When my late father was demobbed after the war in 1946 he returned home to Birmingham to no work and the dole. As he had been a bricklayer before the war and worked on many properties for one building company building chimneys and sorting out flue problems, to make a bob or two to pay the rent he made a fireplace out of concrete in the backyard where he and my mother lived and managed to sell it, that was the start of our family business which over the years specialised in the manufacture and supply of bespoke fireplaces. We designed and made fireplaces in a range of materials and for whatever type of fire the customer wanted.
In the 1960's when the 'Clean Air Act' came in and the use of house coal was banned in cities, people had to use smokeless fuels instead which was more expensive, due to this a lot of people converted to gas fires with many ripping out their fireplaces and just having a wall mounted boring box shaped gas fire instead. About the same time as smokeless zones were introduced gas and oil central heating became available, along with the less successful electric night storage heaters which worked off a white meter. As the masses converted away from open fires this added to the woes of my father due to people turning away from fireplaces all together with many even ripping out their chimney breasts to save room. The fireplace business slumped and fireplace manufacturers and companies were falling like flies during the late sixties.
All the old mass produced tiled fireplace companies based in Stoke on Trent closed and only a few companies managed to hold on during those desperate times. My father was one of them but had seen his workforce reduce from fourteen to just one by the end of 1970. After a few years of looking at either an uninteresting wall mounted gas fire, or a central heating radiator, as the main focal point in a room, next to the telly, people began to return to wanting a feature fireplace. In 1971 my dad pleaded with me to come into the business as he needed me. After leaving school and doing a two year City & Guilds gents hairdressing course, then being a gents hairdresser for six years with a year, unsuccessfully, working for myself in a rented shop, I was shanghaied into the family business and had to start to learn a new trade from scratch in my early twenties.
By 1990, I was running the business and my woes then was the recession created by the madness of the UK joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. We were still a small unit taking great pride in our service and quality of work. Most of the fireplaces we made were for use with gas fires, the designs of which had improved greatly with most being over 60% or more efficient, there were some people who still wanted their open fires while others decided to go with the newly popular open flame gas fires which recreated the look of an open fire but without the coal or ash. However, although we supplied these type of open gas fires I had to warn my customers that they were only around 10% to 15% efficient, which when asked what that meant by my customers I used to explain that for every pound of gas used on the fire they got around 10p to 15p of heat in return with most of the heat disappearing up the flue, unlike the 60p to 70p of heat from a more efficient gas fire. In fact I used to warn my customers that they could not rely on these open gas fires as a heating appliance as they could with the more efficient gas fires. Some customers still chose them as they wanted the look rather than the heat, at least they had the knowledge and freedom of choice.
As time went by solid fuel stoves began to gain popularity, these were often referred to as "multifuel" as they could burn both wood and solid fuel and most were very efficient. As they had dampers on them to control the inflow of air which in turn when opened could either speed up the burning or when closed decrease it, allowing the fuel to burn slower, producing less heat and keeping them ticking over during the night. In the morning they could be opened up to get them going again. As stoves gained popularity the manufacturers of them made improvements giving the exhaust fumes in many of them a second burn, thus making them extremely clean burning and improving their efficiency.
The irony is with the Government's latest bout of 'Green' insanity, in regard to open fires and stoves, what it is making law from February 2021 is in fact in line with what people who use stoves and open fires have already been doing for years. People in cities who live in 'Clean Air Zones', have to use smokeless fuel as, by law, coal merchants are not allowed to deliver none smokeless fuel in these clean air zones. So nothing changes there other than garages who sell bags of none smokeless coal will no longer be able to do so. But the trade in this fuel in cities is so minimal it will make only the tiniest fraction of a difference.
If you speak to anyone who uses a solid fuel stove they will tell you that they avoid using green wood like the plague as it tars up their stoves and the twin wall flue liners that have to be used with these appliances, all stove users will only use well seasoned wood that has had a year to dry out. If they use solid fuel on these stoves, they will also know that they can only use the cleaner burning smokeless fuels, as non-smokeless fuels will soot everything up and they get a telling off from their chimney sweep who then has to sort out the mess. So for these aspects the change in the law actually makes no difference other than to allow the Government to posture how green it is.
Smokeless fuels have been in use for over sixty years, there are all sorts of smokeless fuels which some are better for use on open fires and some in stoves. As an advocate and user of an open fire, living in a smokeless zone, I use a smokeless fuel called 'Homefire' which gives a long steady burn and produces plenty of heat. I could use others such 'Coalite' which being lightweight makes it look as if you are getting more for your money but as it burns quickly you burn twice as much in the same time. For stoves, Anthracite or the small rugby ball shaped Furnicite is ideal. These will still be available when the new law comes in as they are classed as smokeless.
One thing I would try to put my customers off was the burning of wood only on their open fires, I would always recommend they burn solid fuel. The reason being was that wood burns fast, within about thirty to forty minutes of putting wood on an open fire it is nearly gone and more wood is needed, then again and again as the night goes on meaning not only were my wood burning customers up and down like Jack-in-boxes over the evening, it was also doing a lot of damage to their fireplace and fireback. The problem being the rapid heating and cooling which meant instead of a slow build to a lot of heat then slow cooling from solid fuel, burning only wood meant their fires would heat up rapidly then quickly cool off creating rapid expansion and contraction which could crack and destroy, whereas a solid fuel user's fireback would last for years.
When looked at these new measures will really make little or no difference to the already small amount of pollution which the UK produces globally. While India, China and other large global polluters carry on regardless, confusion will be created in the UK for the small number of people who use stoves and open fires. As my dear old dad used to say: "The smoke goes up the chimney all the same", now political hot air will be going up with it as well.