Skip to content

The Coal Holes Of Old London

July 18, 2019
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 Shephard 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.


You may also like to take a look at

The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    July 18, 2019

    None of the motifs a spiral !

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 18, 2019

    Great stuff! I love the fact that they bothered to decorate the coal holes and that there were so many variants (one suspects that if they were made today they would all be a standard generic boring design…)

  3. David Silk permalink
    July 18, 2019

    This article brings back memory’s of school days in the early 70,s . At St George’s boys school Ramsgate . The school now long gone was surrounded by Georgian town houses and all had Coal Holes .One of our art projects was to do rubbings of the covers . Amazingly I recognise some of the designs thatDr Shepherd Taylor drew in London . A few are still in place on the pavements of Ramsgate .

  4. Jamie S permalink
    July 18, 2019

    Fabulous feature

  5. Graham Moss permalink
    July 18, 2019

    Please do keep us all posted with an article if you get any photos!

  6. Jill permalink
    July 18, 2019

    Dear author,
    As. A Londoner I am transfixed by these sketches. They have strangely reached me in ‘the parts that otherwise have not formerly been accessed’
    I am now officially and seriously roundel (will check spelling) obsessed.
    Thank-you for showing up once again – and again – with life’s truest meanings, all there beneath our feet.

  7. aubrey permalink
    July 18, 2019

    The circular seems to outnumber the rectangular. However the Newman St cover appears acknowledge both. Nice Technical drawings though.

  8. Geoff Nicholls permalink
    July 18, 2019

    This book: “Drainspotting: a Guide to the Pavement Features of Sheffield” by Calvin Payne and Andy Cooper, may be of interest. Behind the funny name is a serious attempt to document unnoticed features, often locally manufactured, which are fast disappearing.

  9. July 18, 2019

    Incredible, wonderful.

  10. Mila Tanya Griebel permalink
    July 18, 2019

    This is an amazing collection . I thought it was just me that looked and took note of the designs .
    When I was at Primary school in about 1972 aged around 9/10 we were given what was called chip paper and crayons and sent off for the day in pairs to take rubbing of the coal holes in the St Johns wood area .This was with out any teachers .Some of us got as far as Camden town , Swiss cottage, Maida vale and Baker street . When we git back to school we put our rubbings out and saw just how many different designs there were .

  11. Peter Metaxas permalink
    July 18, 2019

    This is so good, it’s amazing to see that the different manufacturers put thought and an artistic flair into their designs. I might start a collection. News flash! another cover missing’, 3rd this week”

  12. Pimlico Pete permalink
    July 18, 2019

    Lovely collection.

    Imagine my surprise in Duncan Terrace Islington yesterday — a coal hole freshly sprinkled with coal dust, indicating a recent delivery. Unless it is being mined there and the dust was spoil from a recent carting away.

  13. July 18, 2019

    These are a lovely record, but would they not have had the manufacturers’ names stamped on them? which is also good to see. I was very taken with the pictorial ones on the quayside in Bergen last year, but so many old ones that remain go unnoticed. E. Berris

  14. James permalink
    July 18, 2019

    Wonderful piece. My high school Latin played me false: I assumed that the plural would be”operculae,” but find that that opercula is the plural, while operculum is the singular. Your stories are always educational. Thank you.

  15. Victoria Cooper permalink
    July 18, 2019

    I love love love these – love the fact that Dr Shepherd Taylor wanted to record them, love the fact that there are layers upon layers of life in London, love the fact that there is always so much more to see that we do, love the fact that not everything is lost and forgotten by everyone. Thank you Gentle Author for revealing treasure upon treasure and making life that much richer.

  16. July 20, 2019

    Some five years ago, with my three of my grandchildren, I made rubbings of many of the coal-hole covers in Bloomsbury (Gordon Square, Russell Square, Tavistock Square, etc).

    In fact, during the 60s, while an art student I made similar rubbings (like brass rubbings in a church) as part of a design project. It was the enjoyment of doing this some 50 years ago that prompted me to get my grandchildren involved. They adored it!

    Mick Csaky – July 2019

  17. Jo Walton permalink
    July 21, 2019

    A particularly rich crop of these covers can be found in Mornington Crescent, in north London. They have the names and addresses of the different coal dealers who provided coal to the houses there, some of them from right the other side of town (Borough High Street, for instance).

    Presumably they supplied regular customers with a suitably inscribed coal-hole cover, which would also have helped the delivery driver to find the right house.

    There was a very entertaining article on such covers by Chris Catling, for the magazine Current Archaeology a couple of years ago, though I’m afraid I can’t remember exactly when.

  18. Jeanette Hollick permalink
    July 27, 2019

    Thankyou for such an interesting post.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS