James Hamilton, his wife Mary Watson, and baby Isobel Hamilton at their home at 108 Alexander Street, Airdrie, about 1914. (North Lanarkshire Archives: U34/02156)

Home Life: Heat and Light

2 min read

Warmth and lighting in our homes didn’t begin with central heating or electricity. Coal was the source of heat and power in households until relatively recently, with the greater affordability of modern, easier-to-use electrical or gas appliances that have become standard. Similarly, gas – in coal gas form – was used for a variety of household functions, including light.

Hearth and heat

The kitchen was the central room of a working class household – or indeed the only room. The kitchen range would be kept warm all day as it was central to most household functions – for heat, cooking and hot water.

Kitchen range in place at Flloyd St, Coatbridge, 1993. At the time of this photograph, the flat – a room-and-kitchen dating to around 1900 – was practically unchanged from the time it was built. The brass fitting at the top of the brown-painted surround is for a gas lamp. When the flat was renovated the range was gifted to Summerlee Museum, and is now a centrepiece of the 1910s Cottage.

Other rooms, where they existed, usually had their own small fireplace and flue. By the early 1900s, many of North Lanarkshire’s better-paid workers such as more senior engineers or draughstmen could afford to rent three- or four-roomed houses. Larger rooms, like the late Victorian ‘parlour’ or front room, were usually the most decorative room in a house.

Front room of the flat at 14 Flloyd St, Coatbridge, as it was prior to renovation in 1993.

These would often have a elaborate fireplace and intricate plaster cornicing and decoration. However, they were slower to warm up and less efficient to heat. Even in three- or four-roomed houses these larger rooms were often only used at special family gatherings such as Christmas, weddings or funerals. The kitchen was still the heart of the working-class home.

Whilst North Lanarkshire’s larger and wealthier homes could afford to hire a maid (or several), the task of keeping a family warm usually fell to the mother. They were the person who was expected to set the fires in the morning in order to support the household wage labourers or school students. She would rise shivering from bed on a freezing cold morning, feet chilled by a bare wood or lino floor, back bent to load coal into a fireplace or range. This work has been made easier by modern central heating.

Let there be light!

Without light, our homes would be much more gloomy and uncomfortable. Lighting our homes is not new – the dim flickering of a candle flame and the gentle hiss of gas light have been replaced with the flick of a switch.

With the Industrial Revolution many towns set up their own gasworks. These supplied both industries and households with cheap, readily available gas which could be used for ceiling and wall lights as well as heating. This was typically made from coal gases. As North Lanarkshire sits in a vast coalfield, this type of gas was readily available and used widely. The discovery of North Sea gas has led to a cleaner, less smelly source of household energy than ‘town gas’.

The greasy flame of wax and tallow light gave way in the late 1800s to elegant glass-chimney paraffin lamps. The increasing affordability of electrical power from the early 1900s onwards has revolutionised household lighting, making our homes brighter and safer.

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