Products: Solid Fuel Fireplaces and Cookers

Given the great importance of solid fuel heaters to the ironfounding industry it is necessary to briefly describe the evolution of the fireplace.  Up until the 17th century the vast majority of domestic fireplaces used wood as the fuel.  This material could be burnt on the hearth or partially supported by a pair of fire dogs.  Chimneys were large to clear the smoke.  In wealthier homes a cast iron plate or fire back prevented heat damage to the masonry of the fireplace, and these were amongst the first items to be produced in cast iron.   Even as late as 1931 the Carron Co catalogue contained 29 designs of fire backs for sale with a note stating that they were :

only a few of the Iron Backs made by Carron Company.  The Company have in their possession a great number of original Sussex backs, which are used as patterns for reproduction.  It is practically impossible to distinguish these reproductions from the original antiques.” 

Likewise, the Falkirk Iron Co had a vast collection and when the works closed they moved to Larbert before being shipped down to Coalbrookdale.

Illus: Stove or dog grate (No. L95) by Carron Co.

When coal was substituted for wood as the fuel it was found necessary to raise the seat of the fire so that the ashes could fall away rather than choke the oxygen supply.  A wrought iron basket also held the coal in a compact mass, enabling it to generate enough heat for its combustion.  Essentially the fire dogs were joined together with horizontal bars.  The next step was to add an iron plate to the back of the basket and embellish the corner supports, creating what is called a stove grate.

Illus: Hob grate (No. L818) by Carron Co.

By the time that the Carron Company came into production, in 1760-61, these grates were being set into the fireplace and were no longer freestanding.  The fire bars were flanked by two plates, which extended to the sides of the fire.  The front plates were surmounted by hobs on a level with the top fire bar, providing a useful surface for boiling kettles.  For this reason, they are known as hob grates.  They are classified into three groups according to the shape of the front plates – Bath, Pantheon and Forest.  Carron Company was one of the greatest suppliers of these grates in the 18th century.  John Adam and the Haworth brothers combined their talents to produce a variety of neo-classical designs, which still grace many of our historic buildings. 

Illus: Tile Register Grate by Grahamston Iron Co.

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Such grates were easy to make, but were relatively inefficient, with much of the heat going up the wide flues still in use.  These large chimneys also led to downdraughts that often filled the room with smoke.  To counter this, an iron plate was fitted above the grate blocking the flue off.  A door in this plate, known as a “register,” meant that the size of the opening into the chimney could be regulated.  Before long, this plate was incorporated into the design of the grates, which now became enclosed and are known as register grates.  When the fire was first lit the register door was left fully open to give unrestricted passage up the chimney for the smoke.  Once the fire was well established the opening was reduced to minimise heat loss and prevent draughts.

In the first half of the 19th century the design of the register grates gradually improved.  The sides were placed at angles approximating to 135 degrees so that they reflected more heat into the room.  The seat of the fire was lowered so that it heated the floor and more of the air in the room, and firebricks were added to the backs.  The depth of the fireplace was also reduced, meaning that less heat was wasted on the chimney.

Meanwhile, in America, Benjamin Franklin had introduced the Pennsylvanian fireplace.  In this, fresh air was admitted into a chamber behind the grate from an external source. After being warmed in the chamber it entered the room through holes in the front.  These made little inroad into the British market.  The idea was then combined with a freestanding cast iron stove, which sat inside the room and made far more effective use of the radiant heat.  Great fuel economies were achieved.  Because they were not built into a fireplace setting and used an iron flue pipe these are known as portable stoves.  It is claimed that Smith and Wellstood introduced the first American stoves into Britain in 1856 and were thus able to steal a march on any rivals, though one was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

After 1850 the use of firebrick linings in fireplaces became more common.  This greatly improved the complete combustion of the coal, including the smoke, by increasing the temperature achieved in the seat of the fire.  A more radical development appeared around 1870 when the bottom grate was replaced by a solid base of firebrick.  This cut off the air supply from below and the coal burnt slower, but as the fire burned hotter the combustion was more complete and the cinders were reduced to a fine ash.  These are known as slow combustion grates.  There were still problems with the ashes choking the fire, and by 1900 the bottom grate had returned, but was accompanied by a close-fitting ash pan that prevented updraughts.  A regulator admitted more air if required. 

The evolution of the kitchen grate or range was similar.  Like the domestic hearth it had once had a wrought iron basket-like frame of bars to hold the coal.  This was fixed to the back of the fireplace and pots could be suspended over it by the use of a swinging arm or “swee” (sway) attached to the adjacent wall.  The grate was shallow from front to back, but high and broad across the front, so that it was ideal for roasting.  In the more sophisticated versions, the width of the fire could be adjusted by moveable iron plates or cheeks, wound in or out by a rack and pinion.  On some examples the top front bar folded down when a deep fire was not required.  This fall bar could then be used for holding pots and pans for boiling or frying food.   Alternatively swivelled circular iron rings, known as trivets, could be used.  Sometime after 1750 cast iron panels were added to either end of the basket to form hobs upon which pots could rest.  Cast iron boxes serving as ovens were separate.  Around 1770 these early ovens started to replace one of the hobs, and ten years later the hob at the other end was displaced by a cast iron water container or boiler.  This basic arrangement continued for over a hundred years.  The early ovens were heated by virtue of having one side adjacent to the fire, but before long hot air was allowed to circulate around the oven in a jacket; circulation being controlled by a damper.  This system kept the smoke away from the food.  A second oven could be added – often one for roasting and one for baking.  The air circulation for these ovens differed.  For a roasting oven the hot air was first led over the top, whereas for baking it was fed in at the base.  A tap in front of the boiler gave ready access to the hot water.

In the 19th century a second type of range was developed known as the closed range or kitchener, which had a thick iron plate above the fire to prevent the heat going up the chimney before it had passed through the flues surrounding the ovens.  This plate acted as a hot plate and food could be cooked on these surfaces, either directly or in vessels.  Mass production of cheap pots and pans meant that they were readily available and so circular holes with removable lids were provided to expose them to greater heat when required.  This meant that chimney cranes and trivets were no longer needed and as they were indirectly heated the pots and pans lasted longer.  The greater control of the air currents also meant that the cooker was much cleaner and allowed a shelf to be added for warming plates.  Tiled canopies reflected this change. 

Illus: The Enchantress portable cooking stove made by Smith & Wellstood.

.The portable range was a hybrid between the kitchener and the portable stove.  It was developed in America because it could be put into a covered wagon and moved from place to place; it was a settlers’ range designed for mobility.  They were also ideal for barges and caravaEach foundry making heating appliances in the Falkirk area introduced patent improvements to their own ranges.  Most of these were minor, such as the Smith and Wellstood’s use of reflecting linings in the ovens, jackets on the backs and undersides, and devices for concentrating the heat when the fire was low.  The accumulative effect was significant, and the fuel efficiency of ranges and fires increased tenfold between 1850 and 1920. 

To protect their investments the foundries were quick to adopt the patent process and the use of registered designs.  William Dow, the manager of the Parkhouse Foundry, patented a number of devices associated with ranges.  One of these involved a retractable central flue and was manufactured under the name of the Dow range. At the neighbouring Camelon Foundry, John E Gibson, patented improvements to stoves and cooking ranges designed to improve efficiency by consuming the smoke.  In 1890 Henry Russell of the Crown Foundry patented a new design of valve for stop-cocks on water cisterns.  By placing the valve below the arm, it required less water pressure to close it and was thus more sensitive.  Indeed, a variant of this design is still in use.

In their 1880s catalogue Smith and Wellstood claimed that the Empress range, which cost £5.15s, cooked for twenty people.  When burned for fourteen hours a day it consumed six tons of coal a year.

The end of the nineteenth century saw the introduction of anthracite as a fuel.  Colliery owners in the south of Wales found it difficult to market this material and there was reluctance from the public to change.  Anthracite burning stoves had to be imported from the Continent.  So the collieries arranged for some German stoves to be displayed in a London showroom.  H. Teeling Smith, the manager of Smith and Wellstood’s London showrooms at the time was acquainted with the stoves, having spent part of his youth in Germany, and persuaded his company to test the market with imported examples.  These trials were successful and three years later, in 1902, Smith and Wellstood produced three models.

The thermal efficiency of ranges continued to increase significantly.  By 1910 oven doors were being insulated.  The following decade saw the construction of hollow fire-chamber linings that sent heated air to upper rooms in houses.  Smith and Wellstood considered itself to be in the vanguard of fuel efficiency and in 1931 the firm built the finest thermal laboratory in Britain at Bonnybridge.  After two years work it produced the ESSE cooker, which was exhibited at the Ideal Homes Exhibition at Olympia and was an immediate success.  It became a world leader.  The 1931 laboratory had the first calorimeter room in the world.  It was designed to closely measure the heat in the flue gases, air intake and parts of the apparatus.  In 1936 its role was taken over by the government Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

The Second World War brought about a great shortage of supplies and after peace returned priority was given to exports.  Items made in the Falkirk area were hard to find on sale there.  The Falkirk Herald on 28 September 1946 saw light at the end of the tunnel:

Shortage of cookers had been a primary complaint for a long time, even in this district where they are made.  A fitting conclusion to assuage partially the housewife’s hunger for domestic goods of all kinds is the announcement that at least 36 per cent of the goods on view at this great trade exhibition are available now to the public.

The advertising was ratcheted up with design and convenience as leading values:

“For the lady who dreams of an apartment of her own, or the couple who both go out to work, Grangemouth Iron Company have devised the “Signet” Multiple Duty Unit, which is particularly attractive in a living-room kitchen unit, designed by a well-known woman designer and interior decorator.  It is finished in cream enamel in a setting of light blue tiles and besides providing excellent cooking facilities, supplies hot water for domestic purposes.  The “Safons” gas coke fire, suitable probably for a bedroom or nursery, is displayed with a cast iron surround finished in cream enamel.  The setting in which it is exhibited was designed by the Council of Industrial Design.

A fine combination was achieved by Grangemouth Iron Company and J & A Towers, Grahamston Firebrick Works, Falkirk, who supplied the brick surround for a “Camelon” convector fire shown in a living-room setting designed by an eminent architect.  It is claimed that the efficiency of this type of fire is nearly double that of the pre-war type of open fire.  This result has been achieved again by the use of convection heating by warmed air as well as radiant heating.  An efficient back boiler can be provided to supply hot water.

All the appliances previously mentioned have one thing in common.  No daily re-kindling is necessary; every appliance is capable of continuous day and night burning.

Several original patents have been incorporated in the Grangemouth Iron Company’s last exhibit, a “Sterling” free-standing cooker, finished in cream and black enamel, designed on highly modern lines.  The oven is heated by convector air thus dispensing with the oven flues common to the older type of cooker.  A new type of dial control supplies pre-heated air to the fire, and thermostatic oven control is also provided.”

[Falkirk Herald 28 September 1946]

About 1947/48 there was an upheaval in the solid fuel appliance market.  The Coal Utilisation Council was set up to improve fuel efficiency.  This meant that every sold fuel appliance had to be fitted with air controls and tested by the Ministry of Fuel.  If approved by the Ministry it could go on the official list of approved appliances, if not then it could not be sold to the public.  Portable ranges became all but obsolete.  Broomside introduced a new air controlled cooker – the Betta No. 20.  The switch in production meant re-arranging the fitting shop.  The large shed was cleared out and some grinding wheels and drilling machines installed over a single weekend and everything was in place for work to resume on the Monday.  The introduction of air controls to existing ranges meant that the cast iron bottom grates formerly used started to burn out rapidly.  The solution was to produce these in chrome steel.  Broomside installed three small oil furnaces to produce this material and were soon supplying bottom grates to Allied Ironfounders, Jones & Campbell, Grahamston Iron Co., Smith & Wellstood and Baxi Ltd amongst others.

Berlin Black had been a standard finish for combination grates for some time.  In the late 1940s this was seen as old-fashioned and the taste was for vitreous enamels in many shades of colours and mottles.  Over the next decade the old Berlin Black shops at the foundries and their accompanying grinding mills became redundant and these spaces were converted to other uses.

Several of the Falkirk foundries undertook research into the use of vitreous enamel.  Its use encouraged the move away from sharp angular lines and elaborate decoration to rounded features, curves and greater simplicity.  The enamel blurred any fine detail and clogged up the voids producing differing thicknesses that then cooled unevenly leaving a cracked finish.  In 1938, for example, Smith and Wellstood introduced the Beutesse enamelled heating stove that was clean and handsome, simple and elegant.  It was designed not by an ironfounder or a technician, but by a furniture designer to a specified brief.  More and more the use of designers was taken up for everyday household appliances.

In 1955 Jones & Campbell engaged Joe P. McCrum of the Glasgow School of Art as a part-time designer.  For ten years after the Second World War that Company never had less than three new appliances under development, starting with cookers and moving on to space heaters.  A market for caravan heaters was catered for by the Torwood stove.

Many of the foundries found that their own designs of solid fuels appliances no longer had a market and the field was left to the specialist firms such as Smith & Wellstood.  Robert Taylor & Co had a large share of the domestic market in solid fuel hot water boilers, but in 1962 sold the rights to the Tayco boiler to Thorn. 

The products of the Falkirk foundries had become almost legendary.  Smith and Wellstood used to tell the tale of the Skegness holiday camp that was heavily bombed during the war.  The site was literally flattened.  All that was left standing was a row of ESSE cookers.  These were still in use ten years later.

Each foundry claimed to be the best.  Carron in particular had a high quality of craftsmanship resulting from long apprenticeships.  There is a story of two local soldiers walking down a road in Burma during the Second World War, when an enemy plane strafed them.  They quickly took cover by jumping into a ditch.  One of the men hit something solid and upon closer inspection found it to be a discarded Falkirk Iron Co cooker.  “Typical”, he said, “If that had been a Carron cooker it would still be in use!”  However, it was the rival foundry’s product that had made it to this remote location.

Other Products

Illus: Early kitchen pots and pans by Carron Co.

Not only did cast iron replace wrought iron in the production of fire grates, but it soon broke the monopoly of copper and tin in the manufacture of pots and kettles and became the dominant material for all kitchen utensils.  From the beginning the Carron Company produced cheap pots and before long these drove the Culross skillet makers out of business.  Pots were amongst the earliest products of the Falkirk Iron Co and by 1825 it had a large share in the market.  In the 1850s production was transferred to the Castlelaurie Foundry and hundreds of thousands were exported to all parts of the world.  It is said that native Africans refused to take any pot that did not have the word “FALKIRK “on the side, for although they could not read it was seen as a sign of quality of almost ritual significance.  Even as late as 1925 the foundry had a ready market in what it called Kaffir pots, camp ovens and Dutch stoves.

Illus: Two umbrella stands by Grahamston Iron Co – Queen Victoria” and “Burns and Highland Mary.”

Many household items were made and some of these will be dealt with individually at a future date.  They include umbrella and hat stands, tables, garden seats, mirror frames, clock stands, door knockers, boot scrapers, inkstands, card trays, piano frames, water cisterns, cart bushes, clothes poles, window frames, gate pillars, garden rollers, garden ornaments, door porters – the list is almost endless. 

Firms often specialised in niche markets, only changing when those markets became exhausted.   Most foundries made a limited quantity of gas appliances.  Carron Co and Falkirk Iron Co produced gas cookers, but at Springfield and Gothic a wide range of gas products was manufactured.

Illus: Gas cookers being assembled at the Gothic Works of R & A Main.

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At one time Larbert Foundry was renowned for its portable ranges, but later switched to engineering castings.  Forthbank, Etna, Forth and Clyde and Sunnyside, and Castlelaurie all specialised in rainwater goods, particularly pipes.

Illus: Pipes being finished outside at Castlelaurie.

Often specialisation was the result of major contracts from individual firms.  The Columbian Stove Works of Ure & Co was set up specifically to produce stoves and ranges for Smith & Wellstood, which had a 50% stake in the Company.  Then a second large contract appeared and the foundry was extended, eventually to split off as the Bonnybridge Foundry, which from 1869 until 1884 produced the bulk of the castings used by the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Scotland, yielding a handsome profit.  For this work George Ure & Co introduced a japanning plant, which in turn enabled him to branch out into the production of piano frames.  With the loss of the Singer contract Ure & Co stepped up this side of their production and within a few years were one of the major manufacturers. 

The name of Ure has become a proverb and a by-word among all people who manufacture pianofortes, and stealth of time serves only to increase the confidence which has so long been reposed in the conscientious and enterprising Scottish firm.  Messrs Smith & Wellstood Ltd, which is now the style of the firm, Messrs George Ure & Co having for some years been amalgamated with this powerful company, possesses unique facilities for accomplishing the work entrusted to them by the pianoforte trade, and the scrupulous care which is exercised in carrying out their clients’ instructions was demonstrated to the writer, who has returned from a visit to the Bonnybridge Foundry …  The plank-bar and plank-plate shops are well worth a visit.  The wrest-pin holes, which were formerly drilled out, are now cast out.  Messrs George Ure & Co claim to be the originators of this system also, and it has been ascertained beyond a doubt that it has many advantages, A sharp, B, C sharp scale, which is upon them being a great help to tuners.  These plank plates are usually decorated with gold bronze, and many of the frames and bars are similarly treated.  The firm’s frames are deservedly esteemed for their good and surface colour; a brass plank which tarnished and goes black is a constant source of annoyance, as it cannot be improved without unstringing.  The firm have brought out many new frames recently, and will soon have a new overstrung and grand to offer to the trade.  For the season their speciality is the acoustic frame.  It has a diminished or tapered wrest-plank, so that the plank may be six inches at the base and nine at the treble.  It can be made either with wood or metal top-bridge.” 

(Piano, Organ, and Music Trades Journal Jan. 1894).

At the same time the foundry was producing large numbers of tea-drying stoves and machinery for Davidsons of Belfast.

In its early years the Denny Iron Works produced maritime castings for the shipbuilders at Clydebank.  When the Glasgow foundries took this work from it the Denny Iron Co moved into agricultural machinery and became a leader in the field.  In 1923 the company patented an automatic drinking bowl and in 1950 it was awarded a silver medal by the Highland Agricultural Society for a fitting to potato diggers which increased its efficiency by 50%.  The introduction of tractors created new requirements and more robust equipment but the works had already turned to steel.  Ploughs, harrows, discs, rotovator and muck spreaders were amongst the items manufactured.

Falkirk firms were at the vanguard of innovation and produced the earliest electric cookers and fires.  Looked at today some of these appliances are terrifying but designs and safety improved.  As the technology changed so too did the local products, eventually switching to sheet steel.

Illus: Some examples of electric cookers and fires.

As the market for solid fuel burners shrank and specialisation increased, the smaller foundries moved to supplying the larger ones.  In the 1970s the Broomside Foundry made manhole covers and frames for the Bo’ness Iron Co; gas cooker castings for R & A Main; post office cabinets, pillar box and telephone castings for Carron Co; stove castings for Allied Ironfounders; and garden furniture for the Lion Foundry.  They also produced castings to the designs of other firms, for example, electrical joint boxes for Pirelli in Southampton and engineering castings for Rollo Industries.  Cooper’s Foundry in Denny was likewise a jobbing foundry.  Such foundries had the advantage over the large companies, who had installed mechanised moulding plants that required long runs of castings to make it cost viable, of being able to produce short runs as required.

The next section under the “Products” heading is Architectural. Click here to read

G.B. Bailey, 2021