Under the floorboards

For sometime I’ve been renovating my house, mainly to avoid doing things I need to do, like finish software, write etc. etc., so I wave my neighbours off in the morning as they commute to the codeface with a cheery wave of my trowel.  I don’t hold with the view that the past is a guide to the future, but I think that if you don’t know where you are coming from, you don’t know where you are going.  Poking around under floorboards to remove defective piping and demolishing some decaying brickwork has provided some insights into energy use and sustainability, and oddly, the smoking habits of workmen over the past 100 years.

The remains of a clay pipe from 1901 and an empty packet of “woodies” from the 1940s or 50s.

I’ve recovered a few fragments of clay pipes, including a couple of bowls, pictures of Victorian builders often have a couple of blokes posing with a pipe.  A couple of butts smoked so far down that the smoker probably burnt his fingers could date from the 1920s or 30s.  Around 1950, the then owner rewired the house (partly because the previous wiring had started a fire), the electricians smoked filter tipped “Woodies” (introduced in 1948) and some unidentifiable brands, possibly including Craven A.  There are a lot of butts, many people smoked in the 1940s and 1950s, many, like my mother, acquired the habit during World War Two when long term health issues came a long way second to short term survival.  The dark world world between the rafters was next visited during the 1980s when central heating was installed and the house rewired, a few filter tips may have been dropped during this time.

An egg cup salvaged from quater of a ton of town ash that was used to support an angled wall, the same filth also yielded the remains of a marmalade pot.

The original 1901 builders seem to have used “Town Ash” as a filler to support sloping brickwork during construction and possibly to make mortar in places, maybe, because they thought they could get away with it.  They did, its taken them a 100 years for them to be found out.  Town Ash is just the stuff raked out of open fires and cooking ranges.  Having just removed quarter of a ton of the stuff, I would suggest that a late Victorian breakfast consisted of a boiled egg, toast and marmalade followed by a pipe of tobacco.  I’m trying to decide if ten bags of damp, black stuff are history or rubbish that has waited a century to be disposed of.

Whilst I have not found any, I have heard stories of builders using slag from Roman Iron works in the Weald.  The Roman connection may be fanciful, but the Wealden Iron industry was producing waste for several hundred years until iron production moved north as coal displaced charcoal as fuel.

It was possible that this pipe was installed in 1949 and was decommissioned in the mid-1980’s, so this blockage accumulated over a 30 year period..  A fragile and smelly fragment of the Daily Mirror with a section of the Jane cartoon strip dated December 1949 was found close to this section.

One of the hardest jobs has been the removal of some iron piping, my guess is that this was installed around 1950 because of man’s deep seated desire for hot bath water.  Iron was probably used for lack of anything better, but its not an ideal material for domestic plumbing, where the pipe had to be cut  to remove it, the bore can been seen to be constricted by a mix of limescale and rust.

1920’s wiring, see text for description.  It was possible that this cabling was used for lighting and lead sheathed cable for power sockets.  The wood channelling is unusual.

It is the three generations of electrical wiring that are relevant to this blog.  The house was built in 1901 without an electricity supply, my guess is that this was installed in the early 1920s.  Only the ground floor was served with lighting and power sockets.  The wires are tinned copper and sheathed in rubber over which there is a fabric outer layer.  The live and neutral wires are separated in wooden conduits.  In the 1930s the cabling was extended to upper floor where the wires are the same, but the conduit is black painted metal tubing with clamps for elbows and tees.  Around 1950, the electrical wiring caused a serious fire.  The damage was repaired and the house rewired.  This cable is like modern “twin and earth” (T&E?), but made of different materials, the outer insulation could be polythene (a guess) the conductors are sheathed in rubber.  This survived until the 1980’s when it too was replaced, this time by PVC T&E.

Cross section of lead covered cable, thought to have been installed around 1930, the cross section of the conductors appears to be larger than modern T&E cabling and the earth smaller.

When the house was built, it could probably consume about 10 – 50 kwh/day mostly in the form of coal for cooking and heating and some gas and rape seed oil for lighting.  There is a natural limit to coal consumption which is imposed by the capacity to shovel it and dispose of the ash.  With the advent of electricity this, this able to add another 5 to 20 kwh/day from incandescent lighting and electric fires.  Central heating lifted the energy absorbing capacity to well over 100 kwh/day.  For most of the 20th century energy prices were falling, if only as a proportion of household income, as prices fell consumption increased.  In the 21st Century energy prices are rising, but the legacy systems where were created during the era of cheap energy remain, making it difficult to cut consumption without the risk of chilblains.

Cabling from the 1950.  The outer sheath appears to be polythene(?) and the insulators around the cable appear to be rubber.

About SolarBucket

I trained as a mechanical engineer in the 1970's and then spent most of the following 25 years doing sums and software for Oil and Gas Exploration. Current interests are the study of wind and solar resources.
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