Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tudor and Stuart Energy Crisis - Coal

by Deborah Swift

In the period 1500 - 1700 England made the transition from a wood-burning nation to a coal burning nation. This transition affected almost everything about domestic and manufacturing life.

The poulation of England and Wales had nearly doubled between the years of 1500 and 1690. Immense pressure was put on the woodlands to provide wood for building, for manufacture, for the new printing industry - paper and books - and for fuel.

London, one of the largest cities in Europe, was a boom town and multiplied eight-fold, from 60,000 people in 1534 to 530,000 in 1696, so that although only one in ten was a town dweller in the early sixteenth century, one in four were by the end of the seventeenth century. The timber to build new dwellings (mostly wood-framed in this period) and their necessary winter fires for cooking and heating put even greater strain on the forests, until deforestation was a real issue.

In places where coal seams were near the surface and occurred naturally, coal was burnt and had been ever since Roman times, but the idea of collecting it and sending it elsewhere was not considered until Tudor times. This was because the idea of taking earth or minerals away was not part of the medieval mind-set. Mining was regarded as rape of the land. Unlike ploughing or sowing the land, taking parts of it away were seen as robbing the local people of their subsistence - land being equated to wealth and food production.

Tudor Mining Coat
This idea changed with Agricola's publication of a book on mining, which equated mining to opening a fruit to see the goodness within. However, this idea only applied to metals such as tin and copper ore, and not to coal. It took a dose of inflation plus a shortage of wood to make people turn to coal as a last resort.

Coal produces smoke and fumes and whilst there was wood, it was considered too dirty and overlooked as a source of fuel. In Tudor times coal began to be shipped short distances and used by the poor as an alternative to wood, but by the early 17th century, the shortage of decent timber for shipbuilding seemed to threaten Britain's existence, and coal became the only viable alternative for heating and manufacture. A royal proclamation of 1615 laments the former wealth of 'Wood and Timber,' but by then mines had begun to provide employment, and there were even railways with horse-drawn carriages to bring the coal to the docks.

Stuart Mining Machinery

By the time of the English Civil War (1640's) Londoners were dependent on 'sea coal' to keep warm. The surviving records of the customs officials at Newcastle-upon-Tyne show a continuous and rapid growth in the shipments of coal between 1550 and 1700. Ten thousand men worked the colliery at Newcastle, either underground or on the four hundred or so vessels moored in the Tyne river to ferry the coal around England.

Imports to London grew even faster, probably more than thirtyfold. A contemporary of John Evelyn, the diarist, described the London smog:
Such a cloud of sea-coal, as if there be a resemblance of hell upon earth, it is in this volcano in a foggy day; this pestilent smoak, which corrodes the very yron and spoils all the movables, leaving a soot on all things that it lights; and so fatally seizing on the lungs of the inhabitants, that cough and consumption spare no man.

New technology was necessary in the wake of this new fuel which burned so hot. Methods of firing glass and pottery had to be developed to protect the products from direct contact with the burning coals. After about 1610 glass began to be manufactured with mineral fuel, followed by the cementation process for converting wrought iron into steel and a method of baking bricks for building. Further advances occurred in the brewing industry, where coal fires were used to dry malt, and by the late seventeenth century it became possible to smelt the lead, copper and tin ores of Britain with coal.

I find this historical background fascinating - how the introduction of new fuel produces such a far-reaching effect on a population, in a similar way to the advent of electricity in a later era.

John Adair - By The Sword Divided 
Peter Ackroyd - London: The Biography
Paper on Coal: John U. Nef - Scientific American http://nature.berkeley.edu/er100/readings/Nef_1977.pdf
Tudor Mining Coat: http://www.leics.gov.uk/revealed_objects_tudorminingcoat.htm
Stuart Mining Machinery: http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/33-340-Life-in-stuarts.html


My 17th century novels set in the earliest Industrial Revolution (the coal rather than steam powered one!) can be found on my website www.deborahswift.com



  1. It may be of interest mentioning that the unfortunate miners were slaves. In 1799, an Act of Parliament abolished this last remnant of slavery in the British Islands. As I recall Charles Ii freed many serfs in England, but was unable to free the miners as their work was too crucial, and no one would voluntarily do it.

  2. Coal became a means of generating immense wealth in the Tudor era, suggesting there was already significant trading of coal at this time. Thomas Sutton, who endowed Charterhouse School in London made much of his money from mining coal from land he owned in the Newcastle area. He was reputedly the richest man in Tudor England. Wollaton House, the enormous and extravagant Elizabethan mansion just outside Nottingham was built with money generated from coal mining in the area.


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