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Age of Invention: London Coal-ing
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Britain’s Industrial Revolution was about much more than the usual trope of “cotton, iron, and coal” — it’s something I’ll never tire of saying. But the country’s transition to fossil fuels really was remarkable. Even a hundred years before the invention of steam engines, London was already highly unusual in burning coal to power many of its industries and to heat its homes. And the city’s adoption of coal just so happens to coincide with its unprecedented and momentous late-sixteenth-century expansion — the crucial change, when England’s economy started to look unusual.
But I often find myself dissatisfied with the usual explanations for coal’s adoption. They seem to offer more puzzles than answers. Although it’s long been on my to-list to try to untangle them properly, I’ve been prioritising it lately thanks to conversations with Apoorv Sinha and his team at Carbon Upcycling Technologies — a company combining carbon dioxide with waste materials to reduce the carbon footprint of the heaviest emitting industries like cement and concrete. They have been especially interested in the lessons that the initial move to coal has for our attempts to move away from it today. (Over the coming months, by the way, I’ll occasionally be posting about other themes from the history of invention that have been coming out of our conversations.)
For a start, London’s transition to coal was shockingly rapid. Although coal had been transported from in and around the Newcastle area since at least the Middle Ages, it had generally been used for only a handful of industrial purposes like making lime, or by blacksmiths. Over the course of just a single generation, however, between 1570 and 1600 it was ordinary Londoners who made the switch to coal. It was a dramatic change in the behaviour of households — a Domestic Revolution, as the historian and historical re-enactor Ruth Goodman puts it.
That dramatic change cannot have been easy or cheap. It was no simple matter to switch out firewood or charcoal for coal. Without proper treatment or the right equipment, Newcastle coal was a terrible, terrible fuel for the home. Whereas wood-burning houses could just let the smoke rise to the rafters and find its way out through the various crevices and openings of thatched and airy homes, the smoke from coal was heavy and lingering. Its sulphur reeked, and its soot tarnished clothes, furnishings, and skin. Its smoke reacted with the moisture of people’s eyes to form sulphuric acid, stinging and burning. Using coal in the home meant installing a proper chimney to carry the smoke up and out of the house, and often using expensive iron grates to get the coals to burn at all. For ordinary Londoners to have all made such a rapid switch would be like a whole city deciding to pay to install expensive solar panels or electric vehicle charges in their own homes today. It was an extraordinary change in consumer habits, especially for an age when the diffusion of technologies was usually so slow.
One oft-heard explanation for the switch to coal is that England — and especially the region around London — was experiencing a shortage of wood. The theory here is that shortages resulted in rising prices, making sooty, smoky, stinging coal, for all its disadvantages more attractive. It was at least cheap, its supply seemingly inexhaustible.
Much like with the challenge of decarbonising the economy today, the switch to coal took place in the context of rapidly growing demand. In the sixteenth century the country’s population suddenly surged — from just over 2 million people to 4. Even more dramatically, in the latter half of the century the population of London quadrupled from 50,000 to 200,000, promoting it into the ranks of Europe’s largest cities. All those extra people needed extra wood to burn, and extra timber for their extra furniture and houses. With London’s rise as a centre of commerce, too, timber was needed for its ships, as well for the barrels to hold their cargoes. (There was a reason that London merchants took such an interest in colonising Ireland. The East India Company, for example, in 1610 built one of its shipyards near Dundaniel, to avoid the complaint that they were wasting English timber better suited to the navy. A few years later, for similar reasons, the City of London itself invested heavily in the colonisation of Derry, leading it to be called Londonderry.)
Yet sixteenth- and seventeenth-century complaints about wood shortages and deforestation are not always what they seem. They could often be as much a consequence, as a cause, of when regions switched to burning coal. Indeed, it seems extremely unlikely that people would have removed forests entirely if the demand for firewood and timber was on the rise. Wood was extracted by coppicing or pollarding — cutting away the trunk or the branches — while leaving the root living and intact. Increasing demand would have made coppices more valuable, not less. It was, instead, once coal replaced wood as a fuel that it tended to free up land for other, more pressing uses. After all, an expanding population did not just need heat; it also needed to eat. Forests, along with heaths and marshes, rich in other fuels like furze and peat, thus made way for both pasture and plough. It was because of coal that the countryside could specialise in catering to the competing and increasing demand for food. Deforestation was often coal’s result.
More than anything else, however, official support for using coal was almost entirely obsessed with the preservation of timber for ships. Just as today, politicians worried about short-term private interests conflicting with the long-term public good, and warned of impending doom if things did not change. Take one of the patents granted by Elizabeth I in 1589, “forecasting the great hurt and inconvenience that may befall this our said realm by the excessive spoil of timber and other woods”. If too many trees were cut for fuel for making iron, steel and lead, she warned, then they would never be allowed to mature into the timber needed for ships, leading to the decline of the navy — “the chiefest fortress” of the realm. The decay of timber, especially at a time when England was under constant threat of seaborne invasion, was an existential threat.
It was for similar reasons that James I would later ban the making of glass other than by using coal, and why both monarchs (unsuccessfully) tried to prevent the further expansion of London — all were attempts to reduce the competition for timber. An open question for me, however, is the extent to which government policy had any impact on the transition to coal. The 1589 patent for making iron with coal certainly failed to yield results. But might it have had a hand in the earlier domestic adoption of coal by ordinary London households?
Overall then, London’s sixteenth-century shift to coal has striking parallels to the de-carbonisation efforts of today. It required new technology, involved significant and costly changes to the consumption habits of ordinary people, and seemed to pit private short-term interests against the long-term common good. It was, by many, seen as a matter of their civilisation’s survival. Over the coming months, as I investigate how they did it in more depth, I suspect there will be some useful lessons in store.
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