Unit 1: Light and Heat

In this unit, students will become familiar with the various ways light and heat was created before electricity. These focus on some of the objects that can be found in Blundells Cottage.

Please read the background information for the unit, then select which activities you would like the students to complete. Don't forget that some of the Photo Gallery pictures link with this unit.

The primary methods of getting light and heat into our homes today are electricity and gas. When Australia was being colonised, these services were not available. Eventually these services were made available in the big cities, but it was many years before they were available in rural areas.

So what did they use to see after dark, and to keep warm on a cold night?


People used candles, lamps and lanterns to light their way at night.

The exact origin of candles is not known, but there is evidence to suggest that a type of candle was used in ancient Egypt, and something closer to the candles we use today was developed by the Romans.

These kerosene tins ended up being used as storage drawers.

These kerosene tins ended up being used as storage drawers.

For largely self-sufficient families, candles were a cheap and easy method of lighting up the dark. Using a candle mould, they could make their own candles from animal fat or wax.

Oil lamps have also existed since ancient times and were another cheap method of lighting, providing a similar level of light to candles. Many different kinds of oils could be used, including vegetable oils.

Kerosene was first used in 1858. It is an oily, combustible liquid and, when burned in lamps, produces light. Kerosene came in tins (about the size of four loaves of bread). When the kerosene was finished, people often reused the tins as they were quite robust, a good size and materials were scarce.

None of the families who lived in Blundells Cottage used electric light there. Electricity was only connected to the cottage after it opened as a museum. All activities after dark were carried out by candlelight, lamplight, or the light of a kerosene lantern. Activities would have included meal preparation, cooking, sewing, reading and a variety of leisure and play activities.


It was common for homes to have a number of fireplaces. For example, when Blundells Cottage was built it had four rooms, two of which had fireplaces. Two more rooms were added to the cottage in 1888, and one of these also contained a fireplace. Fireplaces were the social heart of the home during winter as the family gathered around the fire to keep warm.

Cooking was generally done over an open fire, or later, on a fuel stove that burned wood or coal. These also served to heat water for baths, and to warm the houses.

Fireplaces also supplied the heat for many domestic chores, including ironing.

Box irons were filled with hot coals from the fireplace, while 'sad' irons were heated directly in the fireplace or on the top of a woodstove. The word 'sad' in this context means heavy or dense, not unhappy.

There were also various methods of warming up the beds – for example, earthenware hot water bottles, also known as 'bed pigs'. Like the rubber ones used today, they were filled with hot water and taken to bed to provide warmth. Another method was to use bed warmers, which were like a saucepan that you filled up with hot coals and ran over the bed before getting in. Some families even gave each child a hot brick in a towel!

While an essential part of homes in the 19th century, fireplaces were also very dangerous, with serious burns being a common childhood injury. One of the hardest, dirtiest chores undertaken each year was to clean the chimney. This had to be done to ensure the fire burned efficiently and drew the smoke away and to reduce the risk of built up soot catching alight and starting a fire in the chimney itself.

Light and Heat Activities

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