I was chuffed to be invited a few months ago to record a BBC ‘Boring Talk’ podcast about my fascination with coalhole cover designs. It was great fun to record in the BBC 4 studio and also in the streets of Stoke Newington. You can listen to the podcast here.
Recording a podcast about such a visual subject was quite challenging, especially explaining the various geometric patterns and styles. Luke Doran, the producer was extremely helpful and provided much appreciated guidance and direction when we recored in the studio and on the street.
Below is the script I’d written and referred to during the recording, though it’s not an exact transcript of the podcast and doesn’t include the recording made outside:
The Beauty of Victorian Coalhole Covers
1. About me
- Growing up in Israel, surrounded by historical ruins dating back to biblical times, I’ve been fascinated with history and archaeology from a young age. I even tried to get a 1930’s hat like the one warn by India Jones as I considered pursuing a career as an archaeologist. I ended up focusing on my other passion, which was fine art and graphic design and today I design digital products and services in the Financial Services industry.
- I moved to Stoke Newington in the London Borough of Hackney in 2002. As time went by, and me being a very curious and inquisitive individual, I became more and more fascinated, some would say obsessed, by its long and rich history.
- In 2013 I opened a Twitter account documenting my research and findings, and six years and 5,000 followers later, I share photos and anecdotes daily about anything from Stoke Newington’s grand old churches to Victorian street furniture such as cast-iron coalhole covers, which is what I’m going to talk about today.
2. What are coalhole covers?
- Known in the trade as ‘Coal Plates’ – These ornate cast-iron discs, usually 12inch in diameter, enabled the coalman to deliver coal into a house’s coal cellar through a chute, without needing to enter the house. They are found typically outside the front door or on the pavement, usually in front of the gate to the house.
- The round shape was favoured as no corner to break off and a circular shape cannot fall into a hole of the same size. Easy to roll if needed.
- Many date back to the Victorian era when ornate patterns were considered desirable on even mundane objects like doorbells, railings, bollards, bootscrapers and rain hoppers. As a designer, I find it fascinating that so much care and attention to detail has gone into the creation of such utilitarian artefacts.
- Coalhole covers are the most decorative and historical manhole covers you are likely walking over every day, and probably don’t even notice. That’s OK. Most people don’t notice manhole covers, and those that do are typically classified as having an eccentric and peculiar hobby.
- As coal was being used less and less following the Clean Air Act 1956, coalhole covers became a disused remnant of the past. People that renovate the front of their house often remove them as they get in the way of decorative tiling work, or simply because they leak.
3. Artistry and history underfoot
- Set in the pavement outside Georgian and Victorian homes, this form of architectural ironmongery tends to be overlooked as we go about our daily lives, not paying attention to the many manhole covers that are dotted along pavements or outside front doors to houses, and why should we really?
- The vast majority of such manhole covers, usually fairly recent ones for utilities such as water, gas and phone lines often lack any historical significance and aren’t visually too interesting or appealing. In my opinion anyway.
- Coalhole covers are different. They are an admirable blend of artistry and history. Apart from their historical value as a remnant of a by-gone era of coal consumption, most of them have a decorative raised pattern that perform a useful function too as a smooth metal plate would be very slippery, especially when wet. A perfect balance of form and function.
- The wide variety of patterns used is fascinating and never ceases to surprise me. These are geometrical shapes and arrangements, that were carefully designed and were seen as more than simply a functional pattern to prevent people from slipping on the cover when wet. The patterns vary in complexity and visual impact, though often made of rotational-symmetry, meaning a certain pattern like a circle for example is repeated a number of times as the plate is rotated. You should start looking for them and see what I mean to appreciate their beauty and visual appeal.
- Coalhole covers can and should be seen as works of art and as I’ll describe, over the decades, including present day, they have been admired and their designs have inspired designers across different disciplines.
- Coalhole covers often include the name of the ironmonger that sold them or the foundry that cast them – Tangible and historical record of long-gone businesses. Coming across them, I can’t help but think that in some cases, the coalhole cover is the only surviving remnant of that business from many years ago.
- Many have disappeared as front paths to homes are renovated and pavements are modernised. Others have been worn smooth over the years, so in that respect coalhole are not rare but aren’t as common as they once were. Certain surviving designs though are rare.
4. The coalhole cover industry
- Coalhole covers were cast by many foundries across the country and sold by ironmongers.
- The most famous one is probably Hayward Brothers, based in Borough who as well as coalhole covers, manufactured pavement lights, which are completely ubiquitous across London.
- Their catalogues show that coalhole covers were made in 3 sizes: 12inch, 14inch and 16inch in diameter. The 12inch is the most common. Larger ones can typically be seen outside commercial premises of large buildings. 18inch and 21inch are rare.
5. Manhole and coalhole cover appreciation – I’m not the only one!
- I’m not the first nor the last person to find coalhole cover designs fascinating and a work of art. The first documented person to capture the beauty of coalhole covers was Shapard Taylor, who when studying medicine in the 1860s in London, recorded dozens of designs by drawing them. They were first published in a book in 1929 and then again in 1965.
- Victor Musgrave, a British poet, art dealer and curators had a collection of 40 coalhole covers. In 1962 he exhibited some of them in his gallery in Soho, Gallery One, as part of the exhibition called ‘Ten Years’.
- Tom Cullen, a journalist writing about the exhibition at the time noted: “British pedestrians can be divided into those who gaze at the sky, those who eye pretty girls, and those who walk with heads bowed looking for old and rare manhole covers.”
- In the mid-late 1970s, renowned textile designer and educator, Lilly Goddard, used rubbings to capture coalhole cover designs, which she incorporated in her textile designs, as the designs were printed onto cushions and other items. She published a book about her coalhole cover-inspired textile work titled ‘Coalhole rubbings – The Story of an Artefact in our Streets’. Goddard exhibited her coalhole cover based textile work in an exhibition in 1975 and in 1978.
- Today, manhole covers, with coalhole covers being a small subset of these, prove to be again a topic of admiration and appreciation with articles in the press in recent years with titles such as ‘Drainspotting hobby turns manhole covers into art’, ‘The unexpected beauty of manhole covers around the world’ and ‘Why Jeremy Corbyn and I both love coal plates’ which was published in The Telegraph in 2015.
- There are many Instagram accounts dedicated to photographing manhole covers from around the world. Accounts with names like ‘Iron.Roadart’, ‘Drainspotting.art’, ‘Manhole.huntress’ and ‘Manhole.greatness’. Japanese sewer manhole covers are extremely colourful and decorative with tens of thousands of designs, which attract enthusiasts from around the world. But I’m here to focus on London coalhole covers, and specifically the ones found in Stoke Newington.
6. How I got interested in coalhole covers
- I constantly look around when I walk down streets, looking for relics from the past. Most often objects that most people overlook, and probably don’t think they’re of any interest.
- After years of walking over them and never taking any notice, a couple of years ago I stopped and examined a circular cast-iron plate on the pavement and after a short investigation found out it was a coalhole cover.
- Once I knew what it was, I became curious how many different styles and designs I could find along one of the main streets in Stoke Newington. It became a sort of a game hunting for coalhole covers and learning about them as I went along.
- I quickly realised there were quite a few and decided to survey all the surviving designs I could find in the street of Stoke Newington.
- I spent a few weeks going taking short walks, looking over front gates and quickly finding the experience rather exciting as you start to realise some designs are very common, while others are rare.
7. My photo-survey of coalhole cover styles and designs in Stoke Newington
- As a local historian, I constrain my area of interest to that of the former Metropolitan Borough of Stoke Newington. The borough was formed in 1900 and in 1965, following the Local Government Act 1963, which created a new local government structure for the capital, it was merged with the metropolitan boroughs of Shoreditch and Hackney to form the new London Borough of Hackney.
- I estimate I walked along around 120 streets in the former borough. Most are Victorian so houses were likely to have a coalhole. It was an interesting experience, which made me discover new residential streets I’ve never been to. I never had a reason to, till now.
- In total, I recorded 82 designs and styles, in many cases variations of common designs. Sometimes it was simply a case of spotting names of different foundries and ironmongers.
- I used my phone to take the photos and given the scope of the survey and the fact I wanted to be quick, I didn’t go as far of noting where each design was found and how many instances of it, I spotted. That would have been nice but I guess I simply wanted to keep going and see what I’ll find in the next street, and one after that.
- Emerging classification:
- At a high-level a coalhole cover either includes a name of business, foundry or ironmonger or not. I later learnt when reading Gillian Cooksey’s ‘Artistry and History Underfoot: A Study of Coalhole Covers’ that these are referred to as ‘Badged’.
- Apart from the writing with the name and address of the foundry or ironmonger, there were typically common patterns: Star, circles and rings within larger circles, Geometrical shapes, which kept appearing in different variations.
- Another parameter was whether the coalhole cover was whether the cover included ventilation holes, pavement lights, meaning pieces of glass, or both.
- I was constantly surprised by just how many different variations on the same basic themes existed, as well as the variety in names.
- It was very exciting to come across a completely new design, in some cases, such designs were only spotted once during the survey making them extremely rare. I’m sure the people who live in houses with such rare coalhole covers aren’t aware of that and most likely don’t care. That’s ok. I really don’t expect everyone to share my appreciation of coalhole covers, though I have heard from people that once I made them aware of ‘those round decorative plates’ they cannot help but seeing and admiring them.
- Conducting the survey had its challenges. Firstly, stepping through someone’s front gate to inspect and photograph the coalhole cover in front of their door felt, as you’d imagine, odd to say the least. I very much felt, and rightly so, that I entered people’s private space, but the reality is so does every delivery person or postman. The main different though is they don’t bow to take a photo of your coalhole cover.
- Sometimes I could see people in the lounge through the bay window and had to either wait till they left the room or in some cases come back some other time. I really didn’t want to have to explain to people what it was I was doing.
- Common foundries and ironmongers, which greeted me often became a sort of familiar faces I would bump into often. They included:
- Hayward Bros. from 187-9 Union Street, Borough
- Willian Pryor & Co. from Dalston, Hackney
- John C. Aston & Son from 70 Essex Road, Islington
- Jones & Co. from 156 Goswell Road, (Distinct cannon logo)
- Common foundries and ironmongers, which greeted me often became a sort of familiar faces I would bump into often. They included:
- I observed that a lot of coalholes have been filled and covered – I was told by a number of people that they used to leak. Also, many houses have been renovated, often with extra steps, ramps or new tiles, so unless the homeowner insisted the old coalhole cover was kept, they were removed.
- It was intriguing to notice that coalhole cover designs and styles can vary significantly within the same street with identical houses that were clearly built as part of the same development.
- I initially assumed that a builder would use the same design across all the houses that were built, but then again, it is likely that some were replaced over the years. I wondered if people would go and look for specific designs and considered them more desirable than others.
8. Final words
I hope that following this talk, you too will appreciate coalhole covers, which I’m sure you won’t be able to ignore from now on. They are everywhere and some are more decorative than others, but have a story to tell. Whether it’s the long-gone foundry where they were cast or the 19th century ironmonger where they were bought. Or it’s simply the story of a period in history when people relied on coal deliveries to ensure their house was warm in the winter.
In any case, even though the no longer serve the original purpose for which they were produced, they are still an object of fascination and appreciation. Many years after they were last used.