Inglenook Fireplace History
The earliest fireplaces were simply a pile of logs on a central hearth in the middle of the floor of a house. The smoke escaped through a hole or primitive vent in the roof.
The Inglenook (literally meaning chimney corner) fireplace generally came into being in the mid-late 16th century. The exceptions were for very wealthy properties such as castles, monasteries and the like. Many of these had Inglenook Fireplaces up to a century before.
The open fireplace was the only means of heating, cooking and damp control within a house right up until the 19th Century. In the 19th Century, cast iron cooking and heating appliances were introduced into the homes of those who could afford them, but the poor still relied on their fireplaces for day to day survival.
Heat loss from those old buildings was high due to massive draughts through doors and windows and poor insulation in roofs, walls and floors.
In the Elizabethan Era the rich would have had glass in their windows. A labourer in his cottage, however, would have had to wait until the early 18th century to afford this luxury.
In the absence of glass wooden shutters, pelts, or even pieces of cloth were used creating extremely draughty areas.
It is therefore hardly surprising that during the winter months a fire would have been burning continuously twenty four hours a day.
Not only was it more economical to heat the shell of the building and maintain the temperature (the same applies to modern day homes). The simple fact was that the fire was paramount for the survival from the cold and damp.
A fire burning continuously also reduced heat loss and down draughts via the chimney itself. It was the only way of drying out clothing soaked through from the freezing rain. Inglenook fireplaces were often built with a seat or “stand in” alcove at one side (or both) for the owners to get as close as possible to the fire.
These alcoves were always lime-plastered and lime-washed internally to help reflect light and heat into the room. The massive draughts in these buildings although exacerbating heat loss, were, actually beneficial in aiding the function of the open fire and reducing damp problems via increased ventilation. The fire would draw in large quantities of air via the loosely fitting doors and windows and in the process would evaporate moisture which had entered the house through the absorbent materials of construction.
Inglenook fireplaces were constructed with the same absorbent or permeable materials as the entire house, and it is therefore essential to replace “like for like” when restoring your own fireplace.
Old bricks, stone, timber, lime, lime mortars, lime plaster, and lime washes allow a building to “breathe”. Any attempt to prevent this will lead to problems of damp and deterioration. Modern renders, mortars and chemical sealers do not solve a restoration problem; they merely hide it, whilst leading to further destruction!
Sealed in damp will eventually work its way out and the tell-tale signs of bubbling or blowing out of the render, and damp stains often characterised by that all too familiar “damp” odour will begin to show.
Owners of older properties should not be too alarmed if they discover signs of damp, as sympathetic restoration will nearly always resolve the situation.
We have solved hundreds of damp problems in fireplaces and their adjacent walls, simply by restoring the structure with old traditional methods and materials, allowing them to “breathe” once again.
Although the open fireplace today is not essential for day to day survival as it was for our ancestors, its structural role and its contribution is the heating and damp control equilibrium in an old property.
We take all these factors into account when restoring an Inglenook fireplace to its former glory.