Peat Fires and the English Regency

Feu_de_tourbeJoanna here, philosophising for a minute.

One of the ironies that strikes me from time to time is the realization that a somebody living in a simple suburban rambler or a condo in Cincinnati in 2013 is probably more physically comfortable than a duchess in 1780.  

Your Georgian dowager duchess warmed her tootsies at an open hearth.  She used a fire screen to shield her face from the direct heat of the fire.  She had a wing-back chair, maybe, to wrap the heat around her before it dissipated in the balmy 48 degrees of the rest of the room.  That chill whistle at the back of her neck was the cold air rushing in
to run up the chimney, taking much of the heat of the fire with it. 
That's why the 'drafty old manor house' in a Romance book is drafty.

What was the dowager burning on that hearth?  Into the Eighteenth Century, well-to-do Englishmen burned wood — and didn't they have a lovely open hearth with logs and firedogs and pokers on the side that were handy for fighting off unwanted advances. 

By the Regency, most
William bigg 1793 English city houses, and a goodly proportion of houses in the country, had refitted their chimneys to burn coal.  The firedogs on that open hearth were replaced with a cast iron basket for coal — still on an open hearth.  Oddly, the 'efficient and pretty tiled stove in the parlor' concept remained the property of Germans and Russians and those Americans in
their wild, snowy north.
That was the Dowager and the vulgar City merchant and the vicar's wife in Little Tweeting, Hamps.  The country poor weren't nearly as well off.  They burned what wood they could gather, what coal they could afford.  Where peat was available, the countryfolk burned peat.  Denmark peat digging

Today, we think of peat fires as Scottish and Irish.  Writers in the Regency period felt the same way.  Peat fires — turf fires, they were called — were treated as a Scots and Irish specialty.  They were deplored as a product of dire poverty by some writers and lauded as picturesque by others.  But to get to the Scots and Irish peat fires, those writers must have bowled right past any number of English cottages in Lincolnshire, Somerset, and Northamptonshire busily burning peat. 

There's not much said about these English peat fires.  A Regency couple fleeing villains might well have found the kindly old farm couple who took them in sitting by a thoroughly English peat fire. 

Loading the peat cart westhay somerset 1905So we turn to the question — What is peat and how come we can burn dirt?
In what may be the first description of European peat fires, Pliny says the natives of north Germany ". . . form mud with their
hands, which, when dried in the wind rather than in the sun, is burned
to cook their food, and warm their bodies chilled by the cold north

     Pliny, Natural History

Despite Pliny, good peat is not 'mud'.  It's decayed vegetable matter, compreessed and concentrated over thousands of years. 

When a lowland is so waterlogged you can't farm it, so marshy it won't Turfsteker_Peat-cutter wikigrow trees, so spongy you can't build a road across it, so mushy you can't graze animals on it — you may have yourself a peat bog.

s a video about how you cut peat.  The guy makes it look easy.  I suspect it is not. 

The very general idea behind peat cutting is you slice yer waterlogged peat, which is sitting in its bog as it has been for millennia, and lift it out .  You get largish bricks which are 95% water and not, in this condition, inclined to burn.  Then:

"They cut it out in long pieces, they lay them in a regular order carefully, in rows upon the ground, to be dried by the sun and wind. … As the peat dries, and is turned by persons appointed for that purpose, to dry it the better, it breaks into smaller lengths, and then it serves not only the poor but many other persons, for firing, and gives a good  heat."
      Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, VolumScotish Peat Gathereres 50-51, 1758.

After a week or two, when the bricks have shed most of their water, you stack them up in piles and let them dry some more, because you do not generally want to be carting all that water home.

Along the right here are various interesting photos of Victorians cutting peat, pretty much the way their ancestors did it centuries ago, I should think.
Click on the photograph for a better view.

When your peat is well dried and hard, you bring it home.  You might pile it in a simple heap, or store it in an outbuilding, or maybe make a neat little stack and thatch it on top to keep the rain off. Folks also took it off and sold it in town.  It was a fuel for the urban poor in some places.Peat farmer heinrich jessen before 1866

"It is sold for about ten shillings a waggonload, delivered at their
houses in the town. The ashes also prove very good manure for both grass
and arable land and the farmers give from four pence to fix pence a
bushel for th
em, which renders this firing very cheap."
      Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volumes 50-51, 1758.

There's a good bit written, now and in the Regency, about the particular pungent, intriguing, and characteristic odor of a peat fire.  My own experience is that peat fires just smell like fires.  There's also some mention made of 'roaring' or 'blazing' peat fires — generally in advertising brochures.  I've found peat fires to be low and slow and pleasantly warm. 
I am ready to be persuaded by other folks' experiences.

Considering the antiquity of peat cutting, I can't find much on interesting folk customs associated with peat fires or cutting peat.  That does feel strange to me.  

I miss having peat-gathering songs and maybe maypole dances to open the 'turfing season'.

If you had to choose between a wood fire or a peat fire, which would you pick?  You don't have to cook on it or anything.  And you don't have to go out and dig the peat or cut the trees.  The fireplace fairy does all that.

Turf or wood . . . or maybe something else.  What would you want in your fireplace?

Some lucky commenter wins one of my books, her choice.