The Timber Crisis

Although the mining operations of Central Europe were extensive, so were the forests needed to supply supporting timbers for the shafts and galleries, and charcoal for the furnaces. Production in the great silver mines of Saxony was slowed by water in the shafts rather than a shortage of wood, until well into the 16th century.

The situation was different in England and France. Much land had been cleared for agriculture in Roman and again in medieval times, and the population was much denser than in mountain Germany and Bohemia. Although metal mining was never on the enormous scale of the Central European strikes, many small mines exploited tin, lead, copper, and iron deposits. All these ores were smelted with charcoal, and with heavy demands on the forests for building timbers for castles, cathedrals, houses, and ships, for building mills and most machinery, for barrels for storing food and drink, and fuel for the lime-burning, glass and brewing industries and for domestic fires, the English and French found that they were approaching a major fuel crisis.

A fuel "crisis" implies a lack of supply, and the other factors involved are supply and transport. Overland costs of transport were very high except for the highest-value goods, and it was simply not economic to carry bulky material like wood for very far on a cart. So thinly populated areas in forest land had no fuel crisis at all, whereas large cities soon felt a crisis as woodlands close by were cleared.

Perhaps the most extreme example is Iceland, which lies so far north that no large trees grow, and the small ones grow very slowly. Wood shortages quickly became endemic after the first Viking settlers arrived. The native trees of Iceland were birches, and they were heavily used in iron production. Iceland had a great deal of "bog iron," concentrated by bacterial action in acid marshes, and iron was greatly in demand for agricultural implements and weapons in medieval Icelandic society, yet too expensive to import in any quantity. The Icelanders were never able to build boats from Icelandic wood, and eventually were forced to import almost all their construction timber all the way from Norway.

Most medieval documents were written by city-dwellers, and many of the early complaints about wood supply came from city-dwellers and (comparatively) heavy users of wood. But the complaints are real, and the costs of fuel were real. And there are documents with enough facts in them that we can see deforestation was already a problem in some areas in medieval times, and was a problem everywhere by the 1600s.

Even as early as the end of the 12th century, writers in England and France were bemoaning the assaults on the forests. Local nobles and entrepreneurs were offering the cash-strapped King John of England large sums of money for the right to fell royal forests. At Douai, in northern France, the price of wooden coffins rose so high that poor families would rent them for the burial service, then the undertaker would dig up the corpse and recycle the coffin. Four thousand oak trees were felled to build Windsor Castle in the 14th century.

Iron-working used a lot of wood. Extensive iron industries in some parts of Northern England had to close down altogether for lack of fuel: in the Forest of Knaresborough and the Forest of Craven, both in Yorkshire. By 1307 the Forest of Knaresborough could only support a few smithies, making nails. The situation was a little better in the Forest of Dean, probably because it was a royal forest where the King could exert some semblance of discipline to the forest clearing: the King limited logging for fuelling the royal forges there around 1300, and charcoal was brought in from woods outside the royal forest. The first import of Scandinavian timber is recorded from England as early as 1230, and by 1274 the master carpenter in charge of building Norwich Cathedral had to go to Hamburg to buy timber and boards. Similar stories came from central and southern France.

But iron was only one component of a much larger industrial expansion, and iron working probably did not do as much to destroy the forests as other industries did. Iron had to be smelted with charcoal, which could be and normally was made from coppiced woodlands. But most medieval and Renaissance individuals and industries simply needed heat (for brewing and dyeing, glass-making and salt-boiling, for burning lime for plaster, cement and quicklime, for heating homes and domestic ovens) or they needed timber for building houses, mills, and factories, carts and ships. Foresters could and did fell mature trees to meet these needs, and often the logged land was converted to pasture or fields. With increasing demand and decreasing supply, wood ran short sooner or later. The brewers of London complained in 1578 that wood could not be obtained to serve their brewery fires "without ruin and great decay." (They were using 20,000 wagon loads of firewood a year between them.) Just in one salt-producing town, Droitwich in Cheshire, there were 360 wood-burning furnaces for evaporating brine to produce salt.

Altogether, then, the burgeoning trade and industry of Elizabethan times imposed such a demand for wood for a rapidly increasing and increasingly wealthy population, that supply could not meet demand. Even "solutions" were incomplete. The increasing price of timber encouraged people to build in brick, but bricks must be fired, and firewood was required for this expanding industry too. And brick houses still needed floors and roof timbers.

English entrepreneurs began to fell Irish forests for fuel. Sir Walter Raleigh had three blast furnaces and a forge on his estates in Munster until 1598, when Irish rebels led by the Earl of Tyrone destroyed them. This was only a temporary set-back, and Ireland was quickly deforested to the same scale as England.

In Elizabethan and Stuart England, prices for wood and charcoal grew faster than for any other major commodity. The Countess of Rutland (or her corrupt managers) apparently made a lot of money by obtaining Royal permission to take timber from Sherwood Forest to repair her castles and mills, then selling the timber on the black market. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (the Lord Treasurer) wrote to her in 1594, furious at this "verie foule deceit and abuse toward mee and wrong to hir Majestie, which shall make mee more careful both in granting my warrants hereafter and in seeing them imployed to the use they are granted for."

After the Great Fire of 1666, London had to be rebuilt with imported timber, and at about the same time Samuel Pepys, who was in charge of naval construction, complained in his diary that landowners regarded trees only as "an excrescence of the ground, provided by God for the payment of debt." Obviously, the increasing demand and restricted supply of timber made any surviving woodlands increasingly valuable, and increasingly tempting to fell. We see exactly the same situation playing out today in the last few percent of old-growth forests left in the American West. The old-growth forests are simply too valuable not to cut down, if we look at economic interests alone. The great debates on logging in the West are political and ecological, having more to do with ethics and emotion. The economic issues are very clear. There was no "environmental" movement in the 1600s: the stretches of English forests that remained were preserved because they were valuable as strategic reserves, especially for the Navy.

The final savage forest-clearing came while England was ruled by the fanatically Protestant revolutionary government of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. Parliament passed "An Act for the Disafforestation, Sale, and Improvement of Royal Forests" in 1653, with Sherwood Forest one of the priorities for sale, along with Ashdown Forest in the Weald. Royal forests were decimated in a few years. Part of the reason is that Kings have some sense of dynastic duty to leave the nation in good shape for their heirs, while Parliamentary governments often work to a time frame that extends only to the next change of government. Of course, felled and converted to fields and pasture, the great Royal forests never recovered, even those that had once been protected because they grew far from urban markets. You will search in vain today for Sherwood Forest. It exists only on road signs and movies that are filmed on sets somewhere else.

The timber crisis was not confined to England: it was simply sooner and more intense there. All over densely populated Europe, the crisis arrived by the end of the 17th century. The only major forested areas still comparatively untouched were in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Even there, there were problems on the horizon: in 1558 the city council of Stettin, a port on the Baltic, ordered that no more ships would be built for outsiders at the shipyards, because the supply of oak for Stettin's own merchant fleet was becoming short.

Nations were therefore faced with only two alternative solutions: to import timber from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and/or to substitute coal wherever possible. Transport costs imposed severe penalties on transporting timber long distances unless it was needed for special purposes such as building construction, pit props, or ship-building, and the coal-mining and coal-processing industries grew astonishingly, beginning in Elizabethan England and extending to European regions as the timber crisis overtook them.

Every economic indicator suggests that the timber crisis was most acute in England from about 1570 to 1630. It is at this time that we see an unwilling but dramatic change to coal as the nation's industrial fuel.

Coal: The Fuel of Last Resort

Most of my Californian students have never seen a piece of coal, so I had better explain what it is. Coal is a rock. It is formed in special circumstances, where massive amounts of vegetation (leaves, trunks, roots, branches, pollen) accumulate but do not oxidize. This usually means that they accumulate in shallow stagnant (oxygen-free) water, in environments that might be marshes, bogs, ponds, and bayous. If these accumulations of vegetation simply pile up but stay more or less on the surface of the earth, they form a solid mass of organic matter that can be cut for "peat" and burned. But if the vegetation is buried deeper, it is compressed and squeezed, moisture and some of the organic volatiles are driven out, and the underground formation is called "coal".

Sometimes coal is comparatively soft, low-density "brown coal," which has a high level of impurities and does not produce a lot of heat for its bulk. But often it is higher-quality, harder, denser black coal. Black coal also occurs in harder, stronger rocks that do not collapse easily, so miners can cut underground galleries along the layers ("seams") of coal, leaving hard roofs of sandstone that need less support than softer rocks. The best-quality coal can be dug out in lumps that transport well (better than charcoal), but are such concentrated lumps of carbon that they burn for a long time and release a lot of heat for their weight, comparable in quality with the best charcoal, but denser. Coal occurs in some regions in astounding quantities, in thick rock beds (seams) that either are visible at the surface or occur at very shallow depths.

Coal inevitably contains impurities, especially sulfur, so it cannot be used in iron smelting. But as a source of heat it is excellent, with only the impurities (which show up as fumes and smoke as well as chemical contaminants) as a problem.

Medieval Coal and Coal Mining

Coal had already been used on a small scale in western Europe for thousands of years. A Bronze Age corpse was cremated with coal in South Wales, and the Romans used coal along their northern English frontier along Hadrian's Wall in the coal-bearing districts of Northumberland, to heat homes, villas, barracks, and baths. But coal was never used on any wide scale, and we have no evidence of European use for hundreds of years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Probably peasants continued to dig small surface pits locally for domestic fuel, but the next industrial use we have evidence for is around 1200. When wood is abundant, there is little reason to go to the trouble of mining coal except in special circumstances.

Although coal cannot be used at all in iron smelting, it is very good as a fuel for a wrought-iron forge, such as a village smith would use. Coal burns almost as slowly as charcoal, and as lumps of coal burn they often "cake" into a mass, so that the bellows do not blow ash all over the place, or blow live coals out of the fire. The fumes are annoying, but they too blow away in the usual conditions of a village forge. So about 1200 AD, "black earth very similar to charcoal" was being used by smiths near Liège in Belgium, and from then on we find shipping records of a small-scale but widespread market in coal in Western Europe, because village smiths would use it in preference to charcoal if they could get it at a reasonable price.

Most English coalfields were being mined on a local scale in the 13th and 14th centuries, to supply this limited market, and occasionally to supply nearby towns. But coal is bulky, and was competing at the time with wood and charcoal as a fuel. Land transport costs were so high for bulk materials that coal was never carried or used more than a few miles from the outcrops in pre-Elizabethan England: the only long-distance transport that made any economic sense was by sea or river boat. The only growing demand for coal at this time was from places where wood was in very short supply: the largest cities and the most industrialized regions. In England, that meant London and the densely populated area around it.

The nearest major coalfield to London (by water) lies on the northeast coast of England around the city of Newcastle. Seams of coal occur at the surface along the coast to the north, and along the banks of the river Tyne. Newcastle was already a major fortress and port city, positioned to guard the Tyne crossing on the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh.

Mines on Tyneside began exporting coal as soon as it could be done at a profit. Small coastal ships could sail comparatively safely down the East Coast to London. Soon Londoners were using the term "sea-coal" to distinguish coal from charcoal, and there was a Sea Coal Lane in London by 1226. The seaborne coal trade out of Newcastle probably amounted to several thousand tonnes per year by 1300.

Once the trade was established, it was a natural extension to deliver coal over the short crossing to the wood-poor north coast of Europe, for use in burning lime, iron-working, and smoking and drying fish. By the 1370s, 84 coal-boats were plying down the east coast of England from Northumberland to ten different ports along the European coast between France and Denmark, carrying perhaps 7000 tons a year of coal, with iron, salt, cloth, and tiles being shipped the other way.

Of course, the Northumberland coalfield was not the only one near water transport. Just to the south, many of the same coal seams crossed the River Wear, and the Church in the person of the Bishop of Durham owned small mines that shipped some of their coal from Sunderland. Export was limited by difficult navigation at the mouth of the Wear. The Scots, once starved for coal (they ransomed an English captive Peter Bard for 2000 tons of coal in 13xx) opened small coal mines around the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, but the distance to London was greater that that of their Tyneside competitors. There were also mines along the coasts of North and South Wales, and mines in central England that supplied nearby towns using river boats. However, none of these areas had more than a fraction of the output of the Tyneside mines.

Early coal mines were no more sophisticated than the flint mines of Grimes Graves (Chapter 2). When surface mining was no longer worthwhile, a central shaft was dug to a fairly shallow seam, and the miners dug horizontally from the shaft until there was too much danger of a cave-in. This gave a "bell-pit" from which coal could be pulled up in a bucket on a windlass. It cost only a few shillings to dig a pit twenty feet deep. Once mined out, a new one was started a few yards away. Coal was sorted into categories at the surface, and waste rock and rubbish was simply dumped into the nearest old pit. Air photographs have revealed the scars of hundreds of bell-pits clustered in some areas, and modern open-pit operations often break into arrays of old bell-pits.

In an interesting sidelight on this technology, dungeons in early Scottish castles were also bell-pits, into which prisoners were lowered by windlass: there was no escape unless one was hauled out. The Scottish coast for miles around Edinburgh is lined by coal-bearing strata, and no doubt coal miners were called in to excavate the bell-pit dungeons. Coal miners were also drafted into military service, and were used both offensively and defensively during castle sieges in Scotland, especially in a famous siege at Dunbar Castle.

The Prejudice Against Coal

Coal had a limited use in medieval times, but was the fuel of choice only for blacksmiths. Coal fumes made it less desirable than wood, especially as coal burns poorly‹it smokes a lot‹in fireplaces designed to burn wood. As long as wood was available, it was preferred. But if wood was short, or coal was cheap, then coal might be used, even if it was used reluctantly. And, of course, the shortage of wood hit cities first; and the bigger the city, the more likely it would be to use coal.

From the earliest times there was considerable prejudice against coal because of the black smoke and fumes that it caused, especially since domestic medieval fires tended to be open affairs. In 1257 Queen Eleanor was driven from Nottingham Castle by the smoke and fumes rising from coal fires in the city below (there was a coal mine within a few miles of the city). In 1283 and 1288 there were complaints about air quality in London because coal was now being used in lime-kilns. In 1307, a Royal Proclamation forbade lime-burners to use coal in parts of south London:

An intolerable smell diffuses itself throughout the neighboring places, and the air is greatly infected, to the annoyance of the magnates, citizens, and others there dwelling and to the injury of their bodily health.

This proclamation did not work, and a later "commission of oyer and terminer" had instructions to punish offenders "with great fines and ransoms" for a first offence, and to demolish their furnaces for a second offence. Economics won out over comfort, however, and London was to remain polluted by coal fumes for another 600 years. Shakespeare's Master Seacole was grubby and dirty, and Queen Elizabeth once stayed away from London because of the "noysomme smells" of coal smoke. The London Company of Brewers, sensitive to the Queen's displeasure, offered to burn wood rather than sea-coal in their breweries close to the Palace of Westminster, since the Queen was "greately greaved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of the sea-cooles."

In Northumberland, ironically, forests were felled to supply the coal industry, to make pit-props and to build docks and wharves, barges, lighters, and sea-going ships for the coal trade to London, at the same time that firewood supplies were also becoming scarce. In Bamburgh, in Northumberland, "great woods hath beene, but now utterly decayed and no wood at all remaineth hereon." William Harrison grimly noted in the 1580s, "Of coal mines we have such plenties as may suffice for all the realm of England. And so they must do hereafter indeed, if wood be not better cherished than it is at present."

Even today in Northumberland, great areas of bare windswept moorlands still carry names (Kielder Forest, Wark Forest) that are the only memory of these long-vanished ancient forests. By 1622, Northumbrian mine owners were petitioning to have import duties removed from the foreign timber they were importing from the Baltic for pit props, arguing that coal production could not be continued without this timber supply.

Eventually the Government gave up trying to control coal burning in London, and John Evelyn complained in 1661 in an essay entitled Fumifigium about the

Columns and Clouds of Smoake, which are belched forth from the sooty Throates [of small industries]... rendring [London] like the approches of Mount-Hecla. That hellish and dismal cloud of sea coal [means] that the inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist, accompanied by a fuliginous and filthy vapour, which renders them obnoxious to a thousand inconveniences, corrupting the lungs and disordering the entire habit of their bodies, so that cattarrhs, phthisicks, coughs and consumption rage more in that one City than the whole Earth besides... Is there under Heaven such coughing and snuffling to be heard as in the London churches where the barking and spitting is incessant and importunate?

As the price of firewood grew, it became more profitable to transport coal over longer distances. The dilemma of late 16th and 17th century England was to conserve the remaining forests for vital strategic needs, and at the same time dealing with the fact that coal was the only available substitute. Evelyn and others could complain all they might about the smoke of London, but there was little choice. In Scotland, Edinburgh earned its nickname of "Auld Reekie" from coal smoke.

A royal proclamation of 1615 noted that in previous times timber had been a

"principalle Patrimonie of this our Realme, of excellent use for shipping, as if God Almightie, which had ordained this Nation to be mighty by Sea and navigation, had in his Providence indued the same with the principall materiall conducing thereto."

This was obviously no longer true by 1615, and the government had to act. Most of the active measures were designed now to encourage the substitution of coal for wood wherever possible. A fundamental change in English domestic building followed, as more brick chimneys were built to accommodate the fumes from the smoky fuel. By 1618 London had 200 chimney sweeps, who would eventually give the world its first example of an environmentally produced cancer, from contact with soot. There were law suits against coal pollution, and there were courageous judges who would rule against the nuisance. In 1628, Chief Justice Hide wrote,

"The erecting of a common or private brewhouse in itself is not a nuisance, nor the burning of sea-coal therein; but if it is erected close to the dwelling of another, as here, so that thereby his goods are spoilt and his house rendered uninhabitable, an action will lie."

Renaissance Coal Mines

Tyneside coalmines had gradually grown from medieval times, and as the fuel shortage worsened from about 1570, had the capacity for production increase. Mining practices had evolved from small-scale to large-scale operations. Bell-pits work well for exploiting coal seams at shallow depth: if the seams are deeper, too much labor is wasted digging multiple closely-spaced shafts through unproductive rock.

As mining evolved over the years, and it became worthwhile to exploit deeper seams, it made sense to cut longer and longer galleries along coal seams from deeper central shafts. Early galleries were driven with arched roofs, because the miners were familiar with the load-bearing qualities of arches in their local churches and cathedrals. A traveller in 1618 wrote of a Scottish mine with an underground roadway extending a mile under the sea, "artificially cut like an arch or vault, all that great length, with many nookes and byways; and it is so made that a man may walk upright in the most places both in and out."

The length of galleries such as these was often limited by ventilation. This problem was lessened if the galleries were large-diameter, and if the miners had tunnelled a network of interconnecting galleries that promoted good air flow. Mine galleries quickly came to be designed to take out as much coal as they could, while leaving pillars of rock untouched to support the roof. Thicker pillars meant more safety and less profit, and there was always a dynamic tension between the two factors. However, a roof collapse made the entire section of the mine useless, so there was economic sense in sound support too.

Skilled miners ("hewers") systematically dug out coal. Usually a single hewer worked into the coal face, pushing the coal behind him as he slowly excavated a gallery along the seam. The usual method was to dig first at the rock underneath the coal seam, undercutting it. The hewer had to lie on his side while he dug with short-handled pick, hammer and wedges. He swept the waste rock debris behind him. Then with wedges, hammer, and crowbar, he worked upward through the coal seam, breaking out the coal downward, trying to bring it out in lumps as large as possible. This required great skill, and hewers were paid at craftsman rates: "great coal" in large lumps was much more valuable than "small coal" for transport and burning quality.

The size and spacing of the pillars left untouched between galleries depended on judgment about the strength of the roof rock: more and thicker, closer pillars were left to support potentially weaker roofs. Typically, about half the coal was mined. Sometimes the roof was supported partly or entirely by timbers ("pitprops"), and we have records from a mine showing one carpenter working underground for every three hewers. Pillars could be thinner if timber props were used, yielding more coal, but the timber and the skilled carpenters were expensive, and there was always a trade-off of costs.

Transport problems began at the working face of the coal seam: there was a pile of coal and waste rock lying behind the hewer, and it had to be moved to the pit head at the top of the shaft. Usually there was only one way to do it, and that was by human muscle power. The waste rock, carefully kept separate from the coal, could be dumped in a nearby worked-out gallery, but the coal was piled into baskets or small sleds and carried or dragged along the tunnels to the base of the shaft. Unskilled workers did this, often women or children: brutal, continuous heavy labor over uneven, treacherous footing in bad light and poor air. Each worker would carry or pull a load for a short distance, passing it to the next; he or she would then take the empty basket or sled back to the starting point. Load after load, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, for a minimal unskilled wage, and no chance to learn other skills.

At the base of the shaft the coal was carried up ladders if the distance was short, or hauled up on the same windlass that was also used to haul the workers up and down. The number of workers required to transport coal underground was far greater than those that were actually mining the coal. But there was no easy alternative. The mine owners disliked the wage bill, and the miners suffered, for centuries.

Underground haulage could be reduced by sinking new shafts from the surface as the working faces extended further and further from the first shaft. This was done in some mines, but the problems of surface transport from the pit head also played a part in discouraging this: it might be more costly to re-engineer the entire surface transport than to continue a long haul underground.

We now have a pile of coal at the pit head. In many cases this was the end of the line for the mine owner. Customers would drive up with their own carts and buy coal at the pit head. This was true mainly for the small mine supplying only the local area within a few miles. But the real entrepreneur looking for a large operation and a distant market faced much more severe problems. If the coal was being literally "shipped out," it had to be delivered to the ship.

A shaft into a coal mine could never be driven right on the river bank, because of the danger of flooding the mine. So coal always had to be carried to the dock. The large mines on just one property on Tyneside, in northeast England, had 700 wains (large carts that carried close to a ton) on contract to transport coal the short distance to the river. Every thousand tons of coal needed more than a thousand return trips.

Another mine recorded 100,000 return trips in five years between 1682 and 1686. This number of trips made enormous demands on the roads, apart from anything else, and the pasturage and care needed for the horses and oxen must have been considerable. It is easy to imagine how important it was to be close to water.

Once the coal was on a boat, it was in the hands of merchants and shippers. From this point, transport was comparatively cheap until the coal arrived at the delivery harbor, where transport again became a major component in increasing cost. Even so, there was a problem on both the Tyne, because the river is comparatively small, and could not accommodate sea-going vessels. The coal was loaded on to specially built smaller boats (strong, flat-bottomed "keels" about 30 feet long, with a crew of four) which were rowed or sailed downriver seven miles below Newcastle down to the sea. There the coal was off-loaded on to the ships bound for London or Europe. Perhaps 200 or 300 of these keels were operating in the 1600s, carrying perhaps 400,000 tons of coal a year. The "keel lads of coaly Tyne" are still remembered in song along Tyneside: "Weel may the keel row, that my laddie's in."

The coastal vessels that carried the coal had been general traders in medieval time. But as the coal trade grew, ships were built specially to carry coal ("colliers"). They were copied from Dutch trading vessels, which had been designed to handle bulk cargoes, or they were genuine Dutch vessels captured in the wars of the 1600s. They carried a small crew in relation to their size, but were easy to handle. The average size of a cargo of coal delivered at London increased from 50 tons to 250 tons during the 1600s, and perhaps 300 colliers were engaged in the trade. Most of them were English, because foreign vessels were kept out by punitive duties. By 1610 a quarter of English maritime trade (by weight) consisted of coal, and this rose to 40% by 1660, three times the size of all other coastal shipping. The coal trade was seen as an ideal training ground for sailors: "the principal nursery of English seamen." Indeed, the greatest of all English navigators, Captain James Cook, received his early training on an East Coast collier.

Producers.‹Landowners with coal on their property could not make money on it unless they invested capital, for exploration, sinking shafts, hiring surveyors and miners, building pumps and digging drainage channels to get rid of water in the mine, and, most likely, building or repairing roads, hiring carters, and building riverside docks. The roads and docks would most likely involve negotiations with other landowners for rights of way.

Landowners belonging to the old nobility often owned large and scattered estates, and did not in general want to spend their lives in close supervision of business activities on one of their properties. Most of them wanted a secure fixed income, and preferred to rent out their land and property on long leases. To them, the potential risks of losing capital weighed more heavily than the opportunity of increasing their income. The opportunities and risks were taken by the "gentry", smaller landowners who had resources to invest, time and energy to put into one property, and ambition to rise in the economic and social structure. For them, the potential gains offset the risks: a gain in wealth would automatically translate into higher social rank and title. This is a society in which a guaranteed income of £40 a year brought a knighthood, and by the reign of James I, an income of £1000 a year qualified you to become a hereditary baronet. This meant status for you and good marriages for your children. Even smaller entrepreneurs could begin by renting land from a large estate. If successful, they could then buy property of their own.

We have records from a few landowners who wrote down their calculations of potential profit and loss, and then kept records of the actual outcome. There were a great many factors, from geology to market demand to labor relations, many of them difficult to estimate. Some of the landowners were very shrewd, others were reckless, and their fortunes varied with skill and luck.

Landowners took more risk than the other players, and their rewards were more variable. Some became very rich indeed, others went bankrupt.


The economics of the wood shortage led to a major innovation in at least one industry. Brewers were very large consumers of fuel in Elizabethan England, much of it being used in furnaces that dried the malt. The sulfur in coal tainted the malt, so coal could not be used for this part of the process because customers would not drink the beer. Brewers began to experiment with alternative fuels. In 1603 Sir Henry Platt suggested that coal might be "charred," just as charcoal was produced from wood. It took several decades of rather haphazard experimentation before a successful result was obtained, but when it came it revolutionized not only brewing, but the whole of British industry. In 1642, brewers in Derbyshire succeeded in "charring" pieces of coal into lumps of cinders called "coaks." The pieces of coke, as we now spell it, were harder than coal, were almost pure carbon, and gave high temperatures without smoke. Malt dried with coke gave sweet, pure beer.

It is astounding that no-one realized for over 60 years that coke could fuel other kinds of furnace. Iron smelters continued to use increasingly expensive charcoal throughout the 17th century, again because the sulfur content of coal interfered with the process. In fact, the cost of charcoal strangled the English iron industry, as we have seen.

The problem was solved by Abraham Darby. He had been an apprentice in a works in Birmingham which made brass mills for grinding malt. He had seen the malting process, and the coke that fuelled the malting ovens. Later in life, Darby made enough money to set up his own factory, and he decided to make cooking pots from cast iron, rather than the more traditional and more expensive brass. Building his factory at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, in the English West Midlands, Darby was close to iron ore and to the coal that had been used for some time to make coke for the brewers of the Midlands. He began construction in 1707, set up a coking furnace, and used the coke in an abandoned iron-smelting blast-furnace. The first casting using coke was poured on 4 January 1709, and this date marks the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that eventually transformed the Western World. Coalbrookdale rapidly became England's chief iron-working center, and produced pots, fire-backs, and stoves of high-quality cast iron. In what is now the new city of Telford, one of the original ironworks of the Industrial Revolution still produces cast-iron stoves, using the same methods that Darby used.

Waggon Ways, Steam Engines, Canal Building and Coal

Britain had abundant reserves of coal and iron ore, compared with its poverty in wood, and the availability of coke completely freed 18th century British ironmasters from the economic constraints they had barely survived in the 17th century. By this time, coal mining was becoming more and more a sophisticated underground operation.

Mines now began to use "longwall" extraction. Long galleries were driven along a coal seam, which was mined out sideways over a long distance at once. The gap was then back-filled with debris to support the roof as it settled slowly. New galleries were then driven parallel to the old ones, and the process repeated until the coal was completely mined out. This system of working required much more roof bracing, and pit props became a major item necessary for all underground coal mining. The longwall system was general, though not universal, by the early 19th century.

Given Britain's climate, the miners soon drove shafts down to underground water levels, and mines had to be drained before production could be raised to meet the new demand. Mine drainage, as we have seen, depended largely on muscle power, of humans or horses, to drive pumps; only in the largest and richest mines, in the most favorable geographic setting, was there enough money at stake to introduce water-powered drainage like the works at Rammelsberg.

In 1712 Thomas Newcomen's first coal-fired, steam-operated pump was installed in a coalmine in the West Midlands. It pumped 600 liters of water (150 gallons) a minute from the bottom of a shaft 50 m (160 feet) deep, an amazing feat at the time. One of Newcomen's engines has been rescued and still works in a museum in Dartmouth, England. In its commercial life it worked from 1720 until 1913.

Newcomen's machine was very inefficient by modern standards. But it ran on cheap fuel (coal), and was much more economic than the muscle-power it replaced. At one stroke it turned an enormous amount of British coal (and coal around the world) from reserves into available resources. Newcomen himself built nearly 100 machines, the later ones much larger and more powerful, and made of cast iron rather than brass. After his death the design was copied and modified all over Europe.

Newcomen machines reached their technical optimum in the deep tin and copper mines of Cornwall, where they were built in great engine houses, many of which still stand. More than 1500 Newcomen engines pumped water from as deep as 400 m in Cornish mines, and Cornish beam engines were transferred to work in non-mining situations such as pressurizing London's water supply. Five of them were used over the years to lift London's water from the Thames into the mains, from 1837 to 1944.

In many ways, Newcomen was the Bach of steam engines: no one improved on his design for many decades. It was not until a model of a Newcomen engine was sent to a Glasgow University instrument maker for repair that the modern steam-engine was invented. (That instrument maker was James Watt.) Steam engines were now used to blow air into blast-furnaces, replacing water-powered bellows. Freed from the constraints imposed by the need for water power, blast-furnaces sprang up wherever the raw materials were situated.

By the end of the 17th century, about a million tonnes of coal a year was being shipped hundreds of kilometers by sea, and another 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes were being transported tens of kilometers on river boats and barges. Yet coal was hardly ever carried more than 15 km or so on land.

In 1604 Huntingdon Beaumont built Britain's first railroad. Beaumont came from a prominent coal-mining family in the English Midlands, and was one of those visionaries who could see how to make a lot of money by innovation in mining, but was unable to do so in practice. Faced with the costs of overland transport from a mine he was leasing near the River Trent, he designed a "waggon way", consisting of a set of wooden tracks that ran two miles across country, and carried specially built waggons pulled by horses or oxen. The waggons could carry twice the normal load of coal, with faster (therefore more) round trips, even in the kind of weather that would bog down carts on a normal dirt road. The heavy load travelled downhill, and only the empty waggon had to be pulled uphill back to the pithead. Beaumont also used new methods of making exploratory bore holes, new designs for mine drainage pumps, and the concept of double shifts down the mine. However his grandiose schemes ran away with him, and his schemes failed economically.

Perhaps waggon-ways would not have taken off so spectacularly if Beaumont had not moved to Tyneside around 1606 with a new store of borrowed capital. He and his co-investors planned to break the monopoly of the Hostmen by developing mines on the coast, away from the river Tyne, and shipping coal from the little port of Blyth.

Beaumont probably brought the idea of waggon-ways with him, and certainly brought his new mine pumps. Beaumont went spectacularly bankrupt to the tune of £30,000, and to the undisguised satisfaction of the locals, left town with only "his light horse."

But waggon-ways had come to stay, and they helped to break the Hostmen. A mine at Gibside was too far from the river to be worth much using road transport, but after it was provided with a four-mile waggon-way by Sir Charles Montagu, its production rose to 70,000 tons a year by 1703, and Montagu became the leading coal-producer in Britain. (Montagu planned on paper, and we have all the notes, calculations, and correspondence that he used to make the go-ahead decision.)

The impact of waggon-ways was spectacular. One mine alone used 700 carts on its rail system, and by 1725 the Tanfield Colliery invested in a waggon-way bridge 30 m long and 20 m high, as part of a system that carried its coal five miles down to the River Tyne. Soon rails were laid into the mine galleries, to make it easier to haul coal from the increasingly long galleries to the shaft. By 1800 almost all rails in mine galleries were made of iron, making the work of the haulers who pushed them much easier:

God bless the man wi' peace and plenty That first invented metal plates Draw out his years to five times twenty Then slide him through the heavenly gates.

It is certainly not a coincidence that the first steam locomotive to pull carriages on an iron track (i.e., the first railroad as we think of it) was built within 30 miles of Newcastle.

The Duke of Wellington complained that railroads would only "enable the lower orders to go uselessly wandering about the country" (he was right, though the upper classes did so even more frequently and even more uselessly). The impact of railroads on the economics of industry was enormous.


One horse can carry 125 kg on its back, but it can drag 2500 kg on a cart. If it pulls a barge along a river, it can drag 30,000 kg, 30 tonnes, and it can drag 50 tonnes if the weight is on a barge in quiet water, i.e., on a canal. In the late 1700s and early 1800s new canals were dug all over England so that the bulk commodities of the new industries (coal, coke, iron, copper, and tin ore, finished products, and clay for potteries) could be transported easily and cheaply. The coal mine owners, as the producers of perhaps the major bulk component of contemporary industry, were at the leading edge of English canal building.

The most famous is the Bridgewater Canal, engineered by James Brindley for the Duke of Bridgewater, who owned Worsley Colliery near Manchester. This canal ran directly from the mine to the middle of Manchester. It halved the delivery price of the Duke's coal in the city, and made him an enormous amount of money. In the end there were 60 km of underground canal in the Worsley mine, at four levels, with winches connecting them. It's easy to understand the savings in labor as well as money by having the coal move on canals inside the mine.

The next few decades were the Golden Age of canal building in Britain. Between 1770 and 1800 the British Parliament dealt with 113 Bills authorizing canal construction, most of them in coalfields. The history of coal mines and canals makes a geological story in its own right, because the science of geology is founded on the work of surveyors employed in these industries. Coal geology and canal-building geology is much more systematic than the rather ad hoc geology of ore deposits, and the fundamental principles of geology were induced in the 18th century rather than earlier.

ILLUSTRATIONS NEEDED Collecting bog iron Former forests in England Coal-based smog The situation of Newcastle, in the North Sea Detail of Newcastle, coal seams, river Bell-pit mining Castle dungeon Underground galleries Manual labor in a mine Steam engine Waggon ways Railways Canal over a bridge Bridgewater Canal system for Lancashire coal fields