirtiest clothes. Wood left time for a sixteenth-century City housewife to cook and look after the children, the poultry and bees and vegetable garden, sew and wash the family’s linen. Her sister in the country, also using wood, had time to help with the harvest.

With coal, something had to give–almost always laundry and housework. These things took many hours in the day because clothes, walls and windows were always coated with a film of dirt that had to be washed off with hot water and soap. Laundry had to be hauled from the tub and rinsed several times. It’s heavy work. Soot sticks: witness the blackened brickwork on many a Georgian terrace, Victorian warehouse or railway arch. Observe the coal-holes in pavements and next to doorsteps in central London and think of the poor. Most people didn’t have a cellar in the bowels of a basement to receive the coal that tumbled down the chute. In the mid-twentieth century women could still be seen carting coal home, usually in an old pram. Like potatoes it was sold by the stone.

By 1600 suddenly everything was being hot-washed with soap. With the passing centuries arrived scrubbing brushes, mangles and washboards. Soap in the time of Elizabeth I had been an expensive import. It became a necessity, even for washing oneself, and was made in England; yet another demand for the whaling industry to satisfy.

Coal changed everything, from cooking to the design of our houses and our furniture. With coal came a demand for grates and firebacks, fire tongs and coal scuttles and pokers. In a mediaeval hall, the heat from a wood fire set on low andirons, or the hearth, radiates at floor level. You can’t build a coal fire directly onto the hearth – it needs an updraft beneath – so you might as well sit on a high-backed armchair next to it.

Nor can you cook the same way in a cauldron over a wood fire as you would over coal; you have to keep feeding more wood into the fire and shoving the fire back and forth below the cauldron to control the heat. Cooking in a pan on a kind of long-legged trivet over slow-burning coals, you move the pan. Brass containers didn’t work as well as iron. People’s diet altered. With coal, you could use an oven to bake bread without having to feed in more fuel all the time, or set a pot to simmer for ages. Roast meat and boiled puddings came onto the menu. ‘London Cookery’ was a thing. It spread throughout Britain and in the centuries to come, in faraway jungles and deserts, expatriate Brits would be found tucking into meat and two veg and Spotted Dick.

Coal was aspirational. Landowners and newly rich merchants used it in their town houses. Ralph Treswell’s London plans of 1610 show rooms with ovens and fireplaces in homes, but also in pie shops and pubs, wash-houses and of course, mansions. The public rooms and bedrooms of the best houses were heated with charcoal, which was more expensive but far cleaner. Comfortable homes had coal fires in every room, and by the mid-seventeenth century bird’s-eye views of London show thousands of chimneys. Two hundred years later, every house was built with a coal-fired ‘copper’ for boiling water, an ancestor of the cast-iron kitchen range. Decorators from the 1600s onwards routinely used oil paint on exterior wood to resist the sticky dirt in London air.

Demand for coal brought jobs and innovation. By the seventeenth century mines were ever deeper and flooding a problem to be solved with steam-driven pumps. Colliers, ships that plied up and down the east coast, brought new prosperity to towns like Ipswich and Lowestoft and provided training for sailors. It was said that two thirds of the British navy had learned their skills on east-coast colliers plying up and down to London.

For a multitude of reasons this enthusiasm for domestic coal did not spread to France or Germany or North America for a long time. As a result, this reviewer can testify that in the 1950s, London smelled different from Paris. It wasn’t just Woodbines versus Gauloises. London fogs had by then been laden with soot for over 350 years before the first Clean Air Act was passed.

There is not much about monopoly capitalism or the effect of ‘combinations’ (unions) here, but it’s not that kind of book. Instead it has fascinating domestic details some of which are useful today. Try cleaning old grey pewter with chalk (you can find lumps on the foreshore) and olive oil from Boots the Chemists. Amazing!


The Domestic Revolution, (2020, 352 pp), by Ruth Goodman is published by Michael O’Mara in hardcover, paperback and kindle. Cover price (hardback) is £20, but available for less.

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