Last Update: July 25, 2015

Outcrop coal was used in Britain during the Bronze Age (2000-3000 years BC), where it has been detected as forming part of the composition of funeral pyres. [Wikipedia1] The earliest recognized use is from the Shenyang area 4000 BC where Neolithic inhabitants had begun carving ornaments from black lignite, but it was not until the Han Dynasty that coal was also used for fuel. In Roman Britain, with the exception of two modern fields, "the Romans were exploiting coals in all the major coalfields in England and Wales by the end of the second century AD". Evidence of trade in coal (dated to about AD 200) has been found at the inland port of Heronbridge, near Chester, and in the Fenlands of East Anglia, where coal from the Midlands was transported via the Car Dyke for use in drying grain. Coal cinders have been found in the hearths of villas and military forts, particularly in Northumberland, dated to around AD 400. In the west of England contemporary writers described the wonder of a permanent brazier of coal on the altar of Minerva at Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath) although in fact easily-accessible surface coal from what became the Somerset coalfield [Wikipedia2] was in common use in quite lowly dwellings locally. Evidence of coal's use for iron-working in the city during the Roman period has been found.

The Somerset coalfield included pits in the north Somerset, England, area where coal was mined from the 15th century until 1973.  It is part of a wider field which covered northern Somerset and southern Gloucestershire in England.  It stretched from Cromhall in the north to the Mendip Hills in the south, and from Bath in the east to Nailsea in the west, a total area of about 240 square miles (622 km2). It is believed that coal was mined in the area during Roman times and there is documentary evidence of coal being dug on the Mendips in 1305 and at Kilmersdon in 1437. By the time of Henry VIII there were coal pits at Clutton, High Littleton and Stratton-on-the-Fosse.

During the early part of the 17th century coal was largely obtained by excavating the outcrops or driving an incline, which involved following the seam into the ground. Only a small amount of coal could be obtained by these methods and so bell pits took their place. A bell pit [Wikipedia3] is a primitive method of mining coal where the coal lies near the surface on flat land. A shaft is sunk to reach the coal which is then excavated and removed by means of a bucket (much like a well). No supports are used and mining continues outward until the mine becomes too dangerous (or collapses) at which point another mine is started. A bell pit is so called because in cross section it resembles an upturned bell.

There is no evidence that the product was of great importance in Britain before the High Middle Ages, after about AD 1000. Mineral coal came to be referred to as "seacoal," probably because it came to many places in eastern England, including London, by sea. This is accepted as the more likely explanation for the name than that it was found on beaches, having fallen from the exposed coal seams above or washed out of underwater coal seam outcrops. These easily accessible sources had largely become exhausted (or could not meet the growing demand) by the 13th century, when underground mining from shafts or adits was developed. In London there is still a Seacoal Lane and a Newcastle Lane (from the coal-shipping city of Newcastle) where in the seventeenth century coal was unloaded at wharves along the River Fleet. An alternative name was "pitcoal," because it came from mines. It was, however, the development of the Industrial Revolution [Wikipedia4] that led to the large-scale use of coal, as the steam engine took over from the water wheel. Looked at from another angle, the Industrial Revolution was impossible without Coal.

Large-scale coal mining developed during the Industrial Revolution, and coal provided the main source of primary energy for industry and transportation in the West from the 18th century to the 1950s. Coal remains an important energy source, due to its low cost and abundance when compared to other fuels, particularly for electricity generation.

The Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the 1700s, and later spread to Europe, North America, and Japan, was based on the availability of coal to power steam engines. International trade expanded exponentially when coal-fed steam engines were built for the railways and steamships in the 1810-1840 Victorian era. Coal was cheaper and much more efficient than wood fuel in most steam engines. [Wikipedia5]

Anthracite (or "hard" coal), clean and smokeless, became the preferred fuel in cities, replacing wood by about 1850. Bituminous (or "soft coal") mining came later. In the mid-century Pittsburgh was the principal market. After 1850 soft coal, which is cheaper but dirtier, came into demand for railway locomotives and stationary steam engines, and was used to make coke for steel after 1870.

About the Author(s)

David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.
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