One of the most fascinating and rewarding things about owning a historic home is the way that its history is written into the fabric of the building, and often the older a house is the more that is true. The form of homes in Britain, and the function and importance of the different rooms, has changed greatly over the centuries, and some have disappeared altogether though the signs of what used to be there remain. In timber-framed houses, one of the most common is the smoke bay, which is perhaps one of the best examples of the domestication of the house that we can still see today.
What is a smoke bay?
The smoke bay is an early ancestor of the modern fireplace and chimney. Intact smoke bays are vanishingly rare thanks to modernisation through the centuries, but they’re also quite easy to spot in older houses, and their use dates back to the days when houses used to look very different. A bay is the gap between the supporting posts in the frame of the house that hold up the roof, and houses typically consisted of three or four bays that were six to eight feet wide. It’s where we get the term ‘bay window’ from, because these were windows whose jutting structure took up a whole bay, and so a smoke bay is a bay dedicated to dealing with smoke.
Figures: Harris, R. 1978. Discovering Timber Framed Buildings. Princes Risborough, Shire Publications Ltd.
How did a smoke bay work?
Early timber-framed houses were much simpler than modern ones and typically consisted of a hall, which was a wide open space with a double height ceiling, and between two and four smaller rooms at one end of the building that served as private chambers and kitchens or sculleries, separated from the hall by a passage. The fire itself was an open one in the centre of the hall, and the smoke simply rose upwards and exited through a hole in the roof. This meant that servants and guests, depending on their station, often slept on the floor of the hall.
As time went on and richer people demanded more of their houses, the importance of the hall diminished, and it was sub-divided to provide more discreet living spaces, with a second storey created in the roof space. This raised the problem of what to do about the fire which still stood open on the ground floor, and the solution adopted was typically to leave the whole bay that it was situated in double-height while the rest were filled in, so the smoke could still rise up and out of the roof. That bay was called the smoke bay, because it channelled the smoke out of the house and couldn’t be built into.
What happened to the smoke bay?
Despite allowing for a more modern living arrangement, the smoke bay wasn’t without its faults. The open fire was still smoky and smelly, and filled the ground floor with soot while presenting a fire risk to upper floors, so many houses adopted a ‘smoke hood’. This was similar to modern oven hoods, constructed from wood and plaster built into the bay, and drew the smoke and sparks upwards away from the rooms below and out through a sort of chimney. The result was something like a modern chimney, but one that still took up a lot of space, and so the next step was to contain it within a smaller brick fireplace or an Inglenook made possible by the introduction of more efficient fuels like coal.
This development was the end of most smoke bays because the smaller fireplace safely contained the fire and enabled the space around it to be used. Most smoke bays at this stage were opened up and incorporated into the rooms around them, with brick chimney flues serving the same function but using much less space.
How can I find my smoke bay?
Smoke bays are most common in older houses in places where timber framing was common, generally in England and particularly the south where good building stone was less accessible. While many houses have been altered and extended over the years, the smoke bay is part of its skeleton, and where the original fireplace survives in brick or stone there will be clues around it. Generally, there are doors or passages cut either side of the fireplace, added when the chimney allowed the space to be used as a thoroughfare.
You should also see the four original posts of the bay around the fire, often with notches cut into them to show where the old wall’s beams would have been. This should also be visible in the upper storey even if there was no fireplace in the room, because that room would originally have been part of the double height smoke bay. Inglenook fireplaces in particular are common evidence of a smoke bay, as these were sometimes built in to the entire width of the bay to create a smaller heated space that incorporated a bread oven.