15. A Lump of Coal

By Ben Shread-Hewitt (@HewittShread)

Coal in your stocking might be the sign of a bad Christmas, but it could be worse. In Edward I’s London, being found with coal in your stockings might mean death.

In the 14th century, air pollution was a growing problem in England’s capital city. Increasing populations and local deforestation were driving the city’s residents to burn sea-coal as a substitute. It was cheaper and more plentiful, but also dirtier. Even the Kings own mother, Eleanor, was forced to decamp to Nottingham because of the foul air.

Sea-coal is coal that washes up on seashores after being eroded from coastal or submarine deposits. The washed-up coal was typically gathered at low tide and then shipped up the Thames. Sea-coal was plentiful, but its sulphurous smoke was toxic and, when burnt, gave off far less heat than wood. Yet, with the capitals growing need for fuel and wood in short supply, the cheap but dirty sea-coal quickly emerged as London’s main source of heating.

Eventually, the skies grew so intolerably filthy that Edward introduced the aforementioned penalties. Often dubbed as England’s first environmental regulation, the 1307 charter states “The use of which sea-coal [causes] an intolerable smell [which] 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.”[1]

It appears at least one person was executed for the crime under Edward’s reign. However, enforcement was generally weak, need was always high, and the prohibition would never significantly decrease the amount of sea-coal burnt. Nearly 300 Years later, Elizabeth I was still “greved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea cool”. [2] Charters and laws banning or limiting the burning of coal, both scavenged and mined, would continue to be sporadically introduced right up until the Industrial Revolution, when concerns over the “Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEA-COALE” were finally outweighed by economic forces. [3]

[1] Calendar of Close Rolls, Edward I (1302)

[2] Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, Elizabeth I (1578), p. 6

[3] John Evelyn, Fumifugium: or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated. Together with some Remedies humbly Proposed by J. E. Esq; to His Sacred Majestie, and to the Parliament now Assembled (London, 1661)

Further Reading:

‘Air Pollution and Fuel Crises in Preindustrial London, 1250-1650’, William H. Te Brake, Technology and Culture 16.3 (1975)

Image credit: ‘Sea Coal, Crosby’, by Nick Coates via Flickr (link). Many thanks to the photographer for their permission to use this image.

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