Stacks crooked, stacks leaning, stacks ornamental – most chimneys go unnoticed by passers-by more likely to be looking where they are going than studying rooftops.
Chimneys are of course functional components of a building designed to draw smoke from fireplaces out into the atmosphere, and protect the occupants and the building from the dangers of fire. Thatched properties often had very tall stacks to divert sparks away from the roof. Before chimney stacks, fires burned in open halls and smoke left the building through louvres in the roof. Stacks made it possible to insert another floor in the building, with or without a fireplace in the upstairs rooms, which in turn introduced the need for a staircase.
Most chimneys were built of brick or stone, some centrally positioned to serve adjoining rooms, others integrated in gable ends or simply added to an outside wall. Tall chimney stacks provided opportunities for showing off your wealth with flamboyant decoration and, some might say pointless, intricate detailing barely visible from ground level. Such examples can be real head-turners of extraordinary complexity that are worth a closer look.
In the 17th century Charles II introduced a tax on the number of hearths in a building, one of a series of measures taken to counter the immense debts incurred by the Commonwealth and the English Civil Wars. Although one might imagine tax collectors pounding the streets, their necks craned back, counting chimneys, they required access to each property to count the hearths and elicit two shillings (10p) for each one from householders twice a year. There were exemptions for the poor, and many houses had unheated rooms so the returns can give a rather misleading indication of the size of property. Unlike the window tax which some people sought to avoid by bricking up some of their windows, it was not really practical to take down a chimney stack, and besides anyone caught blocking up a chimney as a tax avoidance strategy was charged double. Understandably unpopular and difficult to collect, the tax lasted less than 30 years, but some of the chimneys emanating from hearths last assessed in 1689 still survive today and are definitely worth an upward glance.