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The Coal Holes of Old London

September 18, 2017
by the gentle author

These hundred and fifty drawings of cast iron plate covers for coal chutes were sketched by a young medical student, Dr Shepherd Taylor, while studying at King’s College Hospital in the Strand in 1863. “I determined to try to reproduce them on paper, and, although I had no particular artistic skill or genius, I found no great difficulty in making a fair sketch of the more simple devices,” he admitted proudly. Whether Dr Taylor was a purist who omitted those with their maker’s names because he preferred abstract design or whether he simply could not do lettering, we shall never know.

Dr Taylor was ninety years old before his cherished designs were published in 1929 and he christened them Opercula, which means a cover or a lid. I will give a prize to anyone that can send me a photograph of any of these opercula drawn by Dr Taylor still in its location today.

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. September 18, 2017

    you’re on!
    might take a while though :)

  2. September 18, 2017

    I have been “collecting” these for decades, including the ones with names on.
    See here: http://www.janeslondon.com/search?q=coal+holes
    and also on my flickrstream: https://www.flickr.com/photos/janepbr/albums/72157607753988900

    Pretty certain I can overlay a lot of the above line drawings with photos of the actual things.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    September 18, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, very interesting. Where do you find these things? All I can think of is that these various designs must have been created in foundries by workers eager to express their artistic bents although their work would remain anonymous.

    Then again, because there were so many “coal holes” on every street, they must have been distinguished from each other by a particular pattern?

    Truly lovely geometric designs …

  4. Helen Breen permalink
    September 18, 2017

    Thanks for sharing the link to your study of coal holes, Jane. Really fascinating.

  5. pauline taylor permalink
    September 18, 2017

    I wonder how many of our ancestors, and we ourselves of course, trampled over these without giving them a second thought, but it is good to see that this man recorded so many, and thank you for showing them to us.

  6. Sparks permalink
    September 19, 2017

    I have recently seen this article about T Shirt printing from these types of cover – hope it’s ok to post the link GA? I thought it was a great idea and your post has just reminded me of it
    https://www.boredpanda.com/pirate-printers-manhole-covers-raubdruckerin/

  7. September 19, 2017

    Wow I wonder how much time he invested in doing these?

  8. Malcolm permalink
    September 20, 2017

    Quite a few of these still exist. When I get a chance I photograph them.

  9. Dave Hucker permalink
    September 21, 2017

    I am big fan of coalhole covers particularily the Bartles ones around Notting Hill and North Kensington. Bartles was a foundry in Lancaster Road W11. And was next door to Rillington Place, No 10 was right up against the back wall of Bartles. I have discovered that often ironmongers sold their own brand coalholes. Pearsons in Notting Hill Gate was one such place.

  10. Annie permalink
    September 23, 2017

    Found loads! You are Chalky White and I claim my prize. Will email to you the evidence when I return home. Woot!

  11. September 23, 2017

    Ooooh! This post makes me so happy. Thanks you GA for sharing Dr. Taylor’s illustrations. I’m a big fan of all street hardware and appreciate that you’ve shined the light on handsome evidence once again.

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