William Murdoch introduced the concept of gas for domestic use in 1812, and for the next 60 to 70 years the fuel was almost exclusively for lighting. It produced a much stronger light than either candles or oil lamps, could be piped throughout the houses of the upper and emerging middle classes and stayed alight in the draughty houses of our ancestors. It actually took the introduction of another and better fuel for lighting, in the form of electricity, to drive the private gas companies and their associated manufacturers into changing direction.
Socially this coincided with the separation of heating and cooking and the creation of artisan and middle class housing that featured a kitchen as well as a ‘living room’. With cooking taking place elsewhere, the living room fire moved away from the range design to purpose built units where the heating characteristics were optimised. Coupled with this was the desire of the average middle class user for fires that required less work than their existing coal fireplaces.
It is difficult to say which company produced the first gas fire. Collector of gas ephemera, Billy Carter, believes that it could have been Willsons and Mathiesons and that an early fire dated around 1895 in his collection may, indeed, be the first commercial model. The company had started as umbrella manufacturers but in the entrepreneurial environment of the late Victorian era, good engineers tended to turn their hand to anything that was profitable. The early fires were very simple – a basic gas burner heated a cast iron carcass that radiated the heat out into the room. Typically they were free-standing and moveable with the products of combustion fed straight into the room!
As the country entered the 20th century there was literally hundreds of companies producing all sorts of gas fires together with cookers, water heaters, wash boilers and a whole raft of other products. Some names like New World and Parkray continue through to the present day. Others like Arden Hill, Eagle Range and Bratt Colbran have disappeared into larger conglomerates. As the companies proliferated the technology also improved. Designs became fireplace based, utilising the ‘Milner fireback’ that had appeared towards the end of the previous century as the efficient chimney base for artisan’s cottages. Ceramic radiants, often with elaborate designs, began to be used to project radiant heat from the front of the fires into the rooms. These design progressions bridged World War I and, by the 1920s, a well established industry was turning out over a million gas fires a year which were sold by the myriads of gas showrooms owned by the private and municipal gas companies.
The companies themselves did not stand still. A definite move towards acquisition and conglomeration was visible during the 20s and 30s with its most obvious effect being the creation of the Radiation Group. With gas utilities, particularly the London based Gas Light and Coke company, wielding incredible power, companies saw advantage in amalgamating to form a larger unit with economies of scale. Initially Radiation comprised Fletcher Russell, Arden Hill, Eagle Range Company, New World, Willsons & Mathiesons, Davis Gas Stove Company, Richmond Gas Stoves & Meters and John Wright Ltd although other companies were incorporated later. Its inspiration and direction came from Ivan Yates, an entrepreneur, JF Davis who as ‘front man’ created the right image for the group and Dr Hartley who provided the technical know-how. Up to World War II, the individual companies retained their names with many designs being sold under a variety of names to different gas companies.
The inter-war period saw a host of other innovations. Jordans, part of the Radiation Group, perfected stove enamel – enamel for heating and cooking stoves -, which could be applied in a wealth of ‘modern’ colours. The move to enamel was, in part, stimulated by the growing affluence of the middle class who saw their homes as something to be ‘decorated fashionably’ as well as somewhere to live. Other developments, often regarded as ‘post war’ innovations, were first created in this era. The Metro Log Fire, a forerunner of today’s living flame fires was sold by the Gas, Light & Coke Company in 1932. The Raytonic fire of 1935 had a simple heat exchanger, often regarded as a 1950s feature. The Raytonic design was itself seen as a replacement for soapstone clad fires, which had improved Gas Fire convection output since their inception in 1932.
Wartime stopped virtually all development projects but as the UK entered Harold Macmillan’s era when we had “… never had it so good!” the gas fire continued its onslaught on the traditional coal fires which, in the mid 50s, still formed the UK’s main source of domestic heating. More amalgamations had taken place and some new ‘players’ including GlowWorm had appeared on the scene. Gas fire design had started to include heat exchangers and the ornate ‘Cinderella’ type of ceramic radiant was replaced by the box designs that still appear on many public sector targeted fire designs. Getting gas to the fireplace was of critical importance – many of the newly nationalised gas boards had schemes for providing gas poker points close to the fire for as little as ’30s’ (£1.50) and these were utilised by salesmen to increase the growing sales of gas fires.
In the 1950s, Flavel, based in Leamington Spa, introduced a product still available today – the box radiant gas fire with a metal case or clad in wood. The Flavel Debonair revolutionised gas fire sales and, while peoples’ tastes now prefer glowing coals (or even logs, driftwood, pebbles or geometric shapes), the faithful old box radiant fire survives on in over 2 million houses nationwide. Now highly realistic ‘living flame’ gas fires are available with stylish surrounds. There are options which suit a range of periods such as Victorian, Edwardian and Art Noveau. Some companies even offer fires which can be lit at the touch of a button on a remote control handset – offering the ultimate in convenience and comfort.