How cold was Cratchit’s office?

Mr. Wannabe & I are scientists. Hence our latest experiment: coal. Regardless of your political feelings on it, it was used extensively in 1843, the time of A Christmas Carol. We burned a tiny amount to see the pros and cons. Years ago, Mr. Wannabe travelled to the outskirts of China in winter and 4 lumps of coal in a kettle was enough to keep several people warm for hours outside.

For Bob Cratchit of A Christmas Carol, Christmas Eve was “bitter cold”. -10 F? I don’t know about you all, but the most bitter winter I ever felt was -60F. Spit froze before hitting the ground and cars failed to start. I doubt 19th century London experienced that, so let’s go with -10F. That’s pretty bitter.

Bob Cratchit was poor and had threadbare patched clothing. It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve and Bob was freezing. He asked Scrooge for a lump of coal, which by today’s standards was a woman’s hand’s-sized lump of coal. How much heat would it give off and for how long?

Let’s guess that Bob’s office was maybe 6’x6′ maximum. By some accounts, he had his own fireplace and also shared a doorway with Scrooge who had his own fireplace. Coal, or “stone coal” was an expensive commodity at the time.

So what about our experiment? You can buy coal online (stove-bituminous, mid-high grade, not high grade stone coal ) for about $25/25 lbs. You have to light the coal with wood first. Get a little fire with wood coals to start. Then put in a large man hand’s size scoop and wait for the heat. Woa. It seemed like it lasted 10hours but we don’t have a lab to measure Btu etc. We just know that we were comfortable with Cratchit-layer clothing outside during a rainy 40F+ day for all of Christmas Eve.

What are the upsides and downsides to a coal fire?


Hot, lasts for hours


Smelly like an old timey train station

Could burn too hot for your type of outdoor fireplace

Could deposit soot in your type of fireplace

So, how cold was Bob’s office? I couldn’t find anything online about Magpie architecture and protectiveness of walls (plaster distintegrates and cracks at 4F) but I do know that I can see my breath at 49F and humidity of 85%. In some renditions of A Christmas Carol, Bob’s breath is visible. Given this, and knowing how humid London is, perhaps his office was 50F or less. If -10F outside and the tail end of the Medieval Ice Age, maybe it was 35F or less in there. Brrr

Poor Bob!


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