Over the decades, visitors to Bermuda have often been struck by the chimneys that dominate our traditionally built Bermuda cottages.
In 1923, one such visitor from Harvard, John S. Humphreys, published his book Bermuda Houses, apparently “at the request of a number of prominent architects in New York and Boston,” who must have been interested in our architecture in general. He explains that our chimneys were “a prominent feature, particularly in the smaller houses.” Of course, right from the time of Bermuda’s first settlement, chimneys were vital since cooking was done on an open fireplace with a raised hearth. “The kitchen fireplace,” says Humphreys, “was accompanied by a built-in stone oven with its own flue, sometimes beside the kitchen fireplace with an independent chimney, and sometimes opening into it.”
To reduce fire hazards, the tops of early chimneys were built away from the roofs, which were thatched or shingled with wooden tiles. On the grounds of Carter House in Southside, St. David’s, a replica settler’s dwelling, complete with palmetto thatch and cedar-framed, mud-and-stud walls, illustrates how the first chimneys in Bermuda probably looked.
Many chimneys of the eighteenth century look huge against the gable ends of the house and have the stepped shoulders that make them so aesthetically appealing. Often one chimney would have two flues, one in the kitchen and one, perhaps, in a bedroom, as can be seen in Carter House. Sometimes, the flues would serve a flue on each storey of the house. As Humphreys points out in his introduction, in larger houses slaves were housed in a separate building where the cooking was done, but there would be fireplaces in the main house to warm and dry the bedrooms during the damp winter months. No wonder some of our older houses have so many chimneys. Stewart Hall, home to the Bermuda Perfumery in St. George’s, for example, has seven.
According to St. George’s, Volume Two of the Bermuda National Trust’s Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage series, another feature that can determine the date of a chimney is the chimney top itself. The early chimneys had simple bands of necking. Next came the chimneys with two bands of necking, one at the top and a second one some inches below. Later chimneys became even more decorative, with several rows plus more details at the top. The nineteenth century brought a change of attitude. Thanks to the influence of the British military, coal replaced wood as fuel in many houses. So local chimneys were sometimes topped with the English ceramic pots made famous by the movie Mary Poppins. In fact, as pointed out in Devonshire, Volume One of the National Trust’s Architectural Heritage series, functioning chimneys during the nineteenth century became quite rare as houses were lit by whale oil or kerosene, which generated heat. But sometimes false chimneys in different shapes – octagonal or hexagonal – would be added for decorative effect.
However, today, despite the ready availability of electric, gas or oil heating appliances, many new houses are featuring working fireplaces. There is nothing quite so cheering as a wood fire on a winter’s night.
Chim Chiminey: Care & Maintenance
If Santa’s preferred entrance is the fireplace, then part of Christmas preparations had better be making sure the chimney is clear of obstruction. In any case, chestnuts roasting on an open fire are far preferable to the chimney itself going up in flames because of some blockage. So who can help? In fact, Bermuda has just one chimney-sweeping organisation: Spazzacamino Ltd. – Chimney Sweep, run by Flavio Picchia, with Bermudian John Perinchief under his tutelage. They specialise in sweeping, repairing and building chimneys and fireplaces, and to date look after about 200 chimneys a year. Their season runs late September through March.
Flavio hails from Nettuno, a small town south of Rome, but he is no stranger to Bermuda. “I wanted to learn English,” he explains. “Bermuda’s climate is better than the U.K.’s so I came here!”
Starting out in food and beverage at the Lido restaurant, he went back to Italy in 1997 to change his trade so that he would have more leisure time. After attending chimney sweep training courses in Milan, Rome and Vicenza, he returned to Bermuda in 2003 and set up business.
However, when Flavio first arrived in Bermuda in 1993, he met John’s father and uncle by chance on Elbow Beach. They all became best friends. “Over the years,” John says, “Flavio felt like my uncle. And he offered to teach me the trade.”
John was into floor tiling at the time, a highly competitive business. “I was interested in learning about chimney sweeping because no one in Bermuda was doing it whereas everyone seemed to be tiling. Now I’m the only Bermudian who knows how to sweep and fix chimneys and the only person on the island other than Flavio.”
He also likes the fact that he is always learning something new. Every fireplace is different, they both agree. Even fireplaces within the same house have different characteristics. But one reason some people have problems with smoke blowing down the chimney and into the living area has to do with the unique way Bermudian fireplaces were built and with modern windows and doors. “The cowl or the chamber above the fireplace in Bermuda is larger than cowls in Italy,” Flavio explains. “And the flue much shorter.” Fire sucks in draughts. Traditionally, Bermudian windows and doors would let in lots of draughts, so the chimneys worked well. But today, windows and doors are airtight with the result there isn’t enough air in the house for the fire to draw properly.
“A 50-year-old chimney with five-year-old windows doesn’t work,” John adds. “But even now people are building new fireplaces with cowls that are too large and flues that are too short.”
One way of compensating is to create a new airway at the back of the fireplace to create a new source of oxygen. Occasionally, John and Flavio are called in to correct faults to do with form work in newly constructed chimneys. “Sometimes the wooden shapes are not taken out after the concrete has been put in,” explains John. The wood left in the chimney is, of course, a fire hazard.
However, the most common fire hazards are obstructions in the chimneys – the most usual being large, compacted birds – nests and bird carcasses. Kiskadees and starlings, particularly, are unfortunately attracted to Bermudian chimneys for building their nests. But sometimes the men find other items left in the chimneys: toys, party balloons, flashlights, paint brushes, water pipes and even bottles of liquor, which of course are highly flammable.
The work is not without its dangers. Flavio is not happy with heights, which can be problematic. As John points out, a house can be one-storeyed on one side, but triple-storeyed on the other. John’s personal peeve is the dirt. “Soot is very greasy and it can take 20 minutes of scrubbing under a shower to get the dirt off.”
Soot itself is a danger because it is very volatile and spreads quickly. It’s also as dangerous to breathe in as asbestos, and for that reason John and Flavio wear gloves and masks. But the main issue while working, Flavio says, is to keep control over everything: “Never play with fire.”
History & Heritage – Written by Colin Campbell, OBMI
Ask any child to draw a picture of a house: they will most likely draw a simple rectangle with a front door and two symmetrically matching windows around the door, and a roof with a chimney in the middle, happily smoking away. A smoking chimney appears to be an ingrained image of contentment, comfort and a happy home. Perhaps our inner self recognises a chimney as an image of warmth, wealth enough to have a fire and the probability of food cooking nearby. Curiously this image is a near modern notion of only the past 750-plus years.
The word “chimney” is a Middle English period noun, denoting a fireplace or furnace. This old word was derived from the French cheminee which in turn derived from the Late Latin caminata ‘fireplace’ from the Latin caminus ‘forge’ or ‘furnace’ and the Greek kaminos ‘oven.’
Few examples of our current interpretation of a Bermuda chimney exist prior to the fourteenth century in Britain or Europe. Prior to this time, hot food was prepared and cooked either in a separate building and brought into a house or hall, or in a formed circle or pit in part of the house where the food was prepared over an open flame or hot charcoals. This was a very smoky and dusty means of preparing meals. Often the roof spaces above the cooking areas were utilised to hang meat and fish for curing. A special hole on the roof allowed smoke to exit, but for much of the time the homes were smoke filled.
In the fourteenth century, as modern urban centres started to evolve, early wooden chimneys were built with heavy plaster interior linings known as “wattle and daub.” As most domestic structures were made of wood, the threat of fire was a constant worry. By redirecting the fireplace smoke up a chimney, the upper floors of a house could now be habitable. The use of brick technology also accelerated the development form of chimneys as only the very wealthy could afford stone-formed chimneys. Chimney and fireplace design continued to be focused around the preparation of food and the fireplaces were deep and wide to enable hanging pots and spits to be managed over the fires.
In the early seventeenth century, English courts began demanding that “dangerous” wooden chimneys be reconstructed in brick and mortar, and requiring that the top of a chimney be at least 4.5 feet above the roof of the house. It was also at this time that brave adventurers packed up their worldly possessions and set sail for, among other places, Bermuda to start a new life with all the modern technology of their day. Unfortunately, in Bermuda there was not enough clay to make bricks, and importing bricks in quantity was not feasible. Bermuda stone, when cut and laid to form a chimney, could work well and could be plastered. The intense heat of the fires would crack the plaster from time to time but this was a relatively easy repair. Over time, bricks were brought to Bermuda and the inside of fireplaces could be brick-lined and performed as well as their European and American models.
The unique form and design of the classic early Bermuda chimney were developed with practicality in mind. The fireplace was deep and tall enough to cook and work in (for example, see the lower-floor kitchen of Carter House), so the exterior chimney was broad at the base and deep, as well. Once the fireplace lintel height was established, the exterior sidewalls were “corbelled” or built with stone blocks offset by roughly one and one-quarter inches until an acceptable flue dimension was established, generally around 18-24 inches wide. A two-storey home generally would have the base dimension of the chimney extend up to the upper floor, and then the corbelling would start at the lintel height of the second-floor fireplace. The corbel shape was either simply plastered to express the stepped “weathers” or the offsets were filled in and plastered giving a smooth surface effect.
Early stone chimneys were built virtually as stand-alone structures attached to wooden houses. The separation protected the structures from potential fires but had to be robust enough to be self-supporting, especially with a heavy stone flue that extended up to more than 18 feet in the air, and to withstand windstorms and hurricanes. Following the widespread destruction of most wooden homes and structures from hurricanes in 1712 and 1714, homes built with stone became the accepted practice and the stone chimneys formed an integral part of the structural walls which is the custom and tradition we enjoy to this day.
Large, deep chimneys also played a part in our first cash crop economy, tobacco. Once picked, the tobacco leaves were hung on rods to dry and be cured. This could only happen in a warm and dry location, free of damp that would ruin a crop. As the first farmers were tenants, not landowners, they would build only what they needed. They formed a “tray” ceiling in their homes to trap the heat from their fires and hung the tobacco in their homes. A very practical use of roof space at the time, tray ceilings are still formed today although now lights and ceiling fans are primarily hung in these spaces.
The long and deep dimensions of early chimney construction could contain more than one flue, and often the double flue was expressed on the outside by a vertical indentation in the plaster surface on the long sides of the chimney (for example, see Stewart Hall in St. George’s). The chimneys would also feature a corbelled collar at the top which acted as wind deflection on the lee side of the chimney, thus stopping a draught of smoke being sucked down the flue and into the home. The corbel also extended over the top of the chimney, restricting the exterior size of the flue and improving the updraught of smoke from below. A second corbel band was often expressed six to eight inches below the top corbel, adding an aesthetic element.
Later in the eighteenth century, a chimney cap was added to help reduce the down draughts: comprising two stone slates leaning against each other with indents at the top and small triangular infill pieces at either end with just enough space around the triangles for smoke to exit. These elements are known as “fish tails,” “rooster combs” or “praying hands” and are a source of much visual and aesthetic interest as rarely are any two exactly alike. Many builders would effectively sign their work with their own unique chimney cap designs.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvements in fireplace design for heating and cooking in America and Britain reduced the need for the traditional deep and broad chimneys. Chimneys were formed on top of roofs and, in some cases, only for aesthetic purposes. The revival of the early seventeenth century Bermuda architectural styles in the 1920s and ‚Äò30s reintroduced the familiar classic form and proportions of the old chimneys, which are still popular today. Modern technology now provides home heating with efficient and effective “fireplace boxes,” but many still prefer the gracious look of the classic Bermuda fireplace and chimney.
Colin Campbell is senior architect and regional director for OBMI Bermuda and Cayman. Colin was the lead architect for the PBS “This Old House” project in Bermuda and is a frequent media contributor on Bermuda architecture.