19th-century Radiators and Heating Systems

Brian Roberts


  Late 19th-century catalogue showing Hartley & Sugden's 'gold medal' saddle boiler
Catalogue featuring the saddle boiler, Hartley & Sugden, Halifax, 1872 (All illustrations: CIBSE Heritage Group Archives)

This article provides an illustrated outline of heating systems during Victorian and Edwardian times. Its aim is to provide a simple guide to help investigators of historic buildings recognise some of the types of early heating equipment which may still exist.

The investigation of historical heating equipment generally starts on site when the building itself is being altered, restored or demolished. A major problem is often to understand what survives, assess its significance and make informed decisions about what to do next. Options range from reuse, retention in situ, to removal to a safer site or, regrettably in some circumstances, to thoroughly record before destruction.

Investigators faced with this choice may include the owner or occupier, architects, builders, services consultants or contractors, and local government officers (especially conservation officers), none of whom may have the necessary specialist expertise. One possible solution is to seek advice from a person or organisation knowledgeable in this field, where such a person can be found. The other approach, often restricted by commercial and time constraints, is to search for all related documents and drawings. Information may be available locally, regionally or at national level, in libraries, record offices or specialist websites.

The following sources may assist in identifying the age, type, manufacturer and importance of various heating equipment:

  • architectural and engineering design, construction or record drawings
  • documents relating to tender specifications and enquiries, cost sheets, site reports and correspondence, commissioning records, and operating and maintenance instructions
  • nameplate details – maker and serial numbers with reference to manufacturers’ catalogues
  • patent numbers – refer to Patent Office records
  • contemporary photographs which, on close inspection, may reveal important details
  • transactions, proceedings, magazines and journals of relevant professional institutions such as the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), trade associations such as the Building & Engineering Services Association (formerly the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association) and various industry publications
  • companies’ histories which can be rich sources of information on their products, clients, projects and activities.


  Cast-iron stove front set into wall as letter box
  Haden stove front, now serving as a private letter box, near Bristol (All photos on this page: Frank Ferris, CIBSE Heritage Group)
  Converted warm-air stove in church interior
  Gurney warm-air stove in Tewkesbury Abbey,
installed c1875, converted to gas-firing in 1987
  Warm-air stove in brick-lined pit
  Grundy warm-air stove, St Paul’s Church, Deptford, London

The number of firms engaged in the manufacture and installation of heating equipment and accessories during the Victorian and Edwardian periods was considerable. The number of models or patterns of a particular item, for example radiators, often runs into many hundreds.

The most basic type of heating (other than open fires) is the stove. The earliest Victorian stoves were made of cast iron, with a door into which a solid fuel, usually coal, could be fed. A low-level ash pit door enabled ash, stones and other residue to be removed. Smaller stoves could be moved and placed in position in one piece, requiring only the connection of a flue pipe leading outdoors. These stoves were freestanding within the space to be heated. Larger stoves would be assembled in sections. Other stoves were installed in a separate chamber with a cold air inlet and with the warmed air discharged directly, or through masonry ducts, to the space served. Examples of both types may still be found, often in cathedrals and churches. Some are still in use having been converted to oil or gas firing.

A heating system (as opposed to a standalone appliance such as a stove) requires a form of heat producing apparatus (usually a boiler), a means of distributing the heat (pipes or ducts) and heat emitters in the space it serves. Types of heating system in the 19th century included steam, low-pressure hot water and high- or medium-pressure hot water. Hot water heating boilers were manufactured in quantity from around 1860 onwards (see first illustration). The first room heaters were pipe coils, often housed in decorative cases. Radiators were introduced in the 1880s.


Masonry stoves of brick, earthenware and porcelain have been used for over a thousand years in northern Europe. Closed metal stoves were devised in what is now Germany in the 15th century and improved over the next 200 years, spreading across continental Europe. But Britain preferred its open fires.

In England, around 1609, the first metal stoves were imported from Holland to heat the orange houses of the nobility (the word ‘stove’ may be of Dutch origin and the first English heated greenhouses were in fact called stoves.)

In the 1790s, Count Rumford devised a metal stove, while William Strutt with Charles Sylvester installed his Cockle (or Belper) stove at Derby Infirmary. This Cockle stove consisted of a circular iron pot with a rounded dome. Fuel was consumed on a grate at the bottom of the furnace, coal or coke being added through a charging door at the side. Air for combustion was supplied through a duct to a chamber below the grate.

A forced warm-air furnace was patented by Benford Deacon in 1812, using a fan powered by a descending weight, and used at the Old Bailey. In the latter part of the 19th century, ventilating and other improved grates (the distinction between grates and stoves is not always clear) were introduced by Sir Douglas Galton, George Jennings (London grate), T Elsey (Lloyd’s patent ventilating grate), DO Boyd (Hygiastic grate) and the firm of Shorland (Manchester grate).

In 1818, the Marquis de Chabannes introduced his Calorifere stove (air-warming furnace) from France. Just before this, in 1816, the firm of G & J Haden set up in business in Trowbridge to erect the steam engines of Boulton & Watt in the West Country. Within a few years Haden was manufacturing heating stoves for churches and the country houses of the gentry. Between 1824 and 1914 they manufactured and installed nearly 7,000 stoves (right, top picture). Atkins & Marriot introduced their Thermo-regulated stove in 1825, followed by the Thermometer stove of Dr Neil Arnott (Physician Extraordinary to Queen Victoria) in 1834. The 1830s also saw the development of the famous Tortoise stove (last illustration on page) by Charles Portway who went on to manufacture some 17,000 units.

Use of the warm-air stove grew considerably from the middle of the 19th century with the tremendous wave of Victorian church building and the construction of many and varied institutions – prisons, hospitals, schools, workhouses and asylums. Around this time Dr Goldsworthy Gurney brought out the large stove which bears his name (right, middle picture). It was later sold by the London Warming and Ventilating Company which in 1897 claimed it had been used to warm 22 cathedrals and over 10,000 churches, schools and other buildings (cathedrals heated by Gurney stoves include Chester, Exeter, Gloucester, Lincoln, Salisbury and St Paul’s). London Warming was also the agent for the Choubersky, Salamandre and similar continuous burning stoves, which only needed refuelling once a day. Other stoves of the later Victorian period included Saxon Snell’s Thermhydric, Mr George’s Calorigen, Dr Bond’s Euthermic, the Manchester stove of Shorland and the Convoluted stove of Joseph Constantine.

Another notable manufacturer was John Grundy (above right, bottom picture) of London who founded the Tyldesley Ironworks, Manchester (Grundy was the first president of the Institution of Heating & Ventilating Engineers in 1898). Grundy products included the Helios and Sirius smoke-consuming grates and the Hestia warming and ventilating stove. However, the increasing use of hot water heating systems and the introduction of the radiator soon caused a marked decline in the use of warm-air stoves.


  Radiator enclosure with patterned front grille including central sun motif
  Cast-iron radiator enclosure with marble top at Lanhydrock House, Cornwall (Photo: Frank Ferris, CIBSE Heritage Group)
  B/w catalogue illustrations Vincent Skinner heater in situ, painted white
  Radiators, coils and coil-cases from the 1900
catalogue of Mackenzie & Moncur, Edinburgh
A hot-water heater with decorative vertical tubes by Vincent Skinner found in a Bristol church (Photo: Frank Ferris, CIBSE Heritage Group)

The term ‘radiator’ is a misnomer since for column radiators some 70 per cent of the heat output is by convection (from the circulation of warm air), not radiation. The development and mass production of radiators was an American phenomenon, the first patents dating from around 1841. Early radiators were variously shaped ‘heat distributors’, a mixture of pipes and metal plates. Then came the introduction of vertical wrought-iron welded tubes fixed between horizontal top and bottom headers. These were followed by the ‘looped tube’ type, an inverted-U, fixed to a base plate, used for both steam and hot water. Tasker in Philadelphia patented a primitive sectional radiator in 1858. It is the factory mass production of radiator sections that could be connected together that distinguishes them from pipe coils.

Another pioneer was Joseph Nason who had spent time working in England with AM Perkins. It was Perkins who devised a high-pressure system of hot-water heating in 1831 which used a solid-fuel-fired brick furnace or metal chamber containing a sinuous coil of small-bore seam-welded wrought iron pipe. With a 6mm thick wall, the pipes were capable of operating at temperatures approaching 170°C and pressures close to 15 times atmospheric pressure. The system gained rapid acceptance and was installed in many important buildings but the concerns of insurance companies led to the system being operated at lower temperatures and pressures and it was later largely discontinued. However, modified systems, converted to oil-firing can still be found in a number of churches and chapels (below). The small bore pipe was distributed around the space to be heated, sometimes rising in banks of concertinaed coils like a modern radiator.

Until 1892 numerous American manufacturers produced a variety of designs, many highly ornamental, but in that year the three principal manufacturers merged to form the American Radiator Company. This firm, trading in Britain as the National Radiator Company, opened a factory in Hull in the early 1900s where they manufactured Ideal radiators. During the 1890s, radiators of American manufacture were imported into Britain, but from the turn of the century the domestic radiator manufacturing industry became predominant. Radiators were often housed in decorative casings (above, top picture).

Early British patents for hot-water radiators include those of Keith (1882 and 1884), Waters (1882), Cannon (1887) and Heap (1887). At the end of the 19th century, one expert claimed that British radiator design had fallen behind the current American offerings. However, this opinion was based on external appearance and not on the technical performance. British designs were generally plain, although there were exceptions. American ones were ornate. Gradually, improvements in foundry technology enabled more elaborate castings to be made. Radiators having one, two and then three columns became available. By 1917, radiators with four columns were being used.

Heating pipes follow the countours of a column base  
Perkins system heating pipes in the parish church of Bruton, Somerset (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)  

Although probably developed some 50 years earlier, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the ventilating radiator was gaining acceptance. The idea was to remedy the lack of ventilation afforded by the ordinary ‘direct’ radiator. Essentially, the lower part of the radiator was blanked off against the entry of room air, and fresh air was fed into the base of the radiator by a channel in the wall behind it. These were sometimes termed ‘indirect’ radiators when located outside the room being warmed.

In 1904, claims and counterclaims relating to the introduction of radiators into Britain abounded. Acknowledging that steam radiators were of American origin, the firm of Longden in Sheffield claimed to have played a major part in introducing hot-water radiators to the British market. Rosser & Russell of London claimed to be the original inventors of the ventilating radiator, but did not give a date. Other claimants include The Thames Bank Iron Company and Weekes & Company. The case remains unproven, but one of the earliest is the ventilating radiator introduced by Walter Jones in 1881. His radiator design was awarded a silver medal in the same year.

The number and variety of radiator styles and pattern names available as the Victorian era came to a close is overwhelming. In 1891, Keith was advertising both the Universal and the Ornamental, while the Coalbrookdale Co listed its Hydro-Caloric (Heap’s Patent). By 1897, the American Radiator Co was promoting in London their National Single Column and Rococo designs. H Munzing in London was importing a variety of American radiators including Royal Union, Coronet, Union, and Walworth Patent. Longden of Sheffield featured the Sunbeam (Leed’s Patent). Wontner-Smith Gray of London had the Finsbury, while the Meadow Foundry of Mansfield made the Count and the Peer. Other British companies merely advertised their radiators as ‘ornamental’ or ‘special,’ including firms like Haden of Trowbridge, Williams of Reading, and Thames Bank Iron and WG Cannon, both in London. Other early British manufacturers include Beeston, Crane, Hartley & Sugden, Lumbys, National Radiator (later Ideal Standard), Vincent Skinner (above right) and Wm Graham.

In 1906, the London catalogue for the American Radiator Company listed: Astro Hospital Swinging, Circular, Colonial Wall, Corner, Curved, Detroit, Excelsior, Italian, National, Peerless, Perfection, Primus, Rococo, and Sanitary Pin. Many of these came in a choice of heights, widths, column numbers/ arrangements, and in ‘flue’, ‘ventilating’ and ‘non-ventilating’ designs. (See Recommended Reading for sources of further information on makes and styles of Victorian and Edwardian radiators and stoves).


  Tortoise emblem and 'Slow but Sure Combustion' slogan on the top of a Portway Patent Tortoise slow-combustion stove
  Portway Patent Tortoise slow-combustion stove preserved in St Leonard’s Church, Rodney Stoke in Somerset (Photo: Frank Ferris, CIBSE Heritage Group)

Early radiators and heating systems are of special historic significance both in their own right and as part of the character and significance of a building. If the building is listed, the permission of the local authority (listed building consent) will be required for any alterations which affect the character of the building as a listed building. This could include the removal of any part of the heating system, including the boiler itself, but it does not mean that the building must continue to be heated by an antiquated or inefficient system.

The importance of sustainability is well recognised, and the use of efficient heat generation is a key element in the sustainable adaptation of historic buildings. In some cases it may be possible to adapt an existing system to accommodate a new and more efficient heat source. In other cases it may be necessary to leave the existing appliances in situ, and run a new system alongside it, maintaining the existing ducts and appliances.

Whichever approach is taken, it is vital to seek professional advice from a qualified consultant who is used to dealing with historic fabric. Heating equipment should only be operated, opened up or dismantled by competent engineers familiar with health and safety procedures and having appropriate tools and equipment. Needless to say, rotating equipment, high-pressure pipelines, fuel systems, steam and electrical systems may be hazardous.


Recommended Reading

NS Billington and BM Roberts, Building Services Engineering: A Review of its Development, Pergamon Press, London, 1982

B Roberts, The Quest for Comfort, CIBSE, London, 1997

B Roberts, Heating & Ventilation: Historic Building Engineering Systems & Equipment, English Heritage, London, 2008

The following books are available on the the Electronic Books page of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers Heritage Group Website:

Radiator Retrospective

A Parcel of Boilers

Records & Documentation

Building Services Heritage

See also the following sections of the hevac-heritage website: ‘Buildings with Historical Equipment’, ‘Historical Equipment’ and ‘Victorian Heating Engineers’.



The Building Conservation Directory, 2013


Eur Ing BRIAN ROBERTS CEng HonFCIBSE, now retired, has some 50 years of experience in the building services industry, having served as chair of the CIBSE Heritage Group for 27 years. He has written over 100 books and technical papers.

Further information







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Heating engineers


Radiators and stoves

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