The joy of coalholes

8 10 2009

I often get funny looks when I’m out taking photographs for this site but never so many as when I’m grabbing a snap of some pavement ironwork. Which is a shame really, because people miss so much by not looking at what’s under their feet.

Coalplates are a case in point. They are a relic of a time when coal was a crucial household commodity and its efficient supply was an important matter. In working class areas people often had to collect it themselves, and so there were establishments like the Elephant & Castle which once stood in Tewkesbury Road – a dual purpose tavern and coal merchant. For the middle classes and up, it was easier – the coalman would bring sacks of it straight to your door with a horse and cart. In urban streets, particularly terraces where there was no access to the back of the property except through the house, a coal cellar at the front of the house was the obvious solution. Instead of having the nasty dirty coalman traipse through your house leaving black dust everywhere, he could simply open a hatch in the path outside and empty the sacks straight into the cellar. These hatches are known as coalholes, typically a circular hole of 12 or 14 inches diameter and covered by an iron plate.

This arrangement was not without its hazards. For one thing, people used to fall down them. Victorian local newspapers all over the country abound with stories of deaths and broken limbs caused by open or poorly secured coalholes. You wouldn’t want to be standing in the cellar underneath on delivery day either and have a hundredweight of coal dropped on your head. Surprisingly, there is less mention of the hernias and back problems which the coalman must have suffered as he lumped these heavy iron plates on and off. They also created an issue with security – an unlocked coalplate was an easy way for a moderately slim burglar to get into the house. So all in all it wasn’t the ideal solution, and by the middle of the 20th century coalholes were pretty much a thing of the past.

And as they’ve fallen out of use they’ve become scarce. Many have been concreted or paved over and they are now uncommon enough that spotting them can be a fun hobby (for people like me, anyway).

Coalplates are not always easy to distinguish from manhole covers and other inspection hatches, but they are typically found close to houses either in garden paths or in the pavement outside, and they are somewhat smaller – generally either 12″ or 14″. The plate is usually set into an outer metal ring cemented into the path. They can be beautifully decorated with geometric patterns, although larger cities seem to be the best place to look for the really ornate ones … most of the ones I find in Cheltenham have quite simple designs.


Keynsham Street. A typical simple coalplate design

There are several reasons why coalplates are usually circular. The main reason is that – unlike a square or rectangular plate – it’s not possible for a round plate to accidentally fall down the hole. They also have no corners to get broken off or cause injury, and they are much easier to handle because they can be rolled on and off. The patterns on the surface are also functional, because a smooth iron plate would be dangerously slippery. Whether it’s an ornate pattern or just a series of raised studs, the surface of a coalplate is thoughtfully designed to prevent the hapless pedestrian going arse over tip in wet weather.

Coalplates would have been available from any local ironmonger, some of whom may have had the facilities to make their own. Alternatively they would be made in the large commercial foundries of London and the Midlands and cast to a standardised design, sometimes personalised with an individual ironmonger’s “badge”. Cheltenham had a couple of quite large foundries during the 19th century, so it’s very possible that some of these coalplates were cast locally.


St Luke’s Place. I couldn’t get a direct overhead shot of this one because it was up somebody’s garden path and – well, you know. Again it’s a very simple design with a mixture of raised studs and punched out holes in quite a thin plate, and may well have been made by a local ironmonger. It doesn’t look like there’s anything underneath this one, and it has no outer ring either, so it may have been moved from its original location or sealed up.


Suffolk Square. A beautifully preserved example of a commercial patented coalplate, the Hayward’s D 14″. It’s not as old as the house it serves … this section of street was built in the 1820s whereas this type of coalplate first hit the streets in the 1880s, and you can see how it has been artistically cemented into a hole in the original Regency period flagstone pavement. The Patent Self-Locking Plate was part of a movement towards more high-tech coalplates with increased safety and security. The underside of this type of plate was fitted with a pair of sliding bolts, specially weighted so that they would shoot outwards when the plate is dropped, locking it into the hole so that it could then only be unlocked from underneath. The idea was to prevent accidents with unfastened plates and also to thwart burglars and intruders.


Imperial Lane. Another Hayward’s D 14″. Hayward Brothers were a major London foundry whose works are pretty ubiquitous across the nation. They evolved from a family firm of glass-cutters who branched out into ironmongery in 1848 and became the market leader throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in street fittings such as coalholes and lightwells. They ceased trading in the 1970s, but their designs are still widely trod on Britain’s streets.


Cambray Place. Right in the middle of Cheltenham’s busy shopping area and never noticed by most of the people who stride over it on a daily basis (judging by the withering looks I got when I stopped to photograph it) is another patented self-locking design by Hayward’s, probably a later model. This one is right outside the NatWest bank, though I don’t suppose they use a lot of coal in there these days.


Keynsham Street. One of two surviving coalplates set into the pavement in Keynsham Street. The 1830s terraced houses here front directly onto the street and have no front gardens, but they do have basements and coal cellars underneath the pavement. This one is unusually decorative for a Cheltenham plate. It has no foundry mark or identification on it, though it has a space around the rim which looks like it is intended for a name. It was quite common for the large foundries to make coalplates for individual ironmongers in runs of 200 or so, cast to a standard design but personalised with the ironmonger’s own name. In this case there is no name, but it is probably one of these semi-massproduced designs. This particular design is very close to one produced by Hayward Brothers, which suggests either that it was made by Hayward’s or that somebody else nicked their design and cast their own anonymous version. Variations on the pattern of circles within circles is actually quite a common design on coalplates, but it’s much more usual to see them with groups of four circles or five circles rather than the six (seven including the central one) shown here. Small ventilation holes are also included. The presence of a surviving coal cellar underneath is evidenced through the ominous crack in the pavement.


Passage off St James’s Square. I’m not entirely sure if this is a coalplate or some other kind of inspection cover, but it earns its place here for its semi-local connection. It’s a simple but quite pleasant design incorporating ventilation slots and inset concrete panels. Barely visible in the worn down surface of its inner ring is the name of the foundry: Hardy & Padmore, Worcester (shown upside-down in this shot). This firm was founded in 1814 by Scottish brothers Robert and John Hardy, who went into partnership in 1829 with Richard Padmore and became specialists in tram rails, amongst other street furniture. The foundry was based in Worcester and survived up until 1967.


Rosehill Street. Coalplates are not always circular. This example of a square one is just one of a great many outside the c.1890s terraced houses of Rosehill Street. The uniformity of most of them suggests they are the original ones placed there when the houses were built, but this particular one is of a different design from the rest. It looks as though the pattern has been cast onto a sheet of iron which has been cut to size afterwards.


Berkeley Place. This is quite probably the oldest Cheltenham coalplate I’ve found so far, and also the largest. There’s nothing in this photo to give it a sense of scale but it was so large that I initially thought it was a manhole cover. It is also set quite some distance away from the house, right at the front of the pavement by the kerb. It was only when I noticed that all five houses in the easterly section of Berkeley Place have an identical plate in the same position that I realised what they were – and also that they must be the original ones dating back to the building of this terrace in 1819. They have done well to survive – they are now set into a modern tarmac pavement and the houses on the western side seem to have lost theirs. Berkeley Place is among the earliest and grandest of Cheltenham’s Regency terraces and I can only assume that the houses were built with large cellars extending some way in front of them, with the coal cellar underneath the pavement. What is interesting about this one (and its companions) is that it looks much more ‘crafted’ than other coalplates. The outer ring is much wider and the surface of the plate has a distinctly hand-beaten look to it. I was also intrigued by the studs on the surface, which are all slightly different in size and shape. If you look carefully you can see that one is missing and has left behind a tiny hole … indicating that these studs were not cast as part of the plate but hammered on afterwards by hand. I reckon these plates were not cast in a foundry at all, but crafted by a skilled smith.

Priory Terrace is arguably the coalhole capital of Cheltenham. Here are four examples …


This drain-like open grille design may not be very glamorous in front of an idyllic Regency terrace, but as exactly the same design survives on the forecourts of around half the houses in the terrace, I assume it’s the original cover installed when the houses were built in the 1830s. Instead of being set into an iron outer rim, the plate simply sits on top of a hole cut out of the flagstone. The rationale for having such an open grille over a coal cellar isn’t clear to me, because it must let in an awful lot of rain, along with enough light to enable plants to grow in the walls. It does look a bit verdant and lush down there.


A frosted glass coalhole cover! I assume this was installed after the coalhole ceased to be in use, and is serving as a skylight for the cellar below. This house is at the end of the terrace and designed differently, with the coalhole actually set into the front steps. You can still see the outline of the outer ring which has been removed and filled in with concrete.


A plain and simple studded design with ventilation holes. It lacks much in the way of excitement but it is a good example of the sticking-out metal lugs which are often found on the outer ring of coalholes. Presumably the purpose of these was to stop the outer ring from rotating and coming loose once it was installed.


This small and plain coalplate doesn’t look very much at all, but it’s special for two reasons. One is that it belongs to 3 Priory Terrace which was once the home of the celebrated artist and lithographer George Rowe. Author of the Illustrated Cheltenham Guide of 1845 (and another edition in 1850), which is one of my standard reference books for this site, Rowe lived in this house from 1832 to 1836, presumably when it was newly built. I very much doubt he would have known this coalplate however, as it appears to be a later replacement. And one with historic significance of its own. Just about visible in the picture is the name around the outer edge: J Fisher Cheltenham.

The most likely source of this plate is the ironmonger’s shop opened in 1912 by J.C. Fisher and his wife in Pittville Street. The business thrived and expanded, largely due to the energies of Mr Fisher, who rode around the Cotswolds on horseback promoting his wares. By the 1920s the shop had become a specialist in ‘Spa’ fireplaces, and after that it moved to a builder’s yard in Swindon Road and branched out into building materials, becoming the familiar firm of Sharpe & Fisher. It eventually grew into a large chain with 38 branches across southern England and Wales. Sadly this household name was expunged in 1999 when the company was sold to rival builder’s merchant Travis Perkins, who closed the Cheltenham headquarters and swallowed up all 38 branches within itself.

So far, this is the only coalplate I’ve found with ‘Cheltenham’ badged onto it. There must be more … if you know of any, let me know!

This article has been greatly assisted by the book “Artistry and History Underfoot: A Study of Coalhole Covers” by Gillian Cooksey. And also by the brilliant and entertaining Faded London blog, which has a similar remit to Cheltonia (except it’s about London) and by far the best collection of British coalplate photos on the net.


Lypiatt Road

6 10 2009


Photos taken September 2009

According to Place Names of Gloucestershire, ‘lypiatt’ is a word which crops up in a few places around the county and means ‘gate in an enclosure fence which only deer can leap’. What does it say about our Gloucestershire forebears that they felt the urge to create a word for such a thing, and such a pretty word at that? In this instance the name has a very old association with this part of town, long pre-dating any development here. The field on which Lypiatt Road was built was called The Lypiatts, and shown on a 1776 enclosure map as Lippetts, still surviving in other house and street names. On the 1834 map, when the Tivoli Place houses were newly constructed, Andover Road was named as Lippiate Street – not to be confused with the present day Lypiatt Street which now leads off it at right-angles.

Lypiatt Road is a very attractive residential street (or it was residential originally, anyway) between the Montpellier roundabout and Suffolk Road. It runs dead straight for a way and then sweeps round in an elegant curve. The two sides of the street were developed separately, and although they were only built 20 years apart they represent two quite different phases in Cheltenham’s history.

And yet, despite the ancient pedigree of the Lypiatt name and the status of this street as one of Cheltenham’s finest, Lypiatt Road was actually officially nameless until as late as 1906. Up until then it was referred to as ‘the road in front of Suffolk Lawn and Lypiatt Terrace’, emphasising the difference between the two sides.


To trace the history of Lypiatt Road you have to go back to Galipot Farm and the Earl of Suffolk.

Galipot Farm was quite an important Cheltenham landmark and stood alone in the fields for over a century before the rest of the town took shape. It was described as “lately erected” in 1694 when it went by the name of Gallypott Hall, and although no image of it is known to survive it was most likely quite a large and fine residence. In the late 18th century it was part of the property of John de la Bere, who owned most of this area at the time. It was a popular spot for social gatherings during the heyday of the original Cheltenham spa, and John Byng in his diary of 1781 refers to a farm called The Gallipot “to which parties are made for tea, syllabub, etc.” The site of Lypiatt Road was part of the Galipot estate, although it was just open fields at that time. In the early 1800s, Galipot Farm and its surrounding fields were bought by the Earl of Suffolk, who promptly demolished the old farmhouse and had a grand bow-fronted house of his own built on its site. Only the farmhouse kitchen was spared and incorporated into the new house. Sadly Suffolk House (as it was called) was lost in the 1930s and replaced by a fairly grim block of flats, but anyway – the building of Suffolk House in around 1808 marked a new phase for this area of Cheltenham.

The 1806 map below shows Galipot Farm in the final year or so of its existence.


1806 map. It’s a little difficult to get your bearings on such a sparse map, so I’ve added a couple of labels to show where today’s familiar streets are. The Galipot farm buildings stand where the Suffolk Square flats are today, and the road along the front of the farm corresponds with Back Montpellier Terrace (not Montpellier Terrace itself). The New Well shown here is the short-lived Sherborne Well which stood roughly on the site of the Gordon Lamp on Montpellier roundabout. Similarly, the wide road passing down past Grove Cottage (long since vanished) is not the Promenade, as you might expect, but present day Montpellier Street.

For a few years, Suffolk House stood on its own in the fields just as Galipot Farm had done. But in 1820 the Earl of Suffolk died and his daughter sold off the surplus lands on either side of the house, which were snapped up by James Fisher, the proprietor of the Clarence Hotel in Clarence Parade (the hotel building still exists, now called John Dower House). Fisher had big ambitions as a property speculator and on one side of his new land he laid out the magnificent terraces and grand houses of Suffolk Square, using the classic Regency layout of a central communal garden with houses facing towards it around all four sides. He also had an eye for fresh talent, and took on a young and unknown local architect, Edward Jenkins. Work began in 1823 and progressed well until the devastating credit crunch at the end of 1825, which stalled building activities somewhat – while the dashing young architect made himself unpopular by eloping with the daughter of a wealthy patron. The first completed houses were ready in 1826, and it was noted in 1828 that Suffolk Square “as yet boasts but two or three finished houses”. However, unlike so many of the other Cheltenham speculators, Fisher survived the financial downturn and managed to complete the Suffolk estate even if it took him a while, also branching out into further (but less ambitious) property schemes in Fairview.


Gazebo in Lypiatt Road (no I wasn’t sloshed when I took the picture, it’s set into a sloping lawn)

There is evidence to suggest that Lypiatt Road – or the unnamed road that evolved into it – was in existence by 1820, perhaps built initially as a turnpike road. It appears on the Post Office map of 1820, apparently undeveloped, though it’s hard to tell for sure because most of it is off the edge of the map. Interestingly the map also labels the line of present day Montpellier Street as Old Lane to Gallipot Farm (sic) suggesting that the farm’s status as a local landmark lived on for some years after its buildings vanished. As was often the case with the more grandiose Regency developments in Cheltenham, the Suffolk estate paid no attention to existing field boundaries or footpaths – its design was carved out across virgin territory. The elegant curve of Lypiatt Road is most likely an affectation of those who built it, and gives no more than a passing nod to the mildly curved field edges of Galipot Farm. The road’s presence on the 1820 map suggests it was probably already there when James Fisher bought the land, and a later reference (in 1870) to Lypiatt Road “formerly known as Painswick Turnpike Road” suggests that it was originally formed as a through-route, with Painswick Road forming the next section.

Lypiatt Road was developed as part of the Suffolk estate, even though it was on the far side of Suffolk House and not directly connected to the rest of Fisher’s development in Suffolk Square, and its building work was underway at around the same time. It was originally named Park Place – not to be confused with the current nearby street of that name – and shortly afterwards re-badged as Suffolk Lawn. The initial development consisted of five large detached houses along the east side of Lypiatt Road, almost certainly the work of the young architect Edward Jenkins.


Stanmer House (above) is one of the houses collectively known as Suffolk Lawn. Although all different, they are of classic Regency Cheltenham style with clean elegant lines. This one has a chunky portico, with Ionic columns and arched windows edged with stained glass. Some of the houses have a bow window on the side overlooking the garden. The exact date of Suffolk Lawn’s building is not known but a request for street lighting in 1827 suggests that at least some of the houses were built and occupied by then. Most of the other Suffolk Lawn houses have been converted to business premises in recent years, but this one is residential and retains a lot of its original features, including wooden internal shutters across the ground floor windows (a kind of precursor to net curtains) and its original sweeping semi-circular driveway, designed to provide convenient access for carriages.

As was common in the 19th century, the Suffolk Lawn development gave its name to the entire street, and that’s how it appears on the 1834 map below. This name for the street was short-lived, surviving only until the arrival of a more dominant development across the road. But on the map below you can see how the five detached houses with their spacious gardens and semi-circular driveways originally looked out over an expanse of field towards Lansdown Place, which was under development at exactly the same time – begun in 1826 and progressing slowly through the financially shaky years. The south side of Lansdown Road was then unbuilt, and simply lined with trees along the field edge. The newly laid out lines of Tivoli would also have been visible on the other side of the field, marked here under the shortlived name of Lippiate Street.


1834 map.

The map also shows a few other interesting things. The large L-shaped Suffolk House of 1808, on the site of Galipot farmhouse, sits directly behind the Suffolk Lawn development, separated from it by a straight and narrow service lane now known as Southwood Lane (which has its own Cheltonia article). The rest of the Suffolk estate is shown as a work in progress. The magnificent terrace on the north side of Suffolk Square, now one of Cheltenham’s architectural showpieces, is shown marked out but with only the first two houses built, and in fact it took until 1848 to finish it. At the top of the map is the Montpellier Pump Room, now generally called the Rotunda, with Montpellier Terrace and Gardens also taking shape.

The west side of Lypiatt Road remained unbuilt for a number of years, but inevitably the remaining triangle of field shown here – still then called The Lypiatts – was much sought after, being bounded on all sides by the fashionable Suffolk, Tivoli and Lansdown developments. It wasn’t until 1847 that the land was finally parcelled up for building, by a “respectable builder of this town” (according to the Cheltenham Looker-On) called Richard Keightly.

A new building speculation has within the last few days commenced in the field opposite Suffolk Lawn and Lansdown Place, which for so many years has invited the attention of those who were anxious for ‘eligible investments’ in brick and mortar, in vain … erection of a row of 18 first-class houses.

And so came Lypiatt Terrace into being. It is one of the latest of Cheltenham’s major terraces and reflects a change of taste and style from its Regency neighbours across the street. The Victorian era had arrived, and with it an architectural extravagance and showiness which contrast with the classical style of the Suffolk estate. Set back from the road behind a wide strip of communal lawn, the terrace is designed in an Italianate style with rounded arched windows and a long balcony right along its frontage formed from carved stone rings.


The end of terrace at the south end of Lypiatt Terrace (above) and a section of the frontage (below).


It’s not known for certain who designed Lypiatt Terrace. I have seen it credited to Samuel Whitfield Daukes, who was certainly responsible for some other Italianate architecture of the same period, but I can’t find any other reference to this. Another strong possibility is that it was designed by Richard Keightley himself, as he was certainly responsible for the laying out of the individual building plots. As was the norm at that time, the plots for individual houses within the terrace were sold off separately at auction, so that often different builders were responsible for each of them, but under an obligation to adhere very precisely to the same design so that the finished terrace looked perfectly uniform. Building certificates from the time show that the terrace was under construction through until 1849 and that Richard Keightley built four of the houses himself. There are 17 houses in total, not 18 as originally reported in the Cheltenham Looker-On.


1921 map. Houses of Lypiatt Road marked in red.

This map shows the Suffolk Lawn side of the road much as it was in 1834 above, but with the addition of Lypiatt Terrace across the road. The terrace has a capacious lawn and series of driveways at the front, small private gardens at the back, and behind those a small service lane. By this time several large houses had been built on the rest of the field along Lansdown Road (named here as Lansdown Place) including one called The Lypiatts, preserving the name of the field itself.

Southwood Lane

20 12 2008


Photos taken November 2008

Unobtrusive and semi-invisible (in the sense that you can walk past them dozens of times without really noticing they’re there), service lanes are a common feature in Cheltenham’s Regency areas. Most of the grand houses and terraces of that period had these narrow roads running along the back of them where stables, coach-houses, staff cottages and other necessary clutter could be kept conveniently to hand but discreetly out of sight. One such unassuming thoroughfare is Southwood Lane, which runs in a straight line between the top end of Suffolk Square (near the Montpellier roundabout) and the bottom end of Lypiatt Road, originally serving the backsides of the fine villas in both streets.

Surprisingly, the lane seems to have been unnamed for the first 140 years or so of its existence, only acquiring the name Southwood Lane in 1960. It was named after a house in Lypiatt Road called Southwood, which was formerly a boarding house belonging to Cheltenham College and one of several of their properties to bear that name over the years. The house, in turn, was named after the Rev. Thomas Southwood, who was a headmaster in the 19th century.

There isn’t as much to see in Southwood Lane as there is in some of the other service lanes in Cheltenham. But it has this very nice pair of cottages called Coach House Mews which still sport a lot of original features including a wooden hatch in the wall at pavement level and vertical decorative stripes incorporating the window frames. Notice how deep set the windows and doors are, a clue to the age of these cottages, which actually pre-date the lane they stand in.


The coach house (far right of the picture) and these mews cottages are the only surviving relic of Suffolk House, a supergrand double bow-fronted house built by the Earl of Suffolk around 1808 on the corner plot between Suffolk Square and Southwood Lane and now the site of some grimly utilitarian 1930s flats whose dark bulk and charming fire-escape stairways overshadow the cottages. Suffolk House is one of the town’s lamented lost buildings but was itself built on the site of an 18th century house, Galipot Farm, whose name survives only in the name of a cottage in nearby Andover Road.

The 1834 map shows Southwood Lane running across what had recently been fields and without following the old field boundaries. It had several other mews cottages by then, on both sides. The map also shows that Lypiatt Road was previously called Suffolk Lawn and was only developed on its east side at that time.


1834 map showing Southwood Lane (unnamed) running behind Suffolk House, complete with cottages and outbuildings. Suffolk Lawn (now called Lypiatt Road) was only developed on one side and overlooked open fields. Suffolk Square was still only partially completed. Two more disused names shown here are Suffolk Place (now part of Suffolk Square) and Montpellier Gate (where the elongated roundabout and Gordon Lamp are now).

Southwood Lane is not shown on the 1820 Post Office map, so it most likely dates not from the building of Suffolk House itself but from the development of the rest of the rest of the Galipot Farm site in the 1820s.


The opposite side of the lane, and the back gateways of Regency houses in Lypiatt Road.