History Under Your Feet

Coal Hole Covers

Down the old Coal Hole

Many bits of the capital are no longer there for a reason: they just exist because it’s easier to leave them be than it is to take them away. Like boarded up public loos. And Centre Point.

Perhaps the most everyday examples of this phenomenon, though, are the thousands of coal-hole covers that line the pavements in front of Victorian houses all over London.

When coal started being home-delivered cheaply in the 1850s, holes in the street allowed the coal man to tip his dusty, mucky wares straight into the coal cellar below. And these flat cast-iron plates locked in place to stop any cheeky Victorian urchins nicking the coal right back.

Today, of course, the plates are totally useless. The clean air act of 1954 saw off coal fires in the city, and that was the end of that. But a hundred year’s worth of coal hole covers remain sitting there in the pavement, telling us a few things about the way London used to be.

For starters, almost all have elaborate, and sometimes quite beautiful designs on them. These plates were cast in small, local foundries, and the names of the designers were never recorded – but they must have taken pride in their work, whoever they were. Geometric designs, floral patterns, spirals and suns and stars all brighten up the concrete pavements they are set in.

Then, there’s the fact that they are all different. A few in any one street might match – maybe they were the design chosen by the original builder – but so many have been replaced over the years that any given road nowadays is a complete medley of patterns.

And there’s the names of the foundries cast boldly round the edges. Have a look at the addresses – it’s a fair bet that they’re local to the street you’re standing in. Householders clearly went to their local foundry when they needed a new plate. Of course, if you lived in Mayfair there probably weren’t any too close by – but have a look at these plates from Mornington Crescent: They come from Euston Road, Drummond St, Camden, Hampstead Road... one has travelled from as far afield as Oxford St. (1)

London has lost that kind of small, local industry along with coal deliveries and coal-fume pea-soupers – but the intricacy of the plates’ designs singles them out as more than just industrial relics. Why are they so elaborate? Even back in the 1860s, a young medical student noticed how beautiful they looked, and sketched them for this book.

Many of the designs he drew can still be found – though many more have disappeared. Maybe it’s time to compile our own catalogue before they vanish completely – email us pics of your favourites and Londonolgy will record them for posterity.

Have a look at the full Mornington Crescent batch here.

(1) as pointed out by ?????????