There’s something soothing in the warmth of an open fire on a cold, Melbourne evening in winter. It’s like the heat on your face wakens some sort of genetic memory from a time when our collective ancestors gathered around the fire blazing at the mouth of a cave, the flickering light a protection against the unknown dangers of the night. As a domestic arrangement, hearth and home have been an inseparable part of our lives ever since those early fires moved from the caves to a favoured place inside our homes. Firstly to a centrally placed location in the Iron Age round houses and Saxon timbered halls of Northern Europe, then about a thousand years ago to a place on the walls of those stone castle building Normans.
By all reports the draughty old castles of the picture story books took some heating, but in this world of electric fires and central heating, it’s easy to forget now all the developments that have gone into getting to where we are today. One thing that a glance into the world of the blurry, glass plate photography of the 19th Century does not reveal is the smell of that world. The odours of the outhouse at the bottom of the garden or the aroma of wood smoke from thousands of kitchen cooking fires must have been something altogether and would have more or less permeated everything. In the 1880s when Melbourne after the gold rushes became known for a while as “Marvellous Melbourne”, the wags soon coined another term for it. “Marvellous Smellbourne” they dubbed the great, unsewered southern metropolis. With thousands of domestic fires pouring out their smoke and adding to the pollution of early industries, the air must have been pretty thick in those “good ol’ days”. The infamous peasouper fogs of old London for instance, the air that Dickens called a ‘London Particular’, were of course not fogs at all, but smogs. Thick, sulphurous layers of polluted air without parallel today, even in China, and those smogs were dangerous. They could kill people stone dead in their beds. Thankfully air quality has improved greatly since those dark times but for some this achievement just isn’t enough. Recent calls in the press have suggested the state government introduce a wood fire heater, buy back scheme aimed at improving air quality in Melbourne, a scheme similar to something already operating in the ACT. However, for those on a tight budget there sometimes just isn’t any alternative to getting out there and scavenging a bit of firewood and, then again, an open fire does have its comforts. Contemplating the glowing embers of a cosy living room fireplace with feet toasting nicely in their socks on the fender during the recent “work from home” protocol, I know where my thoughts on this lie. At such times my mind is apt to wander back to the days of those comfortable caves and, although I sometimes think the neighbours have given up burning proper firewood for old mattresses, really there’s nothing quite like having an open fire is there?
Ethel Temby in her memoir once remarked how cold Yallambie in the farming era could be compared to other neighbourhoods. Richard Willis’ diary which he kept through a Melbourne winter spent under canvas on the Lower Plenty in 1837 similarly contains various references to the cold and also to their primitive camp fire arrangements, “a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven”. The deprivations and the extremes of that early Melbourne winter very nearly killed Richard but with developing settlement came civilization. Although the first settlers at Port Phillip are known to have heated their homes in relatively primitive fashion, when it comes down to it the Bakewells prefabricated home at Yallambee must have been snug enough. William Howitt reporting on his visit to the Bakewells in October, 1852 wrote:
One thing pleased me there, — the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful; and at the Plenty we found them very acceptable, for it came on heavy rain, followed by a south wind, which is always cold. I don’t know when I felt it colder than when we arose at five o’clock in the morning to return. The valley was filled with white fog, and the grass glittered in the rising sun with a frosty dew. (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858)
Twenty years later when Thomas Wragge came to build his homestead, nearly every room would be provisioned with either a corner or sometimes a centrally placed fire place, the resulting roof line seeming to sprout chimneys at every protuberance. The fire places inside were for the most part plain – white marble used in the drawing room, black marble in the dining room and marble and slate painted to look like marble in the bedrooms and secondary rooms. The Victorian era would see a medley of styles used for interior decoration and with wealth rolling into Melbourne from the gold rushes, people had more money to spend on their homes but at Yallambie in the best Yeoman tradition, style was kept simple. In the 19th century the hearth blazed brightly throughout domestic life, a symbol of family togetherness and comfort. Geoffrey Blainey called this the “maternal spirit”, and it was a spirit that could be found in kitchens and front rooms right across the nation.
Can you see the faces in the fire?” old people would enquire of one another, because sometimes they observed that the flames and the silhouette of the burning wood took the shape of human faces.” (Blainey: Black Kettle and Full Moon)
Others were to take this idea a step further and maintained that flames were a means of foretelling the future and of predicting the weather. Pale coloured flame could mean rain, fierce flames a frost. Sooty smoke predicted the arrival of a stranger and fire retreating to one corner on a hearth meant a separation. Round cinders could mean money but rectangular, (or coffin shaped) cinders meant death.
I don’t know about any of that but then I haven’t seen too many round cinders in my time I guess. It’s true though that watching a fire does induce a dreamy, peaceful state of mind where thoughts are apt to wander. In most households a poker was usually kept near at hand to give the fire a prod as much to awaken those nearby from their reverie as anything else but it was an unwritten law that a visitor should not prod his host’s slow burning fire. The expression “back log” as applied to our working habits today comes from the large log commonly placed at the back of a wood burning fire and which was intended to burn throughout the night. Etiquette demanded that a visitor should never disturb this back log as touching it was deemed a discourtesy. The handling of the fire and poking at the back log was held to be the prerogative of the owner as anybody who has tried making toast on the end of a long toasting fork in front of an open fire will attest that fiddling with the fireplace can be a happy diversion. Just ask my son who throughout his childhood years was a dab hand at toasting marshmallows, “Burned to perfection, Dad.”
All the same, lighting a fire is best left to the potential pyromaniacs of a family. In the days before we had proper heating at Yallambie I once found my very understanding, then pregnant wife sitting in front of a cold fire place stuffed with half burned newspapers and charred logs, her tears of frustration soon followed predictably by the installation of some proper gas space heating in the house.
The ability to light a fire is something we now take for granted but imagine for a moment those cave men banging two rocks together or the Australian Aboriginals rubbing at sticks for hours to produce a flame. Fire was so important to the First Australians and so difficult to produce from scratch that care was taken never to let a flame go out and if one tribe needed to request fire from another, it was a request that could never be refused no matter what enmity might otherwise exist between them. In the early era of settlement right up until the gold rushes, most travellers carried a piece of hard English flint and a steel pocket knife which were used to make fire by a spark. The invention of the Lucifer match which could be lit by striking it against a wall or rough surface changed everything. At Yallambie we have a table with rough copper plates attached to the apron below the table top, a feature I believe to be a specially made surface for striking matches in an earlier era.
The development of the portable match is said to have been one cause of the eventual increased use of tobacco in the 19th century. Where lighting a pipe previously had required much fooling around with a flint and steel, matches made everything so much easier. Much too much easier I’d say. It’s taken until modern times for a majority of people to kick a habit so obviously injurious to health.
Thomas Wragge had a smoking room at Yallambie next door to the drawing room where the men would retire in the evening to puff away and yarn. The women would remain in the drawing room although Betty Lush, a grand-daughter of Thomas, remembered another fire side at Yallambie, writing later that, “I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner.” (Recorded in Calder: Classing the Wool)
When Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie Murdoch decided to remodel the house in 1923, marble chimney pieces were removed and smashed to pieces, some fire places were blocked up or repositioned, and wooden replacement fire surrounds were introduced into the house. In modern times though some of Annie’s replacements have themselves been replaced in an attempt to create a style thought to be more in keeping with a mid-Victorian era house. The white marble fire surround pictured above was made from pieces scrounged from multiple demolition yards on a shoestring budget. The enamelled grate was found at the back of a plumbing shop where it had sat for decades after being pulled out of a house in Brighton.
As the winter solstice passes by this weekend, the days will lengthen again in their stride. Not so long ago it seems I was writing about bushfires and summer heat waves. Those days seem far off now and much has happened this year in the interim, both here and abroad. Where we are heading right now is anybody’s guess but while it seems sometimes that the world beyond the front door has gone kaput, to my mind that’s all the more reason to celebrate what we do have at home. To put this in a nut shell and to throw another spin on some otherwise well-known, much oft repeated words.
“Home is where the hearth is.”