This lovely wooden “Baxter” coal scuttle was, I think, bought by my parents from a local antiques shop when they were first married, and it has served many uses since then. Back then, in the 1950s and ’60s, antique shops were not the exclusive domain of wealthy collectors that they later became. They were just shops where anyone with old-fashioned tastes could buy the outmoded wooden furniture which was being cast aside by the fashion for modern, synthetic materials (plastic, vinyl, MFD, Formica, etc.). A few of the items featured in this blog were acquired this way.
For the first 10 years or so that they owned it, this coal scuttle served the purpose for which it had been so beautifully made: coal was loaded into the top via the hinged lid, and emptied out of the little hatch which opened at the front. I have very vague memories of this: a mental picture of the round balls of smokeless fuel tumbling out of the hatch, accompanied by sparkly black dust and a gritty smell. I have a clearer memory of the big concrete coal bunkers in the garden, in which the coal supply was stored. These lasted longer than our coal fires and were used to store other items for many years, such as Dad’s collection of useful bits of wood.
The fireplaces of our Victorian home were boarded up when the central heating was installed in about 1963 or 1964; I was a tiny tot but I just about remember it. The coal scuttle then became a piece of furniture in its own right, a decorative table with inbuilt storage space for books and magazines. When I was about 7 or 8 we moved upstairs (see here for the story of our upstairs-downstairs home) and I had the small bedroom over the front door, with ponies on the wallpaper. The coal scuttle became my bedside table (and receptacle of my secret diaries), and I was very fond of it. When I left home at 18 to live in a slummy shared flat I asked if I could take it with me but my parents, quite rightly, refused.
The coal scuttle later received a new lease of life as an object of Dad’s creativity. He was a great craftsman and built many ingenious cupboards, shelves and tables to fit the various nooks and crannies of our old house. With the addition of some perfectly fitted plywood, he turned the coal scuttle into a unique drinks cabinet, with a shelf inside the hatch for small shot glasses and another under the lid for larger ones. Bottles neatly filled the space inside. Not being habitual drinkers, they now had somewhere convenient and unobtrusive to store all those bottles their international visitors always brought them – palinka or Tokay from Hungary, or the duty-free Johnnie Walker that guests always assumed my Scottish Dad would drink (which he did, occasionally, but a bottle would last 3 years!).
Dad’s adaptation of this lovely piece of furniture made it even more special to me. Years after his death I found myself, after a lifetime of sharing homes with flatmates or boyfriends, finally in a place I could call my own. It was a housing trust flat and I was overjoyed to have my own space at last, at the age of 40: a home I could decorate as I wished and fill with objects and furniture of my own choosing. No more landlords’ rubbish! I had a lot of help and support from my Mum, who made me curtains and gave me a sofabed and other bits of furniture to get me started. I plucked up the courage to ask if I could have the old coal scuttle drinks cabinet, and this time, she was happy to give it to me. It remains one of my most treasured possessions. Although I have no coal in my own centrally heated Victorian home, I do make full and frequent use of Dad’s added features – being, unlike my parents, an enthusiastic drinker. I even store some of their old glasses in it. My unusual drinks cabinet is always a conversation point at parties!
Incidentally, I notice that the BBC/British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (which partly inspired this blog) also features a wooden coal scuttle – but their example lacks my Dad’s special handiwork!