As the weather gets colder, we get nostalgic about log fires. They appear on Christmas cards amid the glitter. We may even glimpse logs burning in a fireplace during some TV programme or film. It radiates a feeling of warmth and home. But in fact some log-burning has just become illegal.
Since May 2021, a law came into effect that strictly controls what types of logs may be sold in England. Its purpose is to reduce emissions of fine particulate matter, PM2.5, which is harmful to human health.
A brief history of heating
For centuries, burning wood has been the main way to heat most houses and to cook. One of the best places to see the changes in domestic heating is at the Museum of Wales at St Fagans near Cardiff.
The earliest homes in the exhibit are the thatched round-houses from the iron age, similar to the rondavels I know in Africa, in which fire would be kindled in the centre, with the smoke just furling up through a hole in the thatch. Then there is Nantwaller cottage, with a fireplace on one side but seemingly no chimney on the thatched roof, as the guide book describes:
“Inside it could be dark, smoky and sooty. Smoke from burning peat and wood gave the house a very distinctive smell, and a layer of black soot would accumulate on the furniture and the few household possessions the cottagers owned.”
Three cheers for the chimney!
Chimneys represented technical progress. At first they were only in castles, like Bodiam, and manor houses, where the beautiful Tudor decorated chimneys (as at Hampton Court) are distinctive.
By Shakespeare’s time, many larger town-houses had chimneys installed, as can be seen at Hall’s place, Stratford, where he probably lived in his last years with his daughter. It took a century or so, and many catastrophic fires, from first wood-lined and then clay-lined chimneys, before regulations were brought in that domestic chimneys must be entirely built of brick.
Gathering winter fuel
Logs were the main fuel. In villages, most people could easily get wood. The manor houses had trees on the estate: the cottages had, since Anglo-Saxon times, coppicing rights to commons. What changed this were the increasing enclosures of common land from the sixteenth century onwards. So how was the poor man to get a supply of winter fuel?
The popular carol, Good King Wenceslas, was written in 1853 by J M Neale and set to the tune of a much older medieval spring dance. The doggerel resounds with high Victorian class categories: yonder peasant, and page and monarch. But beneath it, Neale has unconsciously given us a bit of fuel history: the peasant was scavenging fuel where he could, probably illegally on the royal lands, “the forest fence”, while the estate owner could command “pine logs” for a feast.
Thus it is why we still associate logs with Christmas feasting.
New King Coal
We don’t see coal fires on Christmas cards. But in fact by Neale’s time coal was beginning to overtake logs as the main domestic fuel for the growing cities. The houses built at that time, the rows of Victorian terraced housing, all have chimney pots on top and a coal house in the backyard.
Coal merchants, in London for example, collected coal at the port or a wholesaler, and distributed it around the streets using horse-drawn wagons.
A prudent householder ordered more coal before the winter. I can still remember my mother anxiously doing this at a time when our main source of household heating was coal. When she was first a housewife, in the exceptionally cold winter of 1946-47, coal stocks ran dangerously low in the whole country, a nightmare she had never forgotten.
As central heating became more common, from the mid-twentieth century the open fireplace with its coal or log fire became less used. Some people, in areas of piped gas, installed gas fires instead. There are now many types of electric fires with fancy electronic flame displays, that can be positioned in the former fireplace.
The new law phases out coal in homes by May 2023. Registered merchants are still allowed to deliver some categories of coal until then. For logs, “wet wood” is banned, defined as logs with moisture content greater than 20%, as that produces the most noxious smoke.
Sellers of wood have to register, and there is to be strict control of labelling, to ensure that harmful wood is not sold.
There is also a long list of approved domestic stoves. This is to prevent the harmful smoke belching from chimneys in built-up areas, the smoke that caused the London smogs before the first Clean Air Act of 1956, and subsequent Acts up until the latest in 2021.
Hefty penalties for burning wet logs
Local Authorities now have more powers to prosecute those who buy and sell harmful fuel. People in rural areas who cut logs from their property can still do so, provided they know that fresh wood needs two years’ drying out.
Residents in urban areas need to check whether or not they live in a zone that has been declared smoke-free. If they do, they should be aware that smoke from their chimney could trigger a hefty fine. But the problem, as always with idealistic legislation, is that the resources and money for enforcement have not yet been identified.
If you are keen to check if your area is aiming at cleaner air, try asking your local councillor how the recent Clean Air Act is being enforced by your local authority.
Meanwhile, there are still merchants going around the streets of Kent selling unlabelled wet wood from the back of the lorry, and neighbours who resent being “judged” for their log fires, which they think should go with the traditional Christmas.