Read CHAPTER V - EARLY HISTORY ITS USE AND ITS ABUSE of The Story of a Piece of Coal What It Is‚ Whence It Comes‚ and Whither It Goes, free online book, by Edward A. Martin, on

The extensive use of coal throughout the civilised world for purposes of heating and illumination, and for the carrying on of manufactures and industries, may be regarded as a well-marked characteristic of the age in which we live.

Coal must have been in centuries past a familiar object to many generations. People must have long been living in close proximity to its outcrops at the sides of the mountains and at the surface of the land, yet without being acquainted with its practical value, and it seems strange that so little use was made of it until about three centuries ago, and that its use did not spread earlier and more quickly throughout civilised countries.

A mineral fuel is mentioned by Theophrastus about 300 B.C., from which it is inferred that thus early it was dug from some of the more shallow depths. The Britons before the time of the Roman invasion are credited with some slight knowledge of its industrial value. Prehistoric excavations have been found in Monmouthshire, and at Stanley, in Derbyshire, and the flint axes there actually found imbedded in the layer of coal are reasonably held to indicate its excavation by neolithic or palaeolithic (stone-age) workmen.

The fact that coal cinders have been found on old Roman walls in conjunction with Roman tools and implements, goes to prove that its use, at least for heating purposes, was known in England prior to the Saxon invasion, whilst some polygonal chambers in the six-foot seam near the river Douglas, in Lancashire, are supposed also to be Roman.

The Chinese were early acquainted with the existence of coal, and knew of its industrial value to the extent of using it for the baking of porcelain.

The fact of its extensive existence in Great Britain, and the valuable uses to which it might be put, did not, however, meet with much notice until the ninth century, when, owing to the decrease of the forest-area, and consequently of the supply of wood-charcoal therefrom, it began to attract attention as affording an excellent substitute for charcoal.

The coal-miner was, however, still a creation of the future, and even as peat is collected in Ireland at the present day for fuel, without the laborious process of mining for it, so those people living in coal-bearing districts found their needs satisfied by the quantity of coal, small as it was, which appeared ready to hand on the sides of the carboniferous mountains. Till then, and for a long time afterwards, the principal source of fuel consisted of vast forests, amidst which the charcoal-burners, or “colliers” as they were even then called, lived out their lonely existence in preparing charcoal and hewing wood, for the fires of the baronial halls and stately castles then swarming throughout the land. As the forests became used up, recourse was had more and more to coal, and in 1239 the first charter dealing with and recognising the importance of the supplies was granted to the freemen of Newcastle, according them permission to dig for coals in the Castle fields. About the same time a coal-pit at Preston, Haddingtonshire, was granted to the monks of Newbattle.

Specimens of Newcastle coal were sent to London, but the city was loth to adopt its use, objecting to the innovation as one prejudicial to the health of its citizens. By the end of the 16th century, two ships only were found sufficient to satisfy the demand for stone-coal in London. This slow progress may, perhaps, have been partially owing to the difficulties which were placed in the way of its universal use. Great opposition was experienced by those who imported it into the metropolis, and the increasing amount which was used by brewers and others about the year 1300, caused serious complaints to be made, the effect of which was to induce Parliament to obtain a proclamation from the King prohibiting its use, and empowering the justices to inflict a fine on those who persisted in burning it. The nuisance which coal has since proved itself, in the pollution of the atmosphere and in the denuding of wide tracts of country of all vegetation, was even thus early recognised, and had the efforts which were then made to stamp out its use, proved successful, those who live now in the great cities might never have become acquainted with that species of black winter fog which at times hangs like a pall over them, and transforms the brightness of day into a darkness little removed from that of night. At the same time, we must bear in mind that it is universally acknowledged that England owes her prosperity, and her pre-eminence in commerce, in great part, to her happy possession of wide and valuable coal-fields, and many authorities have not hesitated to say, that, in their opinion, the length of time during which England will continue to hold her prominent position as an industrial nation is limited by the time during which her coal will last.

The attempt to prohibit the burning of coal was not, however, very successful, for in the reign of Edward III. a license was again granted to the freemen of Newcastle to dig for coals. Newcastle was thus the first town to become famous as the home of the coal-miner, and the fame which it early acquired, it has held unceasingly ever since.

Other attempts at prohibition of the article were made at various times subsequently, amongst them being one which was made in Elizabeth’s reign. It was supposed that the health of the country squires, who came to town to attend the session of Parliament, suffered considerably during their sojourn in London, and, to remedy this serious state of affairs, the use of stone-coal during the time Parliament was sitting was once more prohibited.

Coal was, however, by this time beginning to be recognised as a most valuable and useful article of fuel, and had taken a position in the industrial life of the country from which it was difficult to remove it. Rather than attempt to have arrested the growing use of coal, Parliament would have been better employed had it framed laws compelling the manufacturers and other large burners to consume their own smoke, and instead of aiming at total prohibition, have encouraged an intelligent and more economical use of it.

In spite of all prohibition its use rapidly spread, and it was soon applied to the smelting of iron and to other purposes. Iron had been largely produced in the south of England from strata of the Wealden formation, during the existence of the great forest which at one time extended for miles throughout Surrey and Sussex. The discovery of coal, however, and the opening up of many mines in the north, gave an important impetus to the smelting of iron in those counties, and as the forests of the Weald became exhausted, the iron trade gradually declined. Furnace after furnace became extinguished, until in 1809 that at Ashburnham, which had lingered on for some years, was compelled to bow to the inevitable fate which had overtaken the rest of the iron blast-furnaces.

In referring to this subject, Sir James Picton says: “Ironstone of excellent quality is found in various parts of the county, and was very early made use of. Even before the advent of the Romans, the Forest of Dean in the west, and the Forest of Anderida, in Sussex, in the east, were the two principal sources from which the metal was derived, and all through the mediaeval ages the manufacture was continued. After the discovery of the art of smelting and casting iron in the sixteenth century, the manufacture in Sussex received a great impulse from the abundance of wood for fuel, and from that time down to the middle of the last century it continued to flourish. One of the largest furnaces was at Lamberhurst, on the borders of Kent, where the noble balustrade surrounding St Paul’s Cathedral was cast at a cost of about L11,000. It is stated by the historian Holinshed that the first cast-iron ordnance was manufactured at Buxted. Two specialities in the iron trade belonged to Sussex, the manufacture of chimney-backs, and cast-iron plates for grave-stones. At the time when wood constituted the fuel the backs of fire-places were frequently ornamented with neat designs. Specimens, both of the chimney-backs and of the monuments, are occasionally met with. These articles were exported from Rye. The iron manufacture, of course, met with considerable discouragement on the discovery of smelting with pit-coal, and the rapid progress of iron works in Staffordshire and the North, but it lingered on until the great forest was cut down and the fuel exhausted.”

In his interesting work, “Sylvia,” published in 1661, Evelyn, in speaking of the noxious vapours poured out into the air by the increasing number of coal fires, writes, “This is that pernicious smoke which sullies all her glory, superinducing a sooty crust or furr upon all that it lights, spoiling movables, tarnishing the plate, gildings and furniture, and corroding the very iron bars and hardest stones with those piercing and acrimonious spirits which accompany its sulphur, and executing more in one year than the pure air of the country could effect in some hundreds.” The evils here mentioned are those which have grown and have become intensified a hundred-fold during the two centuries and a half which have since elapsed. When the many efforts which were made to limit its use in the years prior to 1600 are remembered; at which time, we are informed, two ships only were engaged in bringing coal to London, it at once appears how paltry are the efforts made now to moderate these same baneful influences on our atmosphere, at a time when the annual consumption of coal in the United Kingdom has reached the enormous total of 190 millions of tons. The various smoke-abatement associations which have started into existence during the last few years are doing a little, although very little, towards directing popular attention to the subject; but there is an enormous task before them, that of awakening every individual to an appreciation of the personal interest which he has in their success, and to realise how much might at once be done if each were to do his share, minute though it might be, towards mitigating the evils of the present mode of coal-consumption. Probably very few householders ever realise what important factories their chimneys constitute, in bringing about air pollution, and the more they do away with the use of bituminous coal for fuel, the nearer we shall be to the time when yellow fog will be a thing of the past.

A large proportion of smoke consists of particles of pure unconsumed carbon, and this is accompanied in its passage up our chimneys by sulphurous acid, begotten by the sulphur which is contained in the coal to the amount of about eight pounds in every thousand; by sulphuretted hydrogen, by hydro-carbons, and by vapours of various kinds of oils, small quantities of ammonia, and other bodies not by any means contributing to a healthy condition of the atmosphere. A good deal of the heavier carbon is deposited along the walls of chimneys in the form of soot, together with a small percentage of sulphate of ammonia; this is as a consequence very generally used for manure. The remainder is poured out into the atmosphere, there to undergo fresh changes, and to become a fruitful cause of those thick black fogs with which town-dwellers are so familiar. Sulphuretted hydrogen (H2S) is a gas well known to students of chemistry as a most powerful reagent, its most characteristic external property being the extremely offensive odour which it possesses, and which bears a strong resemblance to that of rotten eggs or decomposing fish. It tarnishes silver work and picture frames very rapidly. On combustion it changes to sulphurous acid (SO2), and this in turn has the power of taking up from the air another atom of oxygen, forming sulphuric acid (SO3 + water), or, as we more familiarly know it, oil of vitriol.

Yet the smoke itself, including as it does all the many impurities which exist in coal, is not only evil in itself, but is evil in its influences. Dr Siemens has said: “It has been shown that the fine dust resulting from the imperfect combustion of coal was mainly instrumental in the formation of fog; each particle of solid matter attracting to itself aqueous vapour. These globules of fog were rendered particularly tenacious and disagreeable by the presence of tar vapour, another result of imperfect combustion of raw fuel, which might be turned to better account at the dyeworks. The hurtful influence of smoke upon public health, the great personal discomfort to which it gave rise, and the vast expense it indirectly caused through the destruction of our monuments, pictures, furniture, and apparel, were now being recognised.”

The most effectual remedy would result from a general recognition of the fact that wherever smoke was produced, fuel was being consumed wastefully, and that all our calorific effects, from the largest furnace to the domestic fire, could be realised as completely, and more economically, without allowing any of the fuel employed to reach the atmosphere unburnt. This most desirable result might be effected by the use of gas for all heating purposes, with or without the additional use of coke or anthracite. The success of the so-called smoke-consuming stoves is greatly open to question, whilst some of them have been reported upon by those appointed to inspect them as actually accentuating the incomplete combustion, the abolition of which they were invented to bring about.

The smoke nuisance is one which cuts at the very basis of our business life. The cloud which, under certain atmospheric conditions, rests like a pall over our great cities, will not even permit at times of a single ray of sunshine permeating it. No one knows whence it rises, nor at what hour to expect it. It is like a giant spectre which, having lain dormant since the carboniferous age, has been raised into life and being at the call of restless humanity; it is now punishing us for our prodigal use of the wealth it left us, by clasping us in its deadly arms, cutting off our brilliant sunshine, and necessitating the use in the daytime of artificial light; inducing all kinds of bronchial and throat affections, corroding telegraph and telephone wires, and weathering away the masonry of public buildings.

The immense value to us of the coal-deposits which lie buried in such profusion in the earth beneath us, can only be appreciated when we consider the many uses to which coal has been put. We must remember, as we watch the ever-extending railway ramifying the country in every direction, that the first railway and the first locomotive ever built, were those which were brought into being in 1814 by George Stephenson, for the purpose of the carriage of coals from the Killingworth Colliery. To the importance of coal in our manufactures, therefore, we owe the subsequent development of steam locomotive power as the means of the introduction of passenger traffic, and by the use of coal we are enabled to travel from one end of the country to the other in a space of time inconceivably small as compared with that occupied on the same journey in the old coaching days. The increased rapidity with which our vessels cross the wide ocean we owe to the use of coal; our mines are carried to greater depths owing to the power our pumping-engines obtain from coal in clearing the mines of water and in ensuring ventilation; the enormous development of the iron trade only became possible with the increased blast power obtained from the consumption of coal, and the very hulls and engines of our steamships are made of this iron; our railroads and engines are mostly of iron, and when we think of the extensive use of iron utensils in every walk in life, we see how important becomes the power we possess of obtaining the necessary fuel to feed the smelting furnaces. Evaporation by the sun was at one time the sole means of obtaining salt from seawater; now coal is used to boil the salt pans and to purify the brine from the salt-mines in the triassic strata of Cheshire. The extent to which gas is used for illuminating purposes reminds us of another important product obtained from coal. Paraffin oil and petroleum we obtain from coal, whilst candles, oils, dyes, lubricants, and many other useful articles go to attest the importance of the underground stores of that mineral which has well and deservedly been termed the “black diamond.”