Remember Coal? Lumps of black stuff which miraculously burst into flames when heat was applied to it.
It wasn’t so many years ago that it was central to the national economy, and in turn central to the domestic economy. From the miners hacking it out of the bowels of the earth to the household grate where it provided the primary source of heat in the house, it was a dominant feature of life. In our nice clean centrally-heated homes memory fades of the sheer effort needed to benefit from its properties. For it was messy, bulky stuff which needed a lot of manual labour to extract its heat.
Do you remember the process?
Kneeling in front of the grate, first the ash and clinker had to be taken out; there was a good reason that the refuse collectors of those days were known as ’dustmen’. With the grate cleaned it was time to lay the new fire – first some crumpled newspaper with thin kindling sticks laid on top, then some small lumps of coal. Apply a match and hope for the best. As the kindling sticks burned up, add a little more coal and if need be spread a sheet of newspaper across the grate aperture to sharpen the draft. This caused the fire to draw its air from under the grate and hence to get the early stage fire to burn more brightly. But watch out for the spread newspaper catching fire – many an eyebrow got singed that way.
This domestic fire was in many ways the centre of the house. Before central heating it provided the warmest area to sit around. The back boiler provided hot water circulated by natural convection to the main hot water cylinder, and was often the only source of hot water. Once it was burning well, the old coal fire needed regular attention, keeping the grate clear of spent material and adding fresh lumps of coal to the top. And it was dirty – the thin coating of ash, coal dust and grime that went with coal was all-pervasive, greasy and sticky. The Coalman would arrive with his lorry (or horse and cart before that –anyone remember it being delivered by horse and cart?) hump the open bags to wherever the coal was stored (no, not usually the bath) and dump the coal loose with a great cloud of coal dust as he did so.
From the mine to the household fire, it was manual labour all the way and in its heyday coal provided work for millions of people.
Mostly it was moved by rail from the pits, perhaps into a ship for movement round the coast, into a coal merchant’s yard then onto to his lorry for distribution. Coal merchant’s yards were usually on railway lines or docksides which helped to keep down the multiple handling of the stuff but it was still highly labour intensive.
But for several centuries it was absolutely central to the working of the economy. During World War Two the Spitfire might have been the glamour boy but those shiny black lumps firing everything from the railways to ships to the boilers that factories still habitually used to make steam to power their machinery, coal was central to success. Forgotten now, there are still millions of tons of the stuff under the ground in UK but changing priorities and changing needs mean that it is likely to stay there.
RIP coal, you faithful servant.
EDITOR: If you have any memories of coal, please email me and I will add to this article.