Otley Hall, Otley, Ipswich

The history of the chimney

The chimney – be it a towering statement of Tudor wealth or a modest modern stack – is about to take on its pivotal role in Santa Claus's annual race against time.

Allowing a speedy entrance and quick get away to hasten the next delivery, the chimney and, by extension, the fireplace, has become an integral part of Christmas. But the chimney hasn't always been an integral part of a house. Experimental archaeology suggests Iron Age roundhouses had no special opening to let smoke escape, instead it found its way out through the thatch at the same time acting as a preservative and handy insect repellent.

For centuries after that buildings made do with a hole in the roof or wall. Chimneys as we know them today started to come into their own from the 16th century onwards as wood gradually gave way to coal. The word itself is probably derived from cheminée, old French for fireplace, and initially chimneys were timber-framed, though, not surprisingly, few of those early models survive. 

For wealthy Tudors chimneys weren’t solely practical. Tall, ornate and numerous, they communicated an important social message – not only could the owners afford a large and lavish home, they had the money to heat it, too. Such monuments also served as a gallery for brick makers to show off their skill – I once sold a house in Norfolk that had had no fewer than nine chimneys in one block, each exquisitely different.

Just why Father Christmas chooses to use the chimney rather than the front or back door is a matter for debate. One explanation is linked to Norse mythology which tells of Odin entering homes through smoke holes on the winter solstice. Another recalls the fourth-century St Nicholas helping a poor family by dropping gold coins down the chimney. 

Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt our favourite Christmas visitor is facing a challenge. As central heating emerged as the must-have 20th-century mod con, open fires drifted out of fashion and many fireplaces were closed up. That said, in many homes the wood burning stove has re-established the fireplace as a focal point of a room and, indeed, as somewhere for children to hang their Christmas stockings. They must make things a little more tricky for Father Christmas though.


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