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Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Six pairs of bed socks, a hot stone straight from the oven, flues cleaned out with a holly branch and a load of coal under the stairs. That used to be the way to get through a Peakland winter.

When it came to home comforts, some people were more comfortable than others. According to his will of 1649, John Percival of Sheen was one such lucky soul. Worth a considerable fortune of £300 or so, he owned pigs, poultry, geese, 30 sheep, 24 cattle and several horses. In addition to his farming equipment, John also possessed yokes, looms and a spinning wheel. He even owned some books, an expensive indulgence in those days.

There was cheese, butter and beef in the larder, and his dining table was laid with a cloth and napkins, pewter tableware and five silver spoons. Mr and Mrs Percival slept soundly on a feather bed with proper sheets and shared six pairs of bed socks.

Three hundred years later, Peaklanders had a different means of keeping their feet warm at night. It helped if you lived in a quarrying area because you needed the round ‘core’ from a grindstone. This would be heated up for several hours in the bottom of the kitchen stove, then at bedtime wrapped in a thick old piece of cloth and used as a bed warmer.

Houses and farms on the Staffordshire moorlands kept their homes warm by burning local peat, particularly useful for backing up house fires to last overnight. Many households still burned peat when the majority had progressed to using coal. The large-scale use of domestic coal came about with the Industrial Revolution, making a great difference to home comfort.

Kettle on the fire

Villagers from the Brassington area used to fetch their coal in buckets and sacks from Longcliffe wharf, a station on the Cromford and High Peak Railway. Only a few families could afford to pay for their coal to be delivered by cart. In later times it was brought by lorry to the customer’s door. Well, not exactly to the door – it would be dumped on the road in a heap and often stayed there all day until the man of the house came home to shovel it into the cellar or ‘coal hole’, which in some houses was under the stairs.

Indoor life seemed to revolve around the black-lead stove and the demand for sticks gave children a never-ending chore. One 80-year-old lady of Winster recalled a few years ago: ‘We used to have a fire in most rooms ... some of the old cottages you’ll find a fireplace in every bedroom. We’d go up to bed at night to light a fire. We used coal for cooking, heating, everything – oven, boiler and open fire. One side was the oven, the other side was where you had your hot water boiler. You had your kettle on the fire ... if you wanted it very hot you made sure that your flues were all cleaned out. They used to clean them with a bush, a holly bush, if you hadn’t got any rods and a brush.

‘People used to clean their own chimneys ... there was always someone’s chimney on fire, and then it didn’t need sweeping ... The atmosphere in the village with all these coal fires was very foggy.’ (From Winster, a Peak District Village Remembers).

All before the Clean Air Act of course.

Julie Bunting

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