As the wind whistled in from the Arctic this week and I added another layer of thermals I started to wonder what it must have been like trying to keep warm in the days before there was efficient heating. I love gorgeous old stately homes but those high ceilings and large rooms must have been impossible to keep warm in the winter. Like my little country cottage, the old houses were also cursed with ill-fitting windows and doors, and wicked little draughts that spring up from nowhere to chill your ankles. In the days before central heating I imagine people needed to be very imaginative to find ways to keep warm.
The wood burning stove in our living room is the hub of the house at times like this and I imagine that the vast open fires in old houses served the same purpose in the past, with people huddled around them. In my last house, built in the 17th century, the inglenook fireplace was so vast it took up half of one wall and contained a bread oven as well as a grate. An open fire is special. It provides heat, light and comfort with the warmth, extremely important when the rest of the house might be so cold that ice would form on the inside of the windows.
I do remember that with a big open fire it’s possible to have a very warm body but a cold head! Of course ladies in the Regency would actually use a fire screen – a decorated panel on a pole – to protect their complexions from the direct heat of the fire. Larger room screens partitioned off warmer parts of a hall or sitting room and kept out the draughts.
Similarly those gorgeous wing chairs weren’t just designed in that style for the fun of it. The high back and sides are great for keeping out the cold. In humbler cottages wooden high back chairs served a similar purpose. You piled them high with cushions for a very cosy seat.
Like me with my four layers of thermals, the savvy Regency person would not wear a thin muslin dress in freezing cold weather but would layer on a lot of clothes. Linen, cotton, wool and fur were popular with huge muffs for ladies to wear. The heroine of my current book comments that in the Scottish winter she was seen carrying such a huge fur muff that it gave rise to reports that she was hiding a family of orphans inside it. Sailors on the Arctic expeditions of the early 19th century wore coachmen’s great coats in a vain attempt to keep out the cold.
Then there were the petticoats. Four or five were in no way unreasonable, with socks, stockings, shawls, gloves, caps and hats. If one was travelling on the outside of the stagecoach every one of these layers would prove necessary in the winter and even then you were risking death from exposure.
Keeping the feet warm
There is a school of thought that says that if you keep the feet warm the rest of the body will follow. Regency footwear for women was pretty flimsy and even the leather half boot wouldn’t necessarily keep you warm and dry. For men the standard outdoor footwear was the riding boot, which was considerably more hard wearing.
Carriages were not heated, so a hot brick to keep your feet warm was essential. These would be heated up in a stove, wrapped in flannel and could then retain their warmth for quite a while, particularly if insulated under layers of travelling rugs.
And so to bed
The earliest type of hot water bottle was the warming pan, which dates back to the 16th century. A metal pan, it contained the embers of the fire, and had a long handle so that it could be moved across the bed to heat up those chilly corners! These were pretty dangerous if left in the bed for too long since they could set it on fire, providing rather more heat than one actually wanted.
Large stone wear hot water bottles were safer. These were also known as foot warmers. They followed the same principle as today’s hot water bottles; they were filled with near boiling water, sealed and placed in the bed.
If all else failed you could always go for shared bodily warmth! You could also sleep in the same space as your animals. In many cottages this is exactly what happened; the one room housed both people and their animals. At Ashdown House some of the servants’ quarters were above the stables. Apparently it was quite cosy with the heat rising from the horses. And a dog or cat on the bed is as warm as a hot water bottle. More than one of my heroines has let their pet sleep on their bed for warmth and one of my relatives came across this on a recent stay at a castle in Ireland where the hostess offered all the visitors a dog to keep them warm.
What about you? Do you think you could have survived a Regency winter? What is your favourite way of keeping warm in a cold climate?