Wood and Coal : A Change of Fuel

Alan D. Dyer describes how Britain’s industrial development began when coal replaced wood during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Nothing is new: the fuel crisis from which we are now suffering, with its rapid price increases, shortages and pressure to change old habits has occurred before. Between about 1500 and 1660 Britain’s basic fuel supply, wood, began to fail, and after much re-adjustment over a prolonged crisis was replaced by coal.

The reasons for this growing shortage of wood fuel are various. Consumption of fuel increased as population grew and industry burnt more, while the supply seems to have dwindled as woodland of great antiquity was cleared to provide more cultivated land.

This growing shortage of wood manifested itself in a price inflation of astonishing magnitude. The cost of firewood was stable until the 1540s, yet it quadrupled by the 1580s and reached ten times its old level by the 1620s. Charcoal, though rather less seriously affected, followed the same pattern in a six-fold increase by the 1660s.

The whole period was, of course, one of general and rapid inflation, modest by modern standards but severe by comparison with anything before it; and firewood was affected more conspicuously than any other widely used commodity.

The distinguished historian of the early coal industry, J.U. Nef, goes so far as to describe this escalation as ‘almost without precedent in the history of western civilization’. All this took place in a society rooted in tradition, whose peasant masses were highly resistant to any kind of change, so that the reverberations of the crisis were deeply felt.

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