Below is a brief history of ‘British style’ heavy iron range cookers. Although AGA cookers are just one of a number of cast iron ranges available, they have become the most famous.
To learn more about how current cast iron range cookers work, please go to ‘Choosing your Range Cooker’.
The author’s Grandmother Polly Black, circa 1906 @ Withdean Court, Brighton. (Possibly an early Esse range with additional hob and oven) Withdean Court was pulled down and is now the grounds of Brighton & Hove Football club.
Britain has always been blessed with a good energy supply, and coal gradually replaced wood as the main source of heat from the end of the 16th century onwards. Wood is best burned on a bed of ash but it was soon realised that, to burn coal efficiently, a smaller grate than that for wood was required, and it must be raised to cool the grate and allow for the collection and removal of ashes. In Europe there was less coal and distances were greater, so it is here that the wood burning stove has its origins. The British were introduced to the ideas in the 17th century where they saw them in the Dutch & German communities in the ‘New World’ where coal had not yet been discovered.
In much of England, coal remained cheap, with female and child labour used in the mines. The British continued wastefully to burn coal in open fires, with the exception of their kitchen ranges.
The 18th century saw rapid changes in England with the coming of the industrial revolution. Abraham Derby was one of the instigators when, in about 1709, he dramatically reduced the production costs of casting iron as he perfected his method of smelting iron with coke. This method is still used today in small foundries all round the world. Cast iron and steel are ideal materials for stoves and cookers, and this major production cost reduction allowed more efficient fires and stoves to be designed and built.
Paintings of cottage interiors show large fireplaces with sides built in as in the diagram below. In the centre was a small wood fire or, for the better off, a small grate for coal, over which cooking pots were hung. This crude system remained current in poorer houses until well into the 19th century.
Late Georgian kitchen fire place 1765 – 1811
In large country houses and palaces where money was no problem and households larger, we can see the start of the modern range. Open spit cooking was used a lot for the meat and hobs couldbe used for pans.
A large country house or palace kitchen range Regency 1811 – 1837. The hocks or spits are driven by a ‘Jack’. A vane set in the chimney flue.
Cast iron ranges were in common use from the mid 19th century as the costs of transporting heavy goods were dramatically reduced with the coming of railways. Large examples can still be seen preserved in country houses and palaces.
This one shown below would have suited a large Victorian family with a small number of servants, but small ones with open grates (early Esse and Belle ranges) are often found in architectural reclamation yards. The early Cornish Range became a standard feature in mining communities around the world, and were also fitted into all British lighthouses, by Trinity House. Some of them lasted for a hundred years.
This is similar to the opening photograph of an early gas range cooker with single hob beside it.
The comfortable, homely, solid enameled look, so appreciated by the British (and increasingly so in Europe) dates from the late 1920’s early 1930’s, with some of the original solid fuel models still in use, 75 years on.
The ESSE foundry, dating from 1854, was probably one of the first with this look – Florence Nightingale used an ESSE in the Crimea – but the AGA, originally Swedish, has probably become the most famous and the name most often heard.
The ‘Eagle Combination Grate’ Circa 1935. It had an open fire oven and a back boiler, a tiled surround was usual for this period
A 1939 AGA cooker (earlier model had legs)
Electric, gas, fan, microwave & steam ovens have come, but still they cannot match the delicious flavour, texture and evenness of food cooked in a heavy cast iron AGA cooker or other British style range cookers.