Lessons From The First Time England Gave Up Coal

By Richard Howard

As coal use in the UK continues to fall towards zero, it is fascinating to note that this is not the first time the UK (or specifically England) has rid itself of coal.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, 400 years before the start of the Industrial Revolution, there was a brief uptake in the use of coal. The details of which have a surprising number of similarities to goings-on today: deforestation, pandemics, and air quality.

Below is a brief overview of the story but please check out the sources to find out more.

A Nation Powered By Forests

In the 11th century, Britain was a woodland nation. William the Conqueror’s great census, the Doomsday Book of 1086, describes a country stocked with timber.

However, these forests were unlikely to have been pristine paradises. In fact they would have formed the basis of the medieval economy. Ships, carts, and buildings were all constructed from the timbers, pigs were permitted to fatten up on acorns and other treats, and crucially, they were the only source of thermal energy other than the sun.

Firewood was burnt for cooking and heat, and charcoal was used in industrial processes such as iron-making, forging, lime production, and brewing. As a result, these forests were carefully managed to ensure a ready supply of timber.

Medieval Population Growth

From the 11th century to the early-14th century (1000-1300 AD) England’s population tripled, from 1.1 million in 1086 to about 3.7 million in 1300. It is hypothesised that this was due to a climatic period, known as the ‘Medieval Warm Period’, which led to a 0.5℃ rise in temperatures, reliably wetter summers, and warmer winters.

This population growth led to a huge increase in the demand for food, and as a result there was a large expansion in the amount of land being converted from woodland to arable land.

The population boom also led to an increase in demand for timber, firewood and charcoal, but from an ever shrinking amount of forested land. And although the importance of the forest economy was known to the medieval citizens, the short-term demand for arable land and food outweighed the long-term demand for sustainable forestry. This process was not confined to England, but was repeated and documented throughout Europe.

From the mid-13th century it was becoming increasingly apparent that timber and wood fuel were in short supply and in 1290 King Edward I banned the export of both.

Medieval Coal Use

London was one of the places to feel the supply shock most acutely, since wood fuel would have had to have been transported from further and further away to reach the capital’s ever increasing population (20,000 in 1200 vs 40,000 in 1340).

As a result coal was introduced as a replacement thermal energy source and was shipped down the East coast from Newcastle (in the North-East of England) to London. Interestingly, coal was known as ‘sea-coal’ at the time, as charcoal was actually referred to as ‘coal’.

Coal occurred all over the North East as outcrops reaching into the sea or rivers. As a result the coal could be easily and cheaply mined. In fact it was so cheap that prior to being used as a fuel the coal was used as ballast in ships.

The coal itself did not burn cleanly, however, giving off a foul smell which rendered it unsuitable for home use. Therefore, it was only used for some industrial purposes, predominantly in blacksmiths’ furnaces or lime kilns. In other industries, such as brewing, wood fuel was still preferred as the impurities produced poor tasting beer. 

Medieval Pollution and Clean Air ‘Act’

As coal use expanded, records show that people (i.e. noble men and women) quickly noticed the change. By the mid-13th century, the degradation of the air quality in towns and cities in England was being adversely affected due to the increased industrial use of coal. London was experiencing its first battle of many with air pollution.

In the 1280s, two royal commissions were set up to assess the effect of lime kilns and their use of coal, the first stating:

“whereas formerly the lime used to be burnt with wood, it is now burnt with sea-coal. [As a result] the air is infected and corrupted to the peril of those frequenting … and dwelling in those parts.”

In 1307 London’s first regulations relating to air quality were enacted when King Edward I issued a proclamation banning the use of coal in lime kilns, starting:

“the use of which sea-coal 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.”

It is fascinating just to note that there is: a) a 700 year link between fossil fuel burning and air quality; b) it is not a modern issue; c) and that medieval citizens took notice of such issues. 

Unfortunately, we cannot be sure what the exact effect of this proclamation was and whether it achieved its stated goals. There is some evidence to suggest air quality was not as much of an issue after the proclamation as there is a drop off in complaints or mentions of poor air quality due to coal in the historical record. However, only 40 years after King Edward I’s proclamation the demand for coal was about to take a hit from an epoch defining event.

The Black Death And The End of Coal’s First Dawn

In the latter half of the 14th century (1347-1374 AD) the Black Death reached Europe and several waves of plague swept through, killing approximately 1 in 4 inhabitants. In the early 15th century, the population of England reduced from 3.7 million to 2.1 million.

As a result the demand for food and timber fell once more and much of the new arable farmland was left fallow. The empty fields were left to their own devices and the resulting scrub and brushwood slowly turned back into timber forests. By 1357, the previous 1290 timber export ban had been lifted and in 1369 it is documented that large acreages of timber were left without buyers.

Contemporary accounts suggest that between the 14th century and the late 16th century very little coal was burnt and that English Industry switched back to burning charcoal and wood fuels.

Interestingly, England’s population only surpassed its pre-Black Death peak in around 1600, when there was another fuel crisis and yet again coal was shipped from Newcastle to London to plug the gap. But this time the shift was permanent.

“But It Often Rhymes…”

It is cliched to use Mark Twain’s oft-quoted supposed one liner: “History does not repeat itself but it often rhymes”, but unfortunately it is surprisingly apt.

There are several seemingly universal themes from this tale of environmental history that are easily recognisable today, each of which could be their own history research topic:

  • Even Medieval Englishmen and women notice and take action against poor air quality
  • Short term demand for food leads to deforestation and takes precedent over long-term resources
  • When a pandemic wipes out the demand for fossil fuels, renewable resources are the first port of call

It is easy to put one’s own spin on history and see modernity’s problems reflected back at you, and yes there are nuances to this particular story which we are unable to cover in a blog post (again, please check out the sources). But the overarching themes are stark. Humanity has the ability to continually affect nature on a large scale and there are consequences for us. Nature, however, can strike back twice as hard.

In the end, demand reduction of all resources (food, fuel, timber etc) was able to stem and reverse the environmental decline. In the 14th century, however, nature did this task itself. Let’s use this knowledge to good effect and reduce our demand pressure before nature does it for us – that is, this time we need to achieve the same result without reducing the global population by 25%.

Sources

William H. Te Brake (1975) Air Pollution and Fuel Crises in Pre-industrial London, 1250-1650, Technology and Culture, Vol. 16, No. 3 pp. 337-359, The Johns Hopkins University Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3103030 [accessed via http://www.regionalclimateperspectives.com/uploads/4/4/2/5/44250401/tebrake1975medievalairpollution.pdf]

Raymond Turner (1921) English Coal Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, The American Historical Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 1-23, Oxford University Press, http://www.jstor.com/stable/1836917 [accessed via https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1836917.pdf]

https://riseofcoalinbritain.wordpress.com/the-high-middle-ages-1066-to-1347/

Peter Brimblecombe (1976) Attitudes and Responses Towards Air Pollution in Medieval England, Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association, 26:10, 941-945, DOI:10.1080/00022470.1976.10470341 [accessed via https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00022470.1976.10470341]

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