Context 152 - November 2017

18 C O N T E X T 1 5 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 7 ROB COWAN Iron, glass and wood underfoot Other articles in this issue have discussed paving in stone and brick. Here we focus on iron, glass and wood: from the decorative to the utilitarian, and from the photographed to the forgotten. The modern urban floorscape is littered with the dull covers of utility hatches, so it is a delight when something underfoot tells of a place’s history. Many terraced houses of the 18th and 19th centuries had one of more vaulted coal cellars under the pavement (accessed from the ‘area’, the lightwell between the street and the basement) or under the house steps. Coal was tipped from the sack through a coal hole in the pavement or steps. The coal hole was closed by a cast-iron cover. They are not manholes: their size (usually around 30–36 centimetres in diameter) is deliberately too small for a person to pass through.They usually have a raised pattern or lettering to make them less slippery in wet weather. Some have lettering advertising the company that made the cover, or describing the cover’s special feature. Some have ventilation holes (at one time it was thought that damp coal gave off dangerous fumes), some of which have since been closed by cement. Some are inlaid with glass (sometimes in the form of prisms) to light the vault below. Some, advertised as ‘non-slip’, are inlaid with concrete. Any text is usually in a sans-serif face (thus avoiding fine detail that might be difficult to cast), the type being appropriately tough-looking for letters made in iron and suffering harsh treatment underfoot. A few use a serif (or semi-serif) face. Most coal-hole covers are circular, one advantage of a circular cover being that it can not fall through its own hole.Most sit in an outer iron ring, of whichmany of those made by Hayward Brothers bear the words ‘This ring to be fixed with Portland cement’. A few covers are square. Some covers are noticeably more worn than their neighbours, either because they were outside a building The modern urban floorscape is littered with the dull covers of utility hatches, so it is a delight when something underfoot tells of a place’s history. Many terraced houses of the 18th and 19th centuries had one or more vaulted coal cellars under the pavement (accessed from the ‘area’, the lightwell between the street).

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