Saturday, 3 October 2009

Central Heating Day

The first of October is "central heating day", when many people switch on their radiators for the winter. Central heating is just another mod-con of contemporary living, but it's done much more than warm us up.
Up and down the country, radiators clank their way back to life after a summer of hibernation.
1970 West Ham United footballer Peter Grotier at home - with central heating
A radiator - a rare sight in 1970

With energy bills soaring in recent years, and more people aware of energy consumption, many make it a point of principle that their heating stays off until the start of October, which means any nippy late September mornings just have to be endured.

But given how mild the autumn has been so far, others may wait a couple more weeks before the big switch-on.

Only a small fraction of UK homes are without central heating today. In the last comprehensive survey, in 2004, it was 7% of households, and that has probably dropped further since.

Far from being a modern invention, there were forms of central heating systems in ancient Greece, and later the Romans perfected what were called hypocausts to heat public baths and private houses.

In late Victorian Britain, well-to-do houses had a form of central heating. Cragside in Northumberland, the family home of engineer Lord Armstrong, was a famous example, with ducts built into the floors to carry warm air around the building.

But it was a long time before central heating became widespread and affordable, and fired by a gas boiler.


In 1970, Martyn Jarvis, 55, was a gas fitter, installing central heating systems in the Slough area.
A terrace house without central heating
Victorian house builders kept rooms small for warmth

"Central heating was just taking off then and there was a sense of excitement. It was like getting the first colour television - 'Ooooh, I've got central heating!'

"Unless you were really well off, you didn't have any radiators. There was an awful lot of solid fuel around then, an open fire in the living room normally, which heated the water as well.

"Other houses just had a three-bar electric fire, so you needed plenty of blankets at night. I remember the 1963 winter was particularly horrendous."

By the end of that decade, and into the early 1980s, having central heating was regarded as a basic requirement, he says.

I started in 1974 and central heating was just taking off. It was quite expensive then because it was a big job.
We had to take out a lot of old-style coal fires with a back boiler to heat the hot water and an open grate at the front. But people loved it, after being cold for all those years
Michael Martindale, Peterborough

There were obvious health benefits - warmer homes helped to address winter mortality rates - but the impact was wider than that.

The design of a home changed because its inhabitants started behaving differently, says architect Harry Charrington. Today the average temperature in a home is 22C, compared with 18C in the 1950s, he says, yet people 50 years ago felt just as warm as we do today.

"People don't wear clothing to keep warm any more. One of the social norms is that people can go around in shirt sleeves at home or in the office. So central heating has changed the way people think about clothing.

"Rather than put extra clothes on, they put the heating on. It used to be that if it got cold, you put a jersey on and if it got warm you opened a window. People don't have an expectation that they will have to change the way they behave in cold weather."
full article

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