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The Importance of Coal

Coal from the bed of the Thames Tunnel


It’s sometimes said that trade was the life blood of Victorian Britain. Its merchant shipping brought in raw materials from across the planet, and then exported goods made in British factories. In the latter half of the 19th century British naval and merchant ships could be found all over the world. But if trade was the life blood of Britain, then coal was its beating heart.

SS Great Britain Trust’s Collections include two samples of coal collected by Isambard Kingdom Brunel from the bed of the Thames, both on the St Marks Day (25th April) in consecutive years - 1826 and 1827. He collected them using a diving bell, and as this was his father Marc Brunel’s birthday he seems to have been marking this. One of the packets contain small bivalve fossils which can be found in the geology around London, suggesting it’s local, but the other packet contains a type of coal not naturally found in the area. Known as anthracite this was used as fuel for steam engines, and it’s tempting to suggest that it could have come from one of the early steam ships already plying their trade out of London – a regular steamer service existed in 1821 between London and Edinburgh.

The use of coal in the UK dates to at least the time of the Romans, but it was really in the 1700s that it began to be used more widely than the then most popular form of fuel, charcoal. Although both ultimately come from the same source, organic matter (though separated by 250 million years or more) coal can produce more heat and burn cleaner than charcoal, making it particularly useful for powering steam engines.

Britain was the world’s leading supplier of coal in the 19th Century – in 1790 production was 7.6 million tons; 1816 it was 16 million tons; and in 1854 it hit 54.7 million tons. This increase in production perhaps shouldn’t be surprising – the SS Great Britain herself had a projected daily coal consumption of 60 tons per day when she worked as a transatlantic steamer. Assuming seven round trips a year that’s 11,500 tons annually.

Coal can be found across the British Isles, and in the nineteenth century there were active mines in Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland. Although coal mining, in particular deep coal mining, could be a dangerous job it was also relatively well paid; in 1842 a coal miner in Yorkshire could make 14 shillings 8d a week. In comparison, in 1853 a steward on the SS Great Britain on her tenth voyage (her second to Australia), made 25 Shillings (£1 5 Shillings) a month.

The best coal was said to come from Wales, and Britain certainly did export a lot of coal – in 1870 its estimated that between 20 – 33% of all mined coal was delivered to its consumers by sea. In fact the SS Great Britain’s final three voyages were as a purely cargo ship carrying Welsh coal to the Americas, although ironically her engine had been removed by this point and she was powered entirely by sail. Coal continues to be important for powering Britain today, although very little is minded in Britain, and it was only on the 21st April 2017 that the UK had its first Coal free day since the Victorian period. 

Author: Nick Booth, Head of Collections