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Buying coal, early-mid 20th century


Coal and its importance in the past

What coal is and why it is no longer widely used as fuel

Coal is a black or brownish-black sedimentary rock, high in carbon and hydrocarbons. This makes it burn well and at a higher temperature than wood logs or oil, and is why it used to be the main fuel in the UK, which had and still has large underground reserves. Digging it out, described as 'mining', was a necessary and significant source of employment.

But – and it was a very big BUT – burning coal produces dirty smoke and carbon dioxide which is dangerous to the environment and a major contributor to global warming. Hence the current emphasis on alternative fuels and what is known as 'net zero'. Also, digging it out from underground in coal mines was unpleasant and dangerous work.

Uses of coal in the past

Coal was by far the main source of energy in the UK up until the middle of the 20th century. It was used in the home for cooking on kitchen ranges, heating the copper for hot water and indirectly for gas lighting, gas fires and later for gas ovens. The gas was produced from coal in the local gasworks.

Coal gas was used outside the home for street lighting and much more. It was the main industrial source of power.

Types of coal

There were different types of coal, depending on where it was mined and how it was treated above ground. Most could be bought from the local coal yard.

Types of coal that I delivered in the mid-20th Century UK

• Large coal with 'fools gold' veins running through, called 'Derby Brights', a beautiful burning coal for open grates; some lumps were 12 ins square and were painful to carry.

• 'Coal nuts' which were smaller and used on small kitchen ranges.

Coke and boiler fuel

• 'Sunbright singles' (small coke about 25mm) and 'Sunbright doubles' (approx 50mm) for larger boilers.

• 'Anthracite', the most expensive boiler fuel; 'Welsh Nuts' which were similar looking to Anthacite, but duller and a cheaper boiler fuel; 'Phurnicite', egg shaped lumps, which were very good for boilers, because they burnt to dust, with no clinker left after burning (but very expensive)

Smokeless fuels

• 'Coalite' and 'Cleanglow' which were both excellent for burning, producing less smoke than coal and much easier on the shoulder for carrying.

Terry Martinelli, former coalman

Note from the webmaster

Why is lignite missing from the list?

Lignite is a soft, brown sedimentary rock formed from peat. It is often classed as coal, in particular as brown coal, and is often burnt as coal today. However it is inferior in many respects to the UK's onshore seams of black coal: it burns at a lower temperature, has a higher moisture content and produces more smoke and fumes. In the mid-20th century, the UK's far superior black coal was readily available, so I doubt if there would have been any call for lignite. That is presumably why it is missing from the above list.

The beginning of the end for coal as a fuel

In 1956 the UK Government passed the Clean Air Act which legislated for zones where smokeless fuels had to be burnt instead of the earlier polluting types, and it relocated power stations to rural areas. Later acts legislated still further against air pollutants.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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