The Victorian range – Geo. Forster, County Durham

I remember visits to my Grandmother’s house as a small boy as being filled with delights; for me these including investigating the murky depths of the adjacent Cromford Canal, or seeing how I might help (hinder, possibly) one of my uncles on the family smallholding with its chickens and ducks, the loft for racing pigeons and the extensive orchard. Another thing I remember well was the Victorian range which dominated the living room. It provided heat and hot water, and much more beside, being quite capable of turning out delicious roasts and mouth-watering pies, if you knew what you were doing, and turned the dish carefully so as to distribute the heat and ensure that it was evenly cooked. Rather fuel-inefficient, but that didn’t matter a great deal as we were sitting atop one of the largest coalfields in Derbyshire, and coal was very cheap.

There were some drawbacks, however. Keeping the coal-fire either well damped down or blazing, according to need, took skill. This is where I learned how to light a coal fire correctly – twists made from rolled-up newspaper, sticks and small pieces of wood on top of those, then selected small coals. Also, the removal of ashes, via a heavy ash pan, was irksome to say the least. The ashes were carried carefully in a bucket to be placed on a large ash pile at the bottom of the garden, from which they would be cleared periodically. Perhaps the heaviest labour of all came on Saturdays, when the tin of Zebo Grate Polish was produced each morning (but more on that, later)!

The very first kitchen range was produced in 1780 by Thomas Robinson from cast iron. It quickly began to replace the large open fireplace with its primitive arrangements for roasting meat on a spit-jack, which had not changed for hundreds of years. The grate quickly evolved to become more ‘user friendly’, with a fireguard to protect any floor covering – such as a rug – placed in front of the coals, and dampers to control the air supply to the fire. Later, a towel rail, usually in brass was fitted and a simple boiler with tap to ensure a constant supply of hot water. Some grates had a swing out holder for a saucepan (or even two), which could be closer to or further away from the heat. This was to supplement the cast-iron griddle on which you can see a kettle sitting in the photograph above. Higher up was a warming shelf where saucepans containing food which had finished cooking could be placed – this photograph, a saucepan is accompanied by three small irons, which were in almost constant use in my Grandmother’s house (or so it seemed!) All in all, cast iron ranges such as this were at the very centre of life in the Victorian household. Indeed, if you were one of the miners who were ‘down the pit’ winning the coal, you took your bath when you came home, covered in coal dust, in a ‘tin bath’ (made from galvanised steel plate) on the rug in front of the hearth, using hot water from the boiler in the range – and, in many cases – supplemented with water boiled in kettles and saucepans.

The fine black finish of this range is typical of a vigorous application of ‘black lead’. Black lead has, of course, nothing to do with lead. In the old days, brands such as ‘Zebra’, ‘Zebo Grate Polish’, ‘Jester’ and the rather aristocratically-named ‘W.G. Nixey’s Celebrated Black Lead’ were widely available, and the Saturday morning ritual of polishing the range was almost mandatory. The creamy black lead – a mixture fine graphite, carbon black, a binding agent (usually a wax) and a small amount of solvent. It was brushed or rubbed on, then when dry buffed to a deep shiny black, (having almost a silvery sheen to it); this took a LOT of work! Sadly, the modern equivalent to black lead tends to be water-based, and does not give the same shine. Old compounds did have disadvantages, which included a tendency to come off on your fingers; this did, however, reduce after the first firing, and even further after longer use. You can get a close approximation of the old formula ‘Zebo’ in South Africa, which is much better than the modern U.K. equivalent.

Needless to say, the traditional kitchen range, like this fine example made by George Forster of County Durham, now on display at the Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagans, has gone the way of most old technology to be replaced in some country kitchens by the trendy and expensive AGA cooker. However, there is one man who will not give them up! Gordon Pickles, an inventive Yorkshireman from near Skipton, acquired an old range that had some broken pieces. He made new one and rebuilt it. From this humble beginning, he has progressed to designing and manufacturing a line of ranges which look traditional, but have a host of modern features. Double steel boilers are placed either side of the firegrate, producing enough hot water to serve 4 or 5 radiators, when connected to a domestic hot water system. His company ‘Yorkshire Ranges’ manufactures ranges which can be put ‘in circuit with a gas or oil central heating unit, thereby creating a ‘bifuel’ system which will reduce a homeowner’s overall energy bill.

Oh, and with regards to that slightly ‘smudgy’ finish on a black leaded surface? Just wait until the range is cooling after being fired for the first time, then apply bacon fat using newsprint! The result is an amazing silvery-black glossy finish which you can wipe clean!

The British cast iron range – still going after all these years.

One comment on “The Victorian range – Geo. Forster, County Durham”

  1. Fascinating 🙂


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