This article by Joan Stevens was first published in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966
A Jerseyman's fireplace was the most important focal point of his domestic life. In the matter of size he excelled himself in its construction, and on it he lavished great care, and sometimes intricate and complicated carving.
Even in the most primitive and prehistoric times the kindling, tending and preservation of flame was one of the most important household duties.
The Romans believed that there were special gods who dwelt in the fireplace, and they called them lares at penates and propitiated them with prayers and offerings.
When men first built houses, as we know them, perhaps 1,000 years ago, the hearth was an area in the middle of a great communal hall, and the chimney was merely a hole in the roof.
Gradually a more sophisticated pattern emerged, and a permanent stone-built chimney canalised the smoke.
Gable wall fireplaces
In Jersey houses it was customary, for as far back as we have evidence, to make the fireplaces in the end gable walls. Above this cheminee a great hood, usually plastered over, rose above the ceiling and could be seen continuing in the room above. Sometimes, though not very often, one fireplace was directly above another, utilising the same flue, and what happened to the smoke in such cases one can only guess.
As rooms in general, particularly before the introduction of window glass, were far more draughty than we would now tolerate, that fact in itself provided a better through-draught for the fires. The more usual arrangement was to have a fireplace on the ground floor in one gable, for the kitchen, and an upstairs one in the opposite gable.
Not infrequently the best one, that is the one with the most care expended on its design, was upstairs, and this suggests that the ‘best’ room may have been situated there, where a wood as opposed to an earth floor gave more warmth and comfort.
It also afforded more protection from damp to the legs and feet of the furniture as well as the personnel.
The universal pattern for a local fireplace was a giant lintel, supported by a mitred or Z junction which secured it between large square blocks; under these the corbels projected into the room, and they were embedded into the wall for its full thickness; indeed one or both of them often project on the outside of the wall, where they are clearly visible.
Some say this was for counterpoise. but if so, why is it so often the case that only one projects? Because, others say, it was necessary to provide cruising witches with a seat to rest on: this consideration placated the witch. who would not then cast an evil spell on your house.
In some instances the huge lintel lay right across the corbels instead of being morticed between blocks. In other instances there is a moulded cornice above the lintel, which is a most pleasant design. The corbels were often decorated or moulded, and they were supported by one or more uprights which were usually bevelled with finials (chamfer stops) of arved conventional design, or more rarely a cross. Those with the cross are probably the earliest examples.
At the side or back there were frequently little niches, provided, like a modern shelf, for anything the householder might want to place there, like a lamp, or flint and tinder.
Sometimes a baking oven is incorporated with the kitchen fireplace, and sometimes it is a separate unit, even a separate building. There used to be, and occasionally it has survived, a metal arm hinged on to the side of the fire recess, on which cooking pots were suspended, and joints of meat hung to roast.
The fuel used was wood, furze, bracken, vraic, and dung, and, if you could afford it, imported coal.
Perhaps the largest fireplaces to have survivied are.one at La Porte in St John, which is 10 feet wide, and three at Le Ponterrin, St Saviour.
Impressive structures, clear-cut in design, the would dominate any room by their massiveness and simplicity. They can be dated at approximately 1550. Two highly elaborate examples may be cited; one is at Handois St Lawrence. The whole surface of the lintel is coveredwith initials and pseudo heraldic motifs, and is dated 1659.
Another at Mont au Pretre. which can be dated only a few years later, has the whole surface of the uprights covered in a complex geometrical pattern.
Equally attractive are some examples which are smaller. perhaps 5 feet wide, with little or no carving. So far as I know, only one house, La Fosse, Trinity, has retained six of these noble hearths.
Some of these proud and beautiful fireplaces have survived and been adapted to modern comfort in our houses, but many more still lie hidden beneath the plaster, and if you are one of the lucky ones you may find one day that your house has a fireplace three or four hundred years old.
How can you tell? If the chimney end of your sitting room has its central portion projecting 2 feet or so to carry a modern grate, it is probable that there is an older fireplace behind it. If the wall of your gable end is very thick, and, more significant, if it has a projecting stone about 5 feet above ground level, you may be fairy sure that this is the butt end of the corbel of a fireplace which once stood within, though it does not necessarily prove that it is still there.
It is well worth excavating to find out when you are altering or redecorating your room. Quite a number of people have done so recently, and have been delighted with what they have found. Even if you do not want to use such a fireplace as an open hearth, with care it can be adapted to modern needs without spoiling the original design.
Do not be discouraged by an unpromising exterior, for much that is good may lie under plaster, both interior and exterior. Just such a discovery was made recently, at Les Landes Farm, St Ouen, where a house that did not suggest any great age, but for the thickness of the walls, revealed a beautiful fireplace, far, far older than the dated stone of 1716 which was over a door.
Rich are the rewards when such a discovery is made.