The Infinite Beauty Of London's Coal Hole Covers

By M@ Last edited 10 months ago
The Infinite Beauty Of London's Coal Hole Covers
A graphic showing lots of different coal hole covers.
Just some of London's many coal hole cover designs, arranged by location of foundry. Click or tap for larger version.

London contains dozens if not hundreds of different designs of coal hole plate, for those who care to look.

Some of London's best guides remind us to 'always look up' when walking around the capital. But there's much to see at our feet, too.

Coal hole covers are the best example. You'll find them on any street that still has a good stock of housing from Victorian times or before. The metal discs cover chutes, which once allowed the coal man to pour his wares directly into a coal cellar, without having to disturb the household. Central heating and clean air acts put an end to these quaint deliveries, but the coal holes remain all over the inner city. Places like Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Mayfair are happy hunting grounds for the operculist — one who takes an interest in metal street covers.

They come in seemingly infinite variety. Dozens of foundries are recorded on the plates — almost all long-forgotten. Each foundry had multiple designs. And in the decades and centuries of use, many have worn away, been filled in, or otherwise adjusted. The result is a vast menagerie of different plate styles. Coal hole spotting really could be a thing.

Not all of these pavement oddities are as old as they seem. Back in the 1990s, artist Keith Bowler installed around 20 coal hole covers across Spitalfields, each depicting a facet of local history. A similar scheme took root in Mayfair's North Audley Street in 2013.

We've collected together coal hole covers both modern and old in the graphic above. The 60 or so covers are only a small sample of the variety out there on London's streets. We'll adjust and add to the diagram as we collect further examples.

Next time you're walking through Notting Hill, Bloomsbury, St James's or any other area with old housing stock, look out for these functional yet individualistic plates, which decorate the pavements. You may acquire a new hobby.

Browse our geeky archive of street furniture

Last Updated 19 June 2023