.
A

nn Wroe, the incomparable obituaries writer for the Economist, penned an elegy to coal in “The World Ahead”, the periodical’s annual look at the forthcoming year. One of the publications to which I most look forward, along with the Christmas double issue, it was curious to read an obit for coal in this year’s edition. She wrote:

There was a time, not so long ago, when people in Britain’s cities and suburbs woke in winter not to cock-crow or the beep of a mobile phone, but to the strident riddling with pokers of stoves, boilers and grates. The ash that fell from them was not soft and white, like wood-ash, but scraped grey clinker that had once been coal.

Ah, how wonderfully lyrically she writes. Wroe’s funereal remarks anticipated the possibility that this year may mark the last year in which coal is burned in British hearths. Despite political energy being spent around the world to “go green,” there are still homes in the UK and certainly many millions more in Asia and elsewhere (some 130K in the U.S. alone) that burn coal for home heating. Coal was indeed king in the United Kingdom; without it the industrial revolution would have been impossible and London’s rise to become a truly international capital would never have happened. 

Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain | Jeremy Paxman | HarperCollins (UK).

Jeremy Paxman, a prolific author, journalist, broadcaster, and raconteur explored what coal means to Britain and how it shaped its history in his new book “Black Gold.” I purchased a copy myself during a delightful wander through Hatchard’s Bookstore in Piccadilly, which itself looks like it is only missing coal-fired lamps to have the full Dickensian ambience. 

I have a soft spot for social histories like Paxman’s, those books that latch on to an aspect of society or culture to use as a vehicle for exploring the broad sweep of history (particularly if that history is British.) Books on how firearms shaped modern society or how the evolution of ship design drove exploration and vice versa. Books about how our drinking culture connects us with our ancestors or how the humble shipping container led to the creation of the modern economy. They are interesting lenses through which to view the world and ourselves, and, frankly, in the present crush of timely and relevant books, they are a nice diversion. 

One must take these books with a grain of salt. Such sweeping histories likely rely on fairly large generalizations at times and, perhaps as the Telegraph has suggested, some politicization. Taking Paxman’s book for what it is does not detract from this book which is both an enjoyable distraction and an exploration of a segment of history about which I was largely ignorant. 

There is little that Paxman does not mine in his history of coal and its impact on Britain. From the earliest Roman times through to Thatcher’s climactic clash with the trade unions, Paxman surveys the highs and lows of coal, and there were far more of the latter than the former. 

Coal unleashed the might of the industrial revolution and gave rise to modern Britain, but it was extracted at great cost. The miners, almost uniquely predisposed to organizing, were slow to do so and still faced considerable uphill battles to get basic recognition and protection. Indeed, as Paxman writes, at times George V was more concerned about the plight of pit ponies and other “advocates” were concerned not that women and children were working in the mines, but that the women may be indecently clothed whilst laboring against the mine carts. The struggle between owners and miners themselves improved, slowly, but never resolved itself. Tensions remained even with nationalization, which created its own set of problems including subsidizing underperforming mines. The tail end of “big coal” came as the sun was setting on the British Empire, with fewer and fewer active mines and dues-paying union members. 

Paxman pens brilliant and often biting character portraits of the heroes and villains of coal. The landowners, by quirk of fate, lived above rich seams of coal that led to fabulous wealth. One such character was the third Marquess of Bute, who was at one point believed to be the wealthiest man in the world. Paxman also portrayed the advocates who sought to improve the lots of miners, particularly the women and children who toiled in incomparably dangerous conditions. If you’ve ever visited London, chances are you’ve passed by a memorial to one such advocate—the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury’s Memorial Fountain off Shaftesbury Avenue, which is commonly but incorrectly known as “Eros.” The Earl was a tireless advocate for the working poor, so much so he was known as the “Poor Man’s Earl”. 

Paxman’s books are full of little details and vignettes that help bring his social history to life. I, for example, did not know that I used to regularly have a post-work pint at a pub mere steps away from some of the last remaining coal-gas-fired lamps in London. Only 1,300 of which are left in the city, tended to by just four workers who travel across the city via motorbike. I imagine our late-night banter sessions were lit by some of these lamps, only we didn’t appreciate it at the time. 

His discussion of the rise of the Royal Navy and its global maritime strategy was particularly interesting. The need to pre-position coal to refuel ships underway gave rise to the establishment of a chain of coaling stations around the world. An army may travel on its stomach, but the ships of the Royal Navy traveled on the amount of coal they could carry. This predictability and regularity gave the enemy an advantage, as knowing how much coal would need to be burned let them know when the ships may need to refuel. Every innovation has its downside. Coal’s dominance came to an end with oil, but it helped the Royal Navy and London build the British Empire.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Fueling the Birth of Modern Britain

Statue of a British Coal Miner. Photo by Adobe Stock.

March 19, 2022

Taking a breather from books that focus on various aspects of security, Joshua Huminski reviews Jeremy Paxman's "Black Gold," a survey of coal's rich history in the UK. Huminski praises the book for offering a unique lens to consider and reconsider the social history of the UK.

A

nn Wroe, the incomparable obituaries writer for the Economist, penned an elegy to coal in “The World Ahead”, the periodical’s annual look at the forthcoming year. One of the publications to which I most look forward, along with the Christmas double issue, it was curious to read an obit for coal in this year’s edition. She wrote:

There was a time, not so long ago, when people in Britain’s cities and suburbs woke in winter not to cock-crow or the beep of a mobile phone, but to the strident riddling with pokers of stoves, boilers and grates. The ash that fell from them was not soft and white, like wood-ash, but scraped grey clinker that had once been coal.

Ah, how wonderfully lyrically she writes. Wroe’s funereal remarks anticipated the possibility that this year may mark the last year in which coal is burned in British hearths. Despite political energy being spent around the world to “go green,” there are still homes in the UK and certainly many millions more in Asia and elsewhere (some 130K in the U.S. alone) that burn coal for home heating. Coal was indeed king in the United Kingdom; without it the industrial revolution would have been impossible and London’s rise to become a truly international capital would never have happened. 

Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain | Jeremy Paxman | HarperCollins (UK).

Jeremy Paxman, a prolific author, journalist, broadcaster, and raconteur explored what coal means to Britain and how it shaped its history in his new book “Black Gold.” I purchased a copy myself during a delightful wander through Hatchard’s Bookstore in Piccadilly, which itself looks like it is only missing coal-fired lamps to have the full Dickensian ambience. 

I have a soft spot for social histories like Paxman’s, those books that latch on to an aspect of society or culture to use as a vehicle for exploring the broad sweep of history (particularly if that history is British.) Books on how firearms shaped modern society or how the evolution of ship design drove exploration and vice versa. Books about how our drinking culture connects us with our ancestors or how the humble shipping container led to the creation of the modern economy. They are interesting lenses through which to view the world and ourselves, and, frankly, in the present crush of timely and relevant books, they are a nice diversion. 

One must take these books with a grain of salt. Such sweeping histories likely rely on fairly large generalizations at times and, perhaps as the Telegraph has suggested, some politicization. Taking Paxman’s book for what it is does not detract from this book which is both an enjoyable distraction and an exploration of a segment of history about which I was largely ignorant. 

There is little that Paxman does not mine in his history of coal and its impact on Britain. From the earliest Roman times through to Thatcher’s climactic clash with the trade unions, Paxman surveys the highs and lows of coal, and there were far more of the latter than the former. 

Coal unleashed the might of the industrial revolution and gave rise to modern Britain, but it was extracted at great cost. The miners, almost uniquely predisposed to organizing, were slow to do so and still faced considerable uphill battles to get basic recognition and protection. Indeed, as Paxman writes, at times George V was more concerned about the plight of pit ponies and other “advocates” were concerned not that women and children were working in the mines, but that the women may be indecently clothed whilst laboring against the mine carts. The struggle between owners and miners themselves improved, slowly, but never resolved itself. Tensions remained even with nationalization, which created its own set of problems including subsidizing underperforming mines. The tail end of “big coal” came as the sun was setting on the British Empire, with fewer and fewer active mines and dues-paying union members. 

Paxman pens brilliant and often biting character portraits of the heroes and villains of coal. The landowners, by quirk of fate, lived above rich seams of coal that led to fabulous wealth. One such character was the third Marquess of Bute, who was at one point believed to be the wealthiest man in the world. Paxman also portrayed the advocates who sought to improve the lots of miners, particularly the women and children who toiled in incomparably dangerous conditions. If you’ve ever visited London, chances are you’ve passed by a memorial to one such advocate—the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury’s Memorial Fountain off Shaftesbury Avenue, which is commonly but incorrectly known as “Eros.” The Earl was a tireless advocate for the working poor, so much so he was known as the “Poor Man’s Earl”. 

Paxman’s books are full of little details and vignettes that help bring his social history to life. I, for example, did not know that I used to regularly have a post-work pint at a pub mere steps away from some of the last remaining coal-gas-fired lamps in London. Only 1,300 of which are left in the city, tended to by just four workers who travel across the city via motorbike. I imagine our late-night banter sessions were lit by some of these lamps, only we didn’t appreciate it at the time. 

His discussion of the rise of the Royal Navy and its global maritime strategy was particularly interesting. The need to pre-position coal to refuel ships underway gave rise to the establishment of a chain of coaling stations around the world. An army may travel on its stomach, but the ships of the Royal Navy traveled on the amount of coal they could carry. This predictability and regularity gave the enemy an advantage, as knowing how much coal would need to be burned let them know when the ships may need to refuel. Every innovation has its downside. Coal’s dominance came to an end with oil, but it helped the Royal Navy and London build the British Empire.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.